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High school baseball bats used by Proctor. Coaches and players say they have noticed a difference in how far the ball travels using new Bat-Ball Coefficient of Restitution bats this season. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

New bats herald prep baseball's return to old-school ball

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Fans attending this week's high school baseball state tournament may notice the game has changed somewhat.

Instead of crowd-pleasing home runs and multi-base hits bouncing off the outfield wall, games may revolve more around who lays down a perfect bunt, steals a timely base or delivers a clutch single through a drawn-in infield.

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Coaches and players have noticed the effect Bat-Ball Coefficient of Restitution bats have made all season.

"It's old-school baseball -- the bunt is back in play, defense is emphasized and base-running is more important," Hermantown coach Mike Zagelmeyer said. "But for kids wanting to play baseball and hit the ball a long way -- gap shots and home runs -- you're just not seeing it anymore. I don't like it myself. Our kids noticed it the first week of practice."

Minnesota schools began using the BBCOR bats this season after the NCAA mandated colleges use them beginning in the 2011 season. The national high school federation followed suit, so now all metal bats must be BBCOR-certified.

The reason for the change is twofold: safety and an effort to restore the game to its strategic roots. With the advent of high-tech bats and larger sweet spots, balls were flying off bats at a higher rate of speed and causing injuries. Meanwhile, scoreboards were racking up pinball-like scores with all of the hitting.

BBCOR, according to Minnesota State High School League officials, is an improvement in both areas. BBCOR focuses on how much of a "trampoline" effect the barrel of a bat has on a ball. Bat manufacturers were required to deaden the trampoline bounce that baseballs experience when a batter makes contact below a certain coefficient.

"I think it definitely impacts the game," associate director Kevin Merkle said. "I haven't seen any statistics yet, but I have to believe batting averages aren't so high, there have been fewer home runs and fewer runs scored. Some people think that's a good thing and others would rather see it the way it was. There are varying opinions, but I think most people are OK with the change."

Don't include Zagelmeyer in that statement, however.

"To me it's not good for Minnesota high school baseball; it's good for the colleges because at that level maybe it's time to tone it down a level," he said. "But kids want to hit the ball and people want to see kids hit the ball."

Proctor, which handed Hermantown two of its three defeats, still managed to score nearly nine runs per game, while Minneapolis Washburn, the Rails' opponent in the Class AA quarterfinals Thursday, was the only team in the state to average more than 10 runs a game. So their meeting at Dick Putz Field in St. Cloud could produce its share of runs.

However, even the Rails have noticed baseballs don't travel as fast -- or as far -- anymore.

"I've had a few that just died," said senior Ryan McCarthy, who led the Northland with nine homers as a junior but only has four this season. "It's like a cushioned swing, you just don't get the pop. If you hit it good, it will go either way, but I've seen fewer doubles and fewer home runs."

In that way, BBCOR bats are designed to have the same effect as wooden bats.

"A lot of kids come back to the dugout (after an out) and (teammates) say, 'That would have been out last year,'" Rails senior Ian Scherber said. "There is definitely a difference."

Though wood bats are legal and still used in several regular-season tournaments, they can be cost prohibitive. Metal bats generally range from $150-$400 but have a much longer lifespan than their wood counterparts.

Despite the apparent change, Proctor pitcher Jake Lewis says it hasn't changed how he pitches to batters.

"I still use the same approach," he said. "They are still going to hit the ball, and if it hits that sweet spot, it's going to go a long way."

But perhaps not when hit by a less-powerful batter, which is what Merkle says he's heard from a couple of metro coaches.

"The old bats probably gave more benefit to a hitter who wasn't as good; now that weaker hitter gets exposed more with the BBCOR," he said. "The other thing it does is it gives pitchers the ability to pitch better. They can pitch inside and use more of the plate. If your son is a pitcher, you're probably happy. If your son is a hitter, you're probably not so happy."

The bats are here to stay though. In a few years, when players will have grown up with BBCOR bats, Merkle says the issue probably will be a moot point.

"As the younger kids come up using these bats, they will be better because they will have learned how to hit with them," he said.

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