A new ruling by the Michigan High School Athletic Association could have a profound impact on how the game of baseball is played at the amateur level. In my humble opinion it is a change that is in the best long-term interest of not only young athletes but also the game itself.
So what is this new rule?
The new rule requires all non-wood baseball bats to meet the Batted Coefficient of Restitution standard. In plain terms it means the rule is disarming what had essentially become rocket launchers. The rule has forced bat manufactures to deaden the bat to reduce exit speeds of batted balls. Players will also have the option of using wood bats. First let me say the most important impact this will have is on player safety. A baseball hit with the modern high-tech bats would get back to the pitcher a mere split second after releasing the pitch. Pitchers had essentially no time to react; it was like a game of chicken with only their reflexes to keep them from serious injury.
Another important aspect of this rule change deals with the way the game is going to be played from a strategic and developmental standpoint. I have written many times over the years that the one quality talent scouts and recruiters are on the look out for is athleticism and speed (and yes I have asked them the question). They know they can add strength and size once they get kids on campus or in their organization. But the quality they can’t teach them because it’s optimally attained during early developmental stages is speed and overall athleticism. Coaches know if a kid possesses these qualities they have a lot to work with. If you need more reinforcement check out what Detroit Tiger manager Jim Leyland has to say about the impact speed has on the game:
"People don't realize how much speed affects the game," Leyland said. "When you get a guy over at first that can run it affects us, because we're worried about holding him. The pitcher knows he can run. The catcher knows he might steal. It affects the game in a lot of ways. There's no substitute for it. You can't teach it. There's something to be said for it."
I agree wholeheartedly with Leyland’s observation but allow me to clarify one phrase; “You can’t teach it.” Speed and quickness can be coached and developed in young athletes but it can’t be taught to the already developed athletes Leyland is working with.
So exactly how will the rule change affect the play on the field? Based on personal experience hitting with a wooden bat or wood-like bat is extremely difficult, think swinging at a ball with a newspaper (slight exaggeration but not much of one). The ball simply does not jump off the bat like it would when using a composite metal bat. Game-changing homeruns will occur less often and it won’t be in a program or players best interest to rely on the long ball for success. Players will have to develop their ability to get on base by hitting line drives or using the lost art of bunting the ball (think lob shot in tennis for non-baseball enthusiasts). Once on base the skill of base stealing can and should be a weapon of choice because pardon the pun it’s an easy way to steal runs.
With less emphasis on hitting the ball out of the park, running the bases and finding creative ways to get on base will allow athletes to show off their speed and athleticism, two qualities you likely don’t relate to the game of baseball. Unfortunately many young athletes think baseball is slow and boring? I think this a great opportunity to reintroduce a wonderful sport to the next generation of young athlete. The current generation grew up watching meat heads soaked with steroids and composite weapons that launched balls with little effort into the stratosphere. That style of baseball leads to a lot of trotting and standing around watching balls fly.
Baseball coaches didn’t need this rule to change the way they develop young players but why waste a good opportunity? What kid wouldn’t have a blast playing a game that allows them to sprint, jump, dive, slide, catch, throw, roll and even steal (in a legal way of course)? Baseball has always been a great game in my mind but its image is in need of an overhaul. It has been slow and boring but due to better drug testing and stiffer penalties at the professional level and deadened bats at the amateur level competitive coaches and teams will be forced to find another way to develop their team. Speed and athleticism are an ideal place to start and the teams that posses it, just like Jim Leyland said, will drive the opposition “batty!”