Other Campuses: Aluminum bats debated in college baseball

By Daily Bruin

(U-WIRE) LOS ANGELES – When walking into Jackie Robinson Stadium, or any other college baseball stadium, there is one sound that echoes that is never heard from professional baseball.

Ping!

That’s the sound of an aluminum bat striking the ball, creating an unmistakable difference between the major leagues and the collegiate level.

But it wasn’t always this way.

Aluminum bats first came on the scene in 1974 as a “temporary” solution to budget crunches across the country in athletic departments.

Former UCLA coach Gary Adams, whose first year leading the UCLA program was the same year aluminum bats came into use in college, remembers the time well.

“When they came out with aluminum bats, it was supposed to be a temporary thing,” he said. “College baseball and all of college sports were in an economic crush.”

Athletic departments realized the savings that more durable aluminum bats brought to the table.

The monetary savings from using aluminum bats is indisputable when taking a look at how often wooden bats break. Even though aluminum bats can cost up to five times their wooden counterparts, a player would undoubtedly go through many more than five wood bats in a season. As a result, the temporary solution became permanent.

A PREFERENCE FOR THE OLD GAME

Despite the cost savings, Adams and many others still prefer wood bats.

“Wooden bats give the game more credibility,” Adams said.

Adams noted how different the college game has become due to the introduction of aluminum.

Hitters have a distinct advantage with the use of aluminum bats because when hitters are jammed on the inside, a larger sweet spot allows more hits to fall in front of the outfielders. Another difference is that a ball hit at the same area on a bat will travel farther with aluminum.

“In the big leagues, if you make a good pitch inside, you’re rewarded,” Adams said.

This forces pitchers to constantly pitch outside in college. But as Adams notes, the hitters will just crowd the plate and the good ones will simply hit that outside pitch the other way, instead of pulling it like the pitcher wants.

UCLA first baseman Brett McMillan has seen first-hand the differences in power between aluminum and wood bats from his time playing in wood-bat leagues, such as the Cape Cod League, during the summer.

“With wood, sometimes you really think you get a ball good and it’s caught at the warning track,” McMillan said. “With metal bats, sometimes you think, ‘Oh I missed that one, it’s going to be caught,’ and it goes over the fence.”

Professional teams, however, are not fans of aluminum due to these effects. It becomes harder for scouts to gauge a pitcher since throwing inside is not as commonplace in the college game. Scouts are also forced to adjust how they see a college power hitter because some of that power might be due to the bat and not the player swinging it.

“I would think the pro people would definitely want wood due to a lot less mistakes in evaluation,” current UCLA coach John Savage said. “It would be really clear who could hit and who could not.”

Savage noted that a college game with wood would be radically different than the high-octane games seen today, the most famous example being the 1998 championship game between Arizona State and USC, in which the Trojans prevailed by an astounding 21-14.

“The college game would be much more based off pitching, off defense and speed,” Savage said.

THE DIFFICULTY IN SWITCHING

With all of this anecdotal evidence against aluminum bats, it might seem that a push for the reinstatement of wood bats would be imminent or would have already happened.

But the monetary constraint is not the only factor that keeps wood bats from becoming the bat of choice in college.

While some believe that a return to wood bats would help the sport, others, like Savage, feel the effects of aluminum bats have contributed to the popularity of the college game currently.

“People like runs, people like excitement, and right now, college baseball is at an all-time high in terms of interest,” Savage said. “You look at the numbers in the super regionals and in Omaha’s (site of the College Baseball World Series) attendance, and that is largely attributed to the homerun.”

Savage also noted the recent increase in popularity has made coaches hesitant to get rid of aluminum bats.

A DOABLE CHANGE

If the NCAA pulled a 180-degree turn and decided to switch back to the crack of the wood bat, there would be enough wood bats to supply teams, according to Louisville Slugger spokesman Rick Redman.

“There would be a huge demand, and we would definitely have to ramp up production,” Redman said. “But at one time, this company made seven to eight million bats a year compared to making two million now. It would be a challenge, but it is doable.”

Louisville Slugger is the predominant maker of wood and aluminum bats, and according to Redman, it doesn’t matter which way colleges go.

“We’re really in favor of choice for the coaches and colleges.”

For now, the choice remains in favor of aluminum.

-Robert Costa