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Hayley Slye is a writer, caffeine enthusiast and Editor-in-Chief of the student newspaper at Cal State Fullerton. You can find her on Twitter at @hmslye.
When a player gets to Minor League Baseball from college, the sound of his hits change. He earns the crack of the wood bat so sacred to the game and leaves the sacrilegious “ping” of a metal bat behind.
"I like it because it's like a right. You know? If you earn the right and you're good enough and you get the opportunity to play pro ball, you earn the right to go swing the wood bat," said Collin Theroux, a minor leaguer in the Oakland Athletics organization.
Theroux, who ended his first year in the minors last year in Low-A and played college ball at Oklahoma State, said making the transition forced him to refine his approach. More talented pitchers in the minors meant higher-velocity fastballs and more inside pitches, he said. But his bat talked him through the change.
"(Wood) doesn't lie to you," he said. "You can tell by the sound, the feel, how far the ball goes, how hard you hit it. And wood's gonna give you instant, accurate feedback."
For players and scouts, the difference in equipment no doubt poses a challenge. Players have to make a significant adjustment when they get to the pros, and scouts have to translate metal bat performance.
"They learn to be direct to the ball. What that means is their mechanics have to be really tightened up when they get here because there's no room for error," said Jeff Manto, Baltimore Orioles minor league hitting coordinator.
Starting in 2011, the NCAA changed standards for metal bats. The Bat-Ball Coefficient of Restitution (BBCOR) of college bats is now mostly the same as a wood bat, meaning “trampoline-effect” power off a metal bat isn’t a factor like it was prior to the change, said Alan Nathan, professor emeritus of physics at the University of Illinois.
"I swung one of those old bats recently just as a joke, for fun because I found one laying around, and the difference is unbelievable how much farther those old bats used to go,” said minor league free agent William Barring, formerly in the New York Mets organization. “With those old bats, basically anybody could have hit 10-15 home runs a season. It really didn't depend on how much power you had."
Without the extra bounce, the advantage to a metal bat now is its weight, which allows hitters to swing faster and more easily maneuver it to wait longer on a pitch or adjust their swing while they’re swinging, Nathan said. But he said with additional maneuverability comes less energy transferred to the ball from a lighter, hollow metal barrel than a wooden bat with more mass.
Players also say finding the “sweet spot” of the bat becomes more important with wood. The “sweet spot” is usually about 5 or 6 inches from the barrel, Nathan said, and is the spot on the bat that allows the highest batted ball speed.
"You might be barreling balls up in college but once you get to the pro level some of those barrels are going to start going away, you're going to start making weaker contact, you're used to a bigger sweet spot and making the adjustment from aluminum to wood, it's a pretty significant one," said one major league scout.
Metal also won’t leave a hitter in the batter’s box with only the handle of the bat in his hands.
"It's a pride thing. It's an ego thing. When that pitcher breaks my bat, he beat me," Theroux said. "If I break a bat in my first at-bat, the rest of my at-bats for the rest of the game it's in the back of my head, like ‘don't break another one.’ He got you, that guy beat you."
"I've seen it happen to guys. I try not to let that happen to me. I try to control my thoughts and be positive and confident and if you start thinking that, you're probably going to get out anyway,” Trosclair said.
Scouting college hitters
Scott Hunter, director of amateur scouting for the Seattle Mariners, said in college games, he sees hits that “probably wouldn't wind up making it to the outfield if they had the wood bat in their hands.”
"You can't tell quite as well who basically just homered off something slightly off the barrel, you can't tell if that's just raw natural power or is that just a little bit better bat,” said another major league scout.
But by the time college hitters get to the minors, most have at least some experience swinging a wood bat.
"Seeing the big leaguers on TV using them, as a kid you always, every chance you get, you grab a wood bat and you swing it just to get a feel for it," Trosclair said.
Formerly an international crosschecker, Hunter saw teenagers in the Dominican Republic who worked out every day only using wood.
"The earlier a kid can pick up a bat that's wood, oh God, it helps so much more. It actually teaches them without having an instructor,” Hunter said.
But players and scouts have actually become pretty effective at accounting for the change from college to the minors. Summer leagues for college players, like the famed Cape Cod League in New England, give hitters a chance to get used to wood bats and scouts a chance to see what players can do with them.
"We made the decision at the end of the 1984 season to go in 1985 to an all-wood bat league because a lot of our kids were going on to professional baseball and to get them properly assessed every summer, the scouts really want to see how they can handle wood bats vs. aluminum bats," said Cape Cod League commissioner Paul Galop.
Hunter said wood bat leagues have been “making life a little easier, but our summer’s a little busier."
"The Cape Cod League, we blanket that league. We send waves of scouts through there all summer long. So it's not only me getting a look, it's two and three other layers of scouts going through there," Hunter said. "It's the only time we really get to see them with the wood bat in their hands"
Hitters also face better competition in summer leagues—of which there are several across the country—than they do during the college season. In the Cape, Walton said, “You’re facing everybody's Friday night guy.” Walton played for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox in the Cape in 2014 and 15.
"I knew all about the Cape and if I had a good year, I could get drafted high and all that stuff, so I went in probably putting a little bit of pressure on myself. I struggled at times, went into a slump for awhile," Walton said. "I got drafted, but decided to stay for my senior year so that summer going into my senior year, I went back to YD and had probably the best summer of my life.”
Shawn Maltby, general manager of the wood-bat Alaska Baseball League Anchorage Bucs (of which Paul Goldschmidt is an alum) said he’d like to see college ball go to the wood bat.
“I know it’d be expensive, but in summer leagues it really defines who they are as players,” Maltby said. “It’s going to make them better hitters and they’re going to have better players as they come up.”
But NCAA baseball may never make the change to wood. Beyond wood bat leagues in high school and college, most players will primarily play with aluminum until they get to the minors. They will learn to get the right part of the bat on the ball, and they will learn the feeling of holding splintered wood in their hands.
Players who have sacrificed countless weekends off, spent summers on the field, possibly in Alaska, instead of at the beach, earn the right to make that adjustment.
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