Coaches Like Using Wood Bats

By Staff

Coaching Management, 12.7, September 2004,

For the past two years, Bryant College Head Coach Jon Sjogren’s team’s batting average has been falling dramatically.

Four years ago, Lewis University Head Coach Irish O’Reilly’s team hit nearly 50 percent fewer home runs than the year before, and the number hasn’t gone back up much since.

Neither coach could be happier.

Both NCAA Division II schools play in wood bat leagues, and both coaches say the switch to wood has made the game purer and safer. They also say it’s made their jobs more challenging, enjoyable, and rewarding.

Bryant College is a member of the Northeast-10 Conference, which switched to wood for the 2003 season, continued the rule during 2004, and after a unanimous vote of the league’s coaches, will bring it back again for 2005. Lewis’s league, the Great Lakes Valley Conference, has been using wood for the past four years and will also continue in 2005.

A coach for 35 years, O’Reilly says veteran coaches appreciate the way wood bats return the game to its traditional form, but younger coaches are equally enthusiastic. “In our conference, the younger coaches are some of the ones the most excited about it, because they are doing more coaching and managing now,” he says.

The Great Lakes Valley Conference and the Northeast-10 switched to wood for different reasons. In 2000, safety was paramount in the Great Lakes Valley decision. “We were witnessing a lot of balls coming off aluminum bats at speeds that were too fast to be fielded or defended against—not just in games, but in daily practices,” O’Reilly says.

The Northeast-10 had another motive. “For us, it wasn’t a safety issue,” Sjogren says. “We did it for the sake of the game, to make it cleaner and return it to the way it was meant to be played. We certainly feel it has done that.

“A few years ago, it didn’t matter where you threw the ball or how many unearned runs you gave up, because you always knew there was a three-run home run waiting around the corner,” he continues. “That doesn’t happen anymore. One run, one base runner, one stolen base, or one sacrifice bunt can mean the game. Now the emphasis is on fielding your position, throwing the ball to the right base, turning double plays, and getting yourself out of innings. It’s brought back the finer points of the game.”

“The bottom line is, when we went to wood, most of the players started looking a lot more like baseball players than they did when we used aluminum,” agrees O’Reilly. “Infielders are making plays we hadn’t seen in a while. Our shortstop gets 35 to 40 more assists a year than anybody playing in an aluminum-bat conference. Our outfielders are making more plays because balls don’t leave the yard as often.”

Pitching strategy has also changed, since pitchers are no longer afraid to throw inside. “Pushing hitters off the plate when they are being too aggressive has always been part of the game, but we were losing that with aluminum bats,” O’Reilly says. “Now, our pitchers have one more weapon back in their arsenal. The bunt also becomes more of a play, so you see the pitcher involved with fielding again.”

“It lets the strike zone be the strike zone,” adds Sjogren. “Before, the umpire had to expand the strike zone on either side of the plate just to keep the ball in the park.”

The change has also made games shorter—which has gotten the thumbs-up from fans. “In the Midwest, we play a lot of doubleheaders. When we were using aluminum, those games would each go on for three hours,” O’Reilly says. “Now we’re playing nine-inning games in less than two hours, and seven-inning games in less than an hour and a half.”

But won’t fans stay away if there are fewer home runs and less scoring? No, according to O’Reilly. “Our scores are in the neighborhood of 5-4 and 3-2,” he says. “Our fans have told us they appreciate it because it’s good, competitive baseball being played the traditional way.”

Both coaches have found that adjusting back to aluminum for non-conference games is easier than they expected. Sjogren’s team advanced to the NCAA tournament in 2004, and had to prepare to use aluminum after playing the previous 34 games with wood. “I think it gave us an advantage,” he says. “When we got to the national tournament, having played with wood bats for as long as we had, the offensive adjustment was fairly easy. “We hit more home runs in the first 15 minutes than we had all year. All of my hitters had big smiles on their faces.”

Defensively, the adjustment required more preparation to again field balls off of aluminum bats, Sjogren says. He had his players use aluminum bats in practice for live work and fungoes, concentrating on fielding balls that went over outfielders’ heads and on double relays.

Wood bats placed less strain on the budget than commonly feared, according to both coaches. “For us, there was a small increase, because we have to buy both wood and aluminum now,” Sjogren says. “But we work with our bat company as a league and we’ve been able to get special bulk-rate prices and lower shipping costs. There is a budget adjustment, but it’s not as big as people would think.”

Perhaps the biggest advantage is for players who want to advance to the next level. “In our conference, we’ve seen a couple of players who would have gone unnoticed before getting picked up because scouts were able to evaluate them better,” O’Reilly says. “I think it will help the progress of those who do get drafted, because they will already have the skills they need. They’ve been hearing for a number of years about moving the ball and playing for that one run and doing the things defensively that professional ball will require of them.”

Most of O’Reilly’s players arrive with some experience hitting with wood bats, thanks to a growing tendency among high school coaches to use them in the batting cage. Mike Hayes, Head Coach at Beech High School in Hendersonville, Tenn., says his players have definitely benefited since he started having them swing wood bats in the batting cage and in drills. “It teaches them to hit the ball in the right spot, because if you don’t hit the sweet spot with a wooden bat, you’re either going to break the bat or you’re going to hit the ball badly,” he says. “If you can hit with a wood bat, you can definitely hit with an aluminum bat, and it’s helped our hitters tremendously.”

“When the kids only hit with aluminum, their swings suffer,” agrees Sjogren. “When you have them hit with wood, instead of seeing how far they can hit it, they start working on a good quality swing and getting the good part of the bat on the ball.”