ASA Tests New Softball Bats

By Staff

Coaching Management, 12.9, October 2004,

Coaches now have a year with the new bat standards under their belts, but the issue of how high-performance hitting equipment affects competition and player safety isn’t going away. Manufacturers continue to tweak their designs in hopes of making the most powerful bat on the market, and engineers continue to refine the science behind bat standards.

The NCAA and the National Federation of State High School Associations have chosen not to change their rules regarding bat standards for 2005. "I think we’ve got it about where we want it right now," says Marjorie Willadsen, Head Softball Coach at Buena Vista University and Chair of the NCAA Women’s Softball Rules Committee. "We’ve toned it down a little bit to make it a safer game but still keep the excitement. I’m afraid that if we hadn’t done that, the home run, instead of being an exciting event, would have become commonplace. I don’t think we want technology to take over the game as it has in a lot of other sports, such as golf and baseball."

The only bat-related issues addressed by the NFHS for 2005 were editorial changes to the rulebook, permitting oval handles and handle grips or wrappings that don’t cause the handle to become flush with the knob. Mary Struckhoff, NFHS Assistant Director and Softball Rules Editor, explains that manufacturers are selling bats with oval handles that offer improved grip over standard round-handled bats. Furthermore, some of the grip devices can prevent sting and help promote safety by making bats easier to hold on to. "We had some umpires saying the grips were legal and some saying they weren’t," Struckhoff says. "So we tried to clean up the language, saying that as long as the knob and handle are not flush, they’re okay."

While there are no changes in bat standards on the immediate horizon, the NCAA is not standing still on the issue. The association has commissioned testing to make sure the Amateur Softball Association standards are appropriate for the college game.

In setting its standard, the ASA commissioned Lloyd Smith, professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at Washington State University, to fire softballs from air cannons at stationary bats and measure the rebound speed. Those results were combined mathematically with average swing speeds to get an exit speed. Bats of different ages were tested, rated, and compared to the exit speed—98 mph—of bats from an era when the ASA believes safety and offense were properly balanced, according to Smith.

The calculations used the average swing speed of male slowpitch hitters, but Smith believes the numbers are still valid, because what matters is relative speed. In other words, the faster pitch in the college and high school game is balanced by a slower bat speed than that produced in men’s slowpitch. But to help confirm that approach, the NCAA commissioned its own test, using college hitters during the Division I Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City this year.

High-speed cameras recorded the bats’ rotational speed, swing height, and forward motion. Results are expected in late fall. "We collected between 50 and 100 megabytes of data for each swing," says Smith. "We had 35 players, and they each swung a bat 30 times. That’s a tremendous amount of data."

Testing will continue with developments in technology. Bat makers seek out materials and designs that will absorb the energy from the bat-ball collision and return it to the ball—creating the trampoline effect. "If you get a stronger aluminum, you can make a thinner barrel and the aluminum won’t yield," Smith says. "Manufacturers are now using composite materials for the same reason—they can deform more and they’re stronger. And they’re using multiple walls, in aluminum and composite bats, where you have a barrel made out of concentric cylinders, which allows the barrel to be softer but just as strong."

This is not news to coaches. Next season, Mark Wilkinson, Head Softball Coach at Noblesville (Ind.) High School, expects to have a player on his team who was hit in the face while pitching in an eighth-grade scrimmage this past spring. The hitter’s bat was legal for high school use under the ASA 2004 standard, but the injury prompted discussion locally about the power of modern bats. Wilkinson copes with the bat technology arms race by teaching his pitchers and infielders to note what bats opposing hitters bring to the plate. He tells corner players to back up when a strong hitter comes up with a notoriously powerful bat. Pitchers, of course, can’t do that, but how they pitch to a particular hitter can be adjusted based on the bat she’s carrying.

"The speed of those balls coming off the bat is certainly a concern among coaches," says Wilkinson. "I know how hard the sanctioning bodies try to keep that under control, but they’re fighting against companies that want to create the hottest bat out there."

Molly Feesler, President of the Ohio High School Fastpitch Softball Coaches Association and Head Coach at Pickerington North High School, welcomes the rule as a proactive safety measure. While the pitching vs. offense issue isn’t as contentious at her level as it is in college, she can see the change coming if bats are not regulated.

"Five years down the road we could be in the same predicament," Feesler says. "Our kids are getting stronger and stronger every year as they do a lot of off-season training and weightlifting. As the kids become stronger and the game gets faster—as in any sport—you’re going to run into more issues."

Coaches cope through communication, says Feesler. Players and parents need to understand that only stamped-as-approved bats can be used in games. "They know that it’s a state rule and a National Federation rule, not my rule, and that helps," she says.