Outfielder Derek Jones is chasing Washington State University’s career record for home runs this season.
And the senior slugger is doing it with a new bat standard that led to a nationwide slump in college hitting last season.
“It was a little frustrating last year about how much they toned them down because it completely changed the game,” Jones said, who has 39 career home runs. “It’s definitely purified the game now because some schools used to recruit big donkeys that just kind of poke the ball over the fence, and I remember you could hit the ball on the very edge of the bat and the ball would still go out.”
Last season, the NCAA instituted the new bat standards, which decreased the “pop” in the bats and were expected to decrease injuries from batted balls that previously rocketed back towards pitchers. Nationwide statistics show that batting average, home runs, and runs dropped significantly last year.
According to NCAA statistics, players all around the country saw their overall batting average drop from .305 in 2010 to .282 in 2011, the first year the new standard was in place. Home runs per game fell from 0.98 in 2010 to 0.52 in 2011.
The NCAA's official bat testing facility is directed by WSU's own Dr. Lloyd Smith in the Sports Science Laboratory. The laboratory has two cannons that perform the high-speed tests on the bats.
Manufacturers pay from $500 to $10,000, depending on the number of bats tested and the number of tests per bat, according to laboratory manager Jeff Kensrud.
Smith said bats crafted to the new standard produce the same exit speeds as a wood bat, but has more equal weight distribution, and also decreases the “trampoline effect” seen in older bats.
The trampoline effect is what leads to the baseball to travel farther and faster off the baseball bat then when it was traveling toward the bat, Smith said.
“If you were take a ball and drop it and measure the speed of the ball just before it hits the floor and just after it comes off the floor, the ratio of those speeds is called the coefficient of restitution,” Smith said. “So we are using that exact same principle to measure the performance of bats.”
Smith said training and psychology play a role as well.
For pitchers, the new bats appeared to buoy statistics last season. College pitchers recorded 200 more shutouts in 2011 than they had in 2010. The average pitchers’ earned run average (ERA) dropped by a run to 4.67 last season.
“It makes you more confident throwing away because if you get soft contact at the end of the bat it’s more likely than them squaring it up,” said WSU senior pitcher Spencer Jackson.
The University of Washington also saw steep declines in major offensive categories last year. The team’s hitting average dropped from .280 in 2010 to .250 last year, and home runs and runs fell as well. A spokesperson from the UW athletic communications office declined to comment on the new bats or allow the team’s players to be interviewed.
Jones said the new bats have affected hitters, pitchers and the defense.
“The line drives (that) I used to catch, they started to fall, and there wasn’t as many balls that were hit in the gap and down the line,” Jones said. “So we had to adjust where we positioned ourselves in the outfield, which in turn hurt us a little bit because we weren’t used to where the balls were being hit.”
Jones is off to a torrid start, batting .408 with eight home runs. He is one short of becoming the new home run record holder, a record he is currently tied in with former WSU baseball player Jeff Hooper.