If you sat in the stands behind home plate at Lindsey Nelson Stadium last year, you never would have guessed the most important piece of equipment inside the training area located under the stadium: a sock stuffed with a baseball that's tied by hand to a pole.
That and similar contraptions took the place of a batting cage for UT's baseball program last year while the stadium was turned upside down for renovations.
"I know it's hard to believe that [would happen at] the University of Tennessee or any school in the country but we didn't have a batting cage [during renovations]," head coach Todd Raleigh said.
Fortunately for the Vols' training and recruiting efforts, facilities problems will largely be a thing of the past during the 2011 season, and the only equipment struggles worth mention will be shared by every Division I baseball program.
The NCAA Baseball Rules Committee reacted to a couple troubling trends by enacting an indefinite ban of bats that use composite barrels. The change took effect for the first time during last year's College World Series.
In 2009 when the NCAA set in motion the process to approve the new regulations, scoring and home runs in Division I baseball reached an all-time high since bat standards were relaxed in 1998—injuries caused by line drives, especially to pitchers, also saw a steady increase during that decade.
Year | BA | R/game | HR/game | ERA 1999 .303 6.93 0.95 5.94 2000 .297 6.53 0.80 5.56 2001 .296 6.44 0.81 5.50 2002 .296 6.45 0.83 5.49 2003 .291 6.11 0.74 5.23 2004 .291 6.17 0.77 5.29 2005 .290 6.14 0.70 5.13 2006 .291 6.15 0.68 5.14 2007 .291 6.10 0.68 5.12 2008 .296 6.57 0.84 5.59 2009 .302 6.88 0.96 5.85
The problem with composite-barrel bats is simple: although they pass regulation standards when they leave the factory, they soften with use and eventually create a "trampoline effect" that makes the ball retain the energy output by the pitcher. This results in a significantly higher ball speed after collision. In layman's terms, this means that a ball hit with a composite-barrel bat will go about 10 miles per hour faster than the same swing with a regular aluminum bat.
Players and coaches agree that the new standard for bats—the Ball-Bat Coefficient of Restitution (nicknamed BBCOR)—signals a new era for college baseball. Gone are the days of NCAA box scores resembling a Blackjack scorecard. The emphasis is now going to be more on small-ball tactics, strong defensive play and consistent pitching.
"I don't think there's any question…that the game just got turned upside down," Raleigh said. "Fortunately for us we have a little more speed than we've had. We kind of recruited to it a little bit and saw it coming. Hopefully we're ahead of the curve."
While offensive-minded coaches are losing sleep over the new regulation, pitchers and defensive-minded coaches see the new dynamic as an opportunity.
Pitching coach Jason Beverlin, for one, considers the new regulation long overdue.
"The change definitely helps us [pitchers] because now you get rewarded for throwing a good pitch," Beverlin said. "It puts things closer to where they should be."
Steven Gruver, UT's top starter heading into the season, sees an advantage for pitchers even if the change isn't as earth-shattering as advertised.
"I love it," Gruver said. "Even if it turns out that the bats aren't all that different, it has guys thinking about their swings, reworking what they've done for a long time.
"That lets me be aggressive, that gives me an edge."