2017 marks 6 years since both the NCAA and the National Federation of State High School Association decided to implement one of the largest standard of play changes to hit the leagues in recent memory.
BBCOR stands for Batted Ball Coefficient of Restitution and is a fancy way of saying the speed at which a baseball comes off of a bat when hit, especially when related to the speed of the original throw.
Basically, it is a measurement of the bounce or “pop” of a baseball bat. The NCAA adopted the change for their 2011 season and much has happened since there.
Below, we’ll review the reason for the change, what went into determining this new regulation, and what it’s meant for the sport. Spoiler alert, it wasn’t exactly the game-destroying adjustment many feared it would be!
What Lead to The Change?
BBCOR standards first came about as a result of safety concerns.
From 1982 until when BBCOR was first introduced, the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Industry Research catalogued 60 direct injuries as a result of being hit by a baseball. Of these, 25 were categorized as serious and twelve were fatal. Most impacted by these safety concerns were those in the pitching or infield positions. There are many examples, but one of the most recent ones, just prior to the implementation of BBCOR, was Gunnar Sandberg. Gunnar was a pitcher for Marin Catholic High School.
In March of 2010 he took the mound and threw a fast ball to the hitter. The hitter grabbed hold of the ball right at the sweet spot of the bat, sending a line drive straight to the pitcher’s mound. With only milliseconds to react, Gunnar was unable to clear the path of the ball and was struck in the head by the ball which was traveling at 100 mph.
Gunnar was rushed to the emergency room but even after hours of critical, life-saving work, he slipped into a coma. To try and save him, doctors performed a controversial decompressive craniectomy, which is a neurosurgical procedure where a part of the skull is removed to allow the brain to swell without being compressed.
After months of extensive care and treatment, Gunnar eventually recovered but the close call was not lost on his father. “I think there are a couple things that need to be looked at,” Bjorn Sandberg, Gunnar’s father said. “We need to make this game safer for the players. These new bats are too powerful. They’re like weapons.”
Prior to BBCOR, the pitcher, or corner infielder would have had less than a half a second to react to a well struck ball hit in their direction. As one can imagine, even a player with the most responsive reflexes would be hard-pressed to move out of the way in that amount of time.
This danger was as a result of the ball gaining bounce and therefore velocity when coming in contact with the bat. As opposed to the bat deadening or absorbing some of the speed of the throw, it would instead reflect it and intensify it, making the ball gain even more speed after the hit if it stuck the “sweet spot” of the bat.
As an example, a pitch clocked at 90 mph, when stuck off the sweet spot of an aluminum or composite bat barrel, could easily reach speeds around 108 mph when traveling back toward the pitcher or infielders.
At that speed, a strike to the head could create irreparable trauma or immediate death. As an example, being hit with a ball traveling at 108 mph makes impact with about 4,000 pounds of force. That is the equivalent of being hit in the head with a baseball bat being swung at 20 mph.
Similarly catastrophic, a strike to the chest could result in Commotio Cordis which leads to cardiac arrest, and typically, immediate death. Baseball, followed closely by softball, are the two sports with the most incidents of Commotio Cordis.
What is Commotio Cordis?
Commotio Cordis is triggered by a blunt and sudden hit to the chest. It is most often non-penetrating, meaning it does not break the skin and also does not break the ribs or sternum or damage the heart. Also, most often, the blow is delivered unintentionally. The Latin name of the condition literally translated means, “agitation of the heart” because the pressure interrupts the rhythm of the heartbeat at a critical time during the cycle, causing cardiac arrest.
Why Hadn’t Anything Been Done Before?
The NCAA decided to adopt the new BBCOR standards in 2009, with implementation for their 2011 season. The NFHSA followed suit, voting to accept BBCOR in 2010, and implementing them in time for the 2012 season. Prior to that time, the standards in place impacting non-wooden bats were BESR or Ball Exit Speed Ratio.
BESR was developed as a way to measure or rate the speed or power of aluminum and composite bats. Wooden bats behaved very differently than these new materials, so when leagues started bringing them in, the way the ball reacted when hit by those more “bouncy” materials, changed the game quite a bit. BESR only measured or took into account the ratio between the speed of the ball before it hit the bat, and the speed of the ball after it hit the bat.
This was an incomplete measurement however as it did not measure the Batted Ball Speed (BBS) and did not guarantee a maximum BBS by virtue of controlling the ratio of before and after bat contact. Basically, BESR of a 75 MPH pitch would show us that the average BBS could be 95 MPH, however that knowledge doesn’t say what the BBS could be. In reality the BBS could be well over, in excess of 105-110 MPH.
With time, more people realized that regulating the BESR did not in fact impact safety, or level the playing field between wood and non-wood and so better science was needed to come up with a better standard for regulation.
A professor out of the University of Illinois – Dr. Alan Nathan came up with that better science when measuring and testing bat and ball speed factors and found a more complete way to measure and therefore, a more effective way to put a limit on the variable that was truly the most important when it came to safety, and that became BBCOR. In practice, the tests used to calculate BESR and BBCOR are not much different.
They are both still methods to score a bat’s performance – similar to how MPH (miles per hour) and KPH (kilometers per hour) both measure speed. Also, the change to BBCOR did not change the way bats needed to be made. The differentiating factor was that testing under BBCOR implemented a new maximum limit intended to improve safety.
What Was the Impact of Implementing BBCOR?
When the new BBCOR guidelines were first implemented there was much concern and push-back. These new limits required the bats to be “less effective” in a way, since the ball no longer got as much pop.
At the High school and College level, many players became power hitters by nature of the bat they used, as opposed to just their mechanics. Some players began adopting bad habits because the trampoline effect off of the old bats allowed them to manufacture home runs so long as the ball got to the sweet spot of the bat.
With the looming new standard, star hitters in search of scholarships, school records, or on scouts’ radar were worried about the potential knock to their stats and perceived performance. And rightfully so.
The less impactful collision between ball and bat after BBCOR meant big changes in runs per game and BIP (balls in play). Stats from the first 10 days after BBCOR in 2011, when compared to the same 10 days in 2010 before BBCOR, show that only 1.8% of BIP were home runs as opposed to 2.8% the previous year. Similarly 2010 saw an average of 7.5 runs per game, and in 2011 it was down to 6.25 runs per game.
BBCOR bats are estimated to make the ball come off the bat at least 5% slower. This doesn’t seem like a lot at first glance, but this could be the difference between a 400 foot home run and a 375 foot fly ball.
Therefore, in addition to safety, another element BBCOR brought to the game was balance. Aluminum barrels and wooden barrels were now more equal. In essence, BBCOR made aluminum and composite bats behave like wood.
BBCOR also balanced the game between offense and defense. Because they could no longer count on out slugging the opposition, teams needed to focus on making good defensive plays and not making errors.
Has BBCOR Improved the Sport?
Now that we’re five years in, many coaches look at the new standard and say it has actually forced their players to improve. Newport Skipper, Steve Zeiders said of the change “I believe it has brought the game back to the pitcher. Balls fisted or in off the hands no longer carry over the infield for hits.
It has made it safer for the pitchers and infielders. From a coaching standpoint, it has brought back into play more small ball, bunting, hit and runs, and squeeze plays. I believe the bats have leveled the playing field.”
Statistics are also telling a similar story. Although initially, runs took a hit, looking at the trends there are increases over each previous year as players get used to the new style required to be effective players.
They’re no longer relying on the trampoline effect that used to exist and could create a home run in a situation where a hitter may not have produced it otherwise. With focus on proper hitting mechanics, the initial gap in hits has been narrowing. Strong players found a way to adapt and stand out.
Two years after the entrance of BBCOR, Mike Samela – one of the stars of Staples first FCIAC Championship team and a senior at the time at Amherst said “This is my second year with the bats. I don’t think it’s that hard to get used to. If you square the ball up, it is still going to go. There might be fewer home runs, but the doubles will go up. You still have to drive the ball into the gaps.”
Scouts have stopped looking for just the biggest guy. With the new regulations, the game was forced to be about more than home runs, so teams were looking to round out their players and equally important are the people who can run, steal a base, bunt, etc. “Amateur baseball is now more of a place for smaller, faster guys with a wide array of skills” said Jim Case, Jacksonville State coach.
By best guesses, the new BBCOR bats have a reduced the sweet spot by about two inches. With less home runs, it may be a less exciting game for some, but definitely a safer one. In the first season since using BBCOR there were only five direct injuries reported, only four of which were serious, and none fatal.
There are now nearly 16,000 sanctioned high school teams participating nationwide and baseball continues to have the lowest injury rate of any other sport. “Scoring might be a little down, but kids that hit home runs are still hitting home runs. Defense and pitching has the inside of the plate again, and infielders get to make plays” says Director of Sports & Student Services at NFHS. “Overall, we’re very excited.”
The NCAA and NHFS have been very strict about adhering to these standards as well and some previously approved bats, were later taken off the list after further review proving that the powers that be were not messing around with these new regulations. All manufacturers must submit their bats for testing at the Sports Science Laboratory at Washington State University to be deemed in line with regulations.
For a full list, you can visit their site here One of the previous criticisms of the BESR also included the lack of consideration for how bats performed once they had been used or “broken in”. With composite in particular, they would experience a “thinning” of the barrel wall, thus further increasing the springiness off the bat. This effect is taken into consideration with BBCOR and the NCAA and NFHS paid attention. Luckily manufacturers have gotten the hang of it by now, and there are currently over 1500 bats that are approved in various price points.
What About Wooden Bats?
For the most part, any wooden bat is automatically within regulation. The only exception would be wooden bats made with a variety of wood types, or those that include some composite material. Those would then need to go through the testing process and be certified. To forego the hassle, we’ve seen some states as of late do away with the use of any metal or composite bats.
New York and New Mexico are two that bypassed the new standard by switching entirely to wooden bats. North Dakota and Boston are primarily using wood as well. So why even bother with metal or composite? Experts say that although the new BBCOR standards are meant to simulate the reaction had with wooden bats, employing aluminum or composite at the max allowable with BBCOR is like using the best wooden bat on the market.
It also ensures consistency where wood cannot. Lastly, there is a safety hazard posed by wooden bats when the break, which is not a concern with the other materials. The lack of breakage also reduces the amount of bats players and teams need to repurchase.
So Where Are We Now?
With five years under our belts, it is clear BBCOR is here to stay. Players and coaches are excited about not only the safety, but the balance these new regulations have brought to the game, and scouts have adapted to the new norms in terms of stats. In fact, it’s probably easier than ever for them to see the true abilities of players. Nevertheless, last year the NCAA changed to a flat-seamed baseball before the 2015 season to help combat the reduction in scoring and batting averages. Although polls have shown most coaches among the high school ranks have supported the change, it has not yet been adopted by the NFHS
Rarely does it happen in baseball that drastic changes to regulations are made across such a broad scale, however it’s clear that in this case, the change was a positive one and will be here to stay. Schools are continuing to adapt, but most have figured it out and coaches are finding that players are spending more time listening to them on focusing on the nuances of the game, making them stronger overall players. Only time will tell if the injury records remain low, but at the very least, the improvement in safety is decreasing the risk of fatalities in the field.