There may be fewer home runs this summer at the local Little League complexes.
In an effort to cut down the risks of injuries, and to even the playing field a bit, Little League has instituted new bat requirements this season, stripping away some of the higher-end composite bats.
While each level of Little League will see changes in bat requirements, it is the Major Division that should see the most change. Pitching mounds are only 46 feet away from the plate, so young pitchers are in the most danger of being struck with a ball hit back up the middle.
For the Majors, the new bat rule reads: “It shall not be more than thirty-three (33) inches in length nor more than two and one-quarter (2¼) inches in diameter. Non-wood bats shall be labeled with a BPF (bat performance factor) of 1.15 or less.”
Charles Calvaruso, the Vice President of Baseball Operations of the North Howell Little League, said umpires are already strictly enforcing the new rules, which can have an impact on every game. With each pre-game inspection he said bats that do not have the required inspection stickers are immediately removed.
While umpires are charged with enforcing the rules Calvaruso said managers are the ones responsible for making sure their teams are in compliance. "Our primary objective is the safety of the players," he said. "These new policies will ensure that no illegal bats are used and that the kids are not unnecessarily penalized for it."
Eric Zanetti, the safety and baseball operations officer for the Toms River Little League, called the rule change, "a progressive step towards safety." With more than 600 kids in the league Zanetti said they are being careful that each bat brought to the game falls in line with the new rules. "With a 'juiced' bat that just adds velocity which is potentially dangerous," he said.
The impact of the rule changes are not only being in the local area but across the state and the country, as well.
“I think that what's happening is that we have trainers and coaches who are teaching the kids to hit the ball so well, at such a young age, that it has become dangerous for the pitchers, and also the third baseman,” said Dan Finocchi, player agent of West Deptford Little League.
Erial Little League treasurer Jeff Mastrogiovanni agrees.
“Baseball now is 12 months out of year, and on the East Coast, that was never the case,” Mastrogiovanni said. "Kids are now training and they are getting bigger than ever.”
It will be up to the local coaches to ensure that all of their team bats fit under the new rules. Little League's new rules state that a coach will be ejected from the game if his or her squad uses an illegal bat.
So as to not spring this info upon parents at the last minute, Little League indicated three years ago that changes were in the works, providing the notice while conducting an investigation into how wide the changes should be.
Some of the top composite bats on the market over the past few years have ranged as high as $200 to $300. While some parents who purchased these bats—which are now only useful as a boat anchor—may be left frustrated, coaches say the overwhelming majority have understood that the safety of the children is paramount.
“I have seen them break in half like a wooden bat and it’s scary,” Mastrogiovanni said of composite bats. “From a coaching perspective, they are like bats on steroids. The longer you use them, the harder they get. Over time, one of those bats gets more dangerous, so to speak."
Zanetti said finding a bat, whether aluminum or composite or even wood is an exact science for each individual player. "These kids are growing so fast and the bats are more specific to size and weight," he said. "You may grow three or four inches and the 30-inch bat that was good for you in the beginning of the season is now too short for you."
Composite bats have the same exterior as those made of aluminum, but have an interior, "woven" graphite wall that gives the bat more pop.
"It would be the difference between jumping off a trampoline versus jumping off the ground in terms of the performance of the ball" coming off the bat, said John Mallard, manager of Sports Authority in Turnersville, Gloucester County.
He added that most bats with an aluminum barrel and a composite handle have not been outlawed by Little League.
Mallard said that while composite bats might give hitters a small advantage, athletic skill is ultimately what matters most.
"If you can hit it, you can hit it," he said. "You’re not going to get that extra help from a single-piece aluminum bat."
A safety issue
Mastrogiovanni and Finocchi both say Little League would be better served if the distance from pitching rubber to home plate increases from 46 feet to 50 feet—the standard dimensions that the Babe Ruth baseball league uses. It’s a move that has been discussed for years and may soon be made.
Even though the local area has been largely spared of any issues relating to injuries involving the new bats, Zanetti said it was better to ensure everyone's safety.
He said that is particularly important for the older kids who are playing on smaller fields they are starting to outgrow. "A lot of the talk is about the smaller fields and the bigger kids," he said. "You're watching the 12-year-old who is all of 13 by the time May or June rolls around. At that point third base becomes a little bit more than a hot corner."
“They need to do something,” said Finocchi, who has been involved with West Deptford Little League for three decades. “Right now they are looking at moving to 50-70, which would give the pitchers a better chance.” A 50-70 field would have the pitching rubber 50 feet from home plate and the bases would be 70 feet apart.
“The word I heard is that they are seriously going to institute it next year,” Mastrogiovanni said. “I think it’s the move that has to be made. Babe Ruth and Cal Ripken (leagues) are doing it and Little League is getting left out. I think moving to a 50-70 field would be a lot better for the kids because it softens the transition when they go to 60-90. It would not be as big a jump for them.”
While a move to a bigger field would require hefty changes—moving back or raising the height of fences—its positive impact on safety would likely result in most people supporting the move. That has been the case with the bats. Heated debates have taken place for years over what should be done to limit the amount of “pop” in certain bats, and this move seems to have been a solid conclusion.
Even it if takes some time to get used to, Finocchi said the change is a must.
“If they didn’t do this, they were going to get kids killed or severely injured,” Finocchi said. “I think these are good rules. Physics is being applied and it’s justified. It’s costing Easton a lot of money to change all of their bats, but it’s for a good, sound reason.”
A list of approved and licensed composite bats can be found attached to this story or on the Little League website at littleleague.org.
(Regional Editor Tim Zatzariny Jr. contributed to this report.)