The crack of the wooden bat is as unfamiliar to most college baseball players as the rotary phone is to Millennials.
But for a select group of the top college players, summer can be a time of broken bats and a chance to experience the game as the pros do — playing with lumber made of maple or ash.
Both the Cape Cod and Alaska Baseball leagues invite the nation’s top underclassmen (rising seniors and below) to live with host families and play with wooden bats on a daily basis. The Cape Cod League has 10 teams and the Alaska League has six. Both play from mid-June through mid-August.
The leagues are the only places college players can play regularly with wooden bats before getting drafted by Major League Baseball.
The experience, according to many players, takes some getting used to.
“It feels a little heavier,” said Marshall rising junior Corey Bird, who plays for the Cape Cod League’s Hyannis Harbor Hawks, who opened their playoff series on Saturday. “I felt late on everything (at first) and it feels like it’s weighted differently.”
Said Heath Quinn, a Samford rising junior who plays for the Falmouth Commodores: “I like the feel of wood bats, when you hit it well, you know. It doesn’t always go as far, but it goes.”
A wood bat also can shatter if the batter hits a pitch on the neck. That difference from aluminum bats affects not only batters, but pitchers as well.
“I can throw more inside (vs. wooden bats),” said Wofford rising senior Will Stillman, who pitches for Hyannis. “Here, if you pitch more inside, the batter can’t muscle it out (and maybe get a hit). You can get a broken bat and get the out.”
Stillman is using his time in the Cape Cod League to refine his ability to locate the ball. He says he’s learned that hitters using wooden bats can be a little late getting through their swing and that contact is not as complete.
For Tristan Gray, a rising sophomore at Rice, using a wooden bat all summer is forcing him to perfect his swinging motion. Because the wood bat is less forgiving, there is less room for error.
“It makes my swing a lot better,” he said before his Commodores hosted Hyannis in early July. “You can’t have a lot of flaws or you’ll break the bat. Overall, it feels more flush, more direct.”
Quinn, also an avid golfer, likened the difference between wood and metal bats to the difference between a modern iron and a blade. The bigger, more rounded heads on current irons allow a golfer to get decent results just by making contact, while blades must be hit square for a good result.
“It’s much harder to use wood,” Quinn said. “The metal is more forgiving and you have to be on the spot with wood.”
Wooden bats are used at every level of the professional game, from instructional leagues through the majors, but the NCAA switched to metal bats in 1974, as a cost-saving measure. Metal bats don’t shatter, but they also can’t truly replicate the feel of a wooden bat.
Since the adoption of metal bats, the NCAA has tinkered with the composition of the bats, most recently banning the use of composites (2009) and instituting the BBCOR standard (2011), which “requires non-wood bats to produce batted-ball speed no greater than wood,” according to a Penn State study titled “Physics of Baseball & Softball Bats.”
After the NCAA adopted the use of the BBCOR standard, offenses went dead in college ball. Home runs and extra-base hits decreased dramatically across the country. To increase offensive production, this past season the NCAA switched from a raised-seam ball to the flat-seam version used in pro ball in an effort to give the hitters a chance.
In the end, though, nothing can replace the satisfaction of a wooden bat well hit.
“Squaring it up with a wood bat just feels great,” Bird said. “It feels good with a metal bat, but with wood, you know for sure.”
Above: Using a wooden bat helps Tristan Gray, a rising sophomore at Rice who plays for the Hyannis Harbor Hawks, perfect his swing. (Jill Dorson photo)