If the slogan “chicks dig the long ball” has any truth to it, there’s likely to be little romance stirring in high school baseball this season.
The new BBCOR standards, designed to slow the speed of the baseball upon impact with the bat, seemingly have lived up — or down — to all the advance notice, with the overall result not only a slower-traveling baseball, but a game being played with all deliberate speed if initial returns are any indication.
An early sampling of five games witnessed so far during the 2012 season has produced the following statistics: Of 75 total hits in those games, just 10 have gone for extra bases — and all of them have been doubles.
No one has come close to driving the ball through an outfield gap for a triple, nor has there been anything close to a fence-clearing home run — leaving some to wonder if a ball will ever leave the confines of some of the larger fields in the area such as Bangor’s Mansfield Stadium.
Perhaps just as revealing as the paucity of extra-base hits are the 13 infield hits in those same games, typically softly hit grounders that charging infielders can’t reach in time to throw out the runners.
The long ball is being replaced by small ball.
Teams are adjusting to this new world of high school baseball rather quickly.
Outfielders are playing in, hoping to catch the hits that otherwise might drop in front of them for singles and daring batters to smack it over their heads.
Many infielders also are playing a step or two in to get a head start on some of those slower-hit grounders, but they have to be careful not to come in too close or risk providing batters better angles to ground the ball past them.
Pitchers increasingly seem more willing to “pitch to contact,” to use the current vernacular of the sport, rather than nibble on the corners, so when teams play good defense behind them their teams usually win.
Coaches and players are using more aggressive tactics on the bases, such as attempting to steal more to create an extra-base situation from the combination of a single or a walk and a stolen base rather than the traditional double.
Bunting to advance baserunners is making a comeback, and hitting the ball to a certain side of the infield to move a runner up a base is being seen as a much more appreciated sacrifice of an at-bat in today’s game.
Combine all these realities, and the sea of change taking place in high school baseball is nirvana for those fascinated by the intricacies of the game, but a horrid turn of events for fans of the big inning, which is evolving from a three-run homer or multiple doubles to a combination of singles, walks, stolen bases and errors.
In a sense this new age of high school baseball seems like it is being played in slow motion, particularly when compared with the previous version of the sport with its check-swing singles off the bat handle and one-hoppers to the fence as if launched from a cannon 350 feet away at home plate.
But as much as some fans might lament the loss of that power, there is still a sweet spot in the new bats capable of serving as an instant reminder of why the change was made in the first place.
I witnessed a line drive back to the mound in a game this week that nailed Oceanside of Rockland-Thomaston pitcher Dylan Maloney in his lower left leg. Maloney had no time to react to that hit; one wonders what might have resulted had the ball been coming at him 5 or 6 miles per hour faster — the estimated difference between the old and new bats.
Maloney shook off the stinging liner and went on to pitch a complete game, but as much as some fans might rue the changing nature of America’s pastime at the high school level, this is a scenario worth remembering as we come to grips with why it’s been done.