The weather was, for the most part, unbearable – certainly the worst playing conditions in recent memory – which made the 2011 season impossible to cherish. This wintery spring, however, should be earmarked as a critical footnote in the history of Illinois high school baseball.
After all, when Lyons Township hoisted the Class 4A state championship trophy at Joliet’s Silver Cross Field on June 11, it officially marked the end of an era, perhaps, when we look back, the golden era of prep baseball in Illinois.
Next season, high school players will begin using BBCOR bats. The new bat regulations are designed to significantly decrease the trampoline effect of the aluminum, which will slow the exit speeds of batted balls, and therefore make the game safer – in theory, that is. Essentially, it’s like hitting with a broken bat, completely dead, and with a smaller sweet spot.
The long ball will be a thing of the past. With a deadened barrel and a smaller sweet spot, players now have to strike the ball perfectly. In the past, good hitters could get fooled on an off-speed pitch, but keep their hands back long enough to drive the ball the other way for extra bases. The middle-of-the-lineup guys could even take it out of the park despite committing their weight. Bloop, handle-shot singles won’t make it out of infield; decreased exit speeds will make it easier for outfielders to track down balls in the gap, and there will be fewer singles through the infield.
You get the point.
College baseball began using BBCOR bats this year and it completely changed the complexion of the game. All the coaches have said so. The college game, which was once buoyed by the long ball, is a different animal now. Which means college coaches’ recruiting preferences will change. For the above-average high school power hitter, it will likely be a difficult recruiting process. Furthermore, there likely will be less projection on a hitter’s ability to acquire more power at the college level, which means the kid who showed bat speed and swing looseness but is a few years away physically, may get looked over.
One player’s loss, however, is another player’s gain. A heightened premium will be placed on speed and athletes. Light-hitting defensive wizards should get more consideration. Pitching will be in even greater demand. And not just the hard-throwers. Of course velocity guys will always be coveted and demand a hefty price tag. But for those pitchers who are three, four ticks shy on the radar gun yet have the ability to run or cut their fastball – essentially keeping the ball away from the deadened barrel – they become more valuable, too.
The shift in recruiting indicates that the entire face of Illinois high school baseball will change dramatically. If we agree that college players are bigger, stronger and more polished, then you don’t need Tim Burton’s macabre imagination to project what the high school game will look like.
Assuming that pitchers can throw strikes and defenses can pick up the ball, high-scoring, three-hour games will be a distant memory. Which is a good thing. Then again, average high school hitters, which constitute most of a team’s lineup, won’t have a chance. Which isn’t a good thing – for them, at least.
One person who should be thrilled with the new bat regulations is four-time Prep Baseball Report All-State outfielder Tim Barry, who broke the all-time Illinois high school home run and RBI records this spring. If the IHSA stays with the BBCOR bats, no one will come close to breaking the Oak Forest slugger’s records.
I, too, can’t say that I’m completely displeased with the change. Sure, I will still be subjected to the often-brutal cold of early spring, like everybody else, but at least the game will be much quicker.