Editor’s note: In Part I of a two-part series, the Daily Reporter examines the high cost of baseball and softball bats for today’s competitive high school players.
GREENFIELD — Jason Stewart leans against the cold cement of a dugout and focuses his gaze on the array of colors cutting through the air before him.
He stares at the lineup, listening to a symphony of pings in the background, and calculates.
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“If I had to guess,” said Stewart, as a group of a dozen girls swat soft-toss and take swings at tees during practice Monday, “I’d say there’s probably about $4,000 worth of bats out here right now.”
It’s an educated guess.
The head coach has spent 12 years teaching softball at Greenfield-Central and has a 10-year-old daughter who has already played the game for years.
He knows precisely how much those 20-plus-ounce aerospace technology-infused sticks costs. Brand for brand.
As Stewart looks into the crowd of Cougars, he shakes his head.
“It didn’t used to be like this.”
Changing the game
Steve McCleerey said he is not a bat salesman. He’s selling success.
From travel ball to high school and even little league, parents are trying to give their kids the best tools to succeed and perhaps score a college scholarship down the road.
The race to wield the latest and greatest in modern sports tools, he said, has consumed the increasingly competitive worlds of baseball and more predominantly softball.
According to Hancock County’s resident bats expert and owner of Greenfield’s McCleerey’s Sporting Goods, the newest iterations from bat luminaries Easton and DeMarini don’t dangle from his rack very long after they arrive in the store.
“All you have do is touch it,” said McCleerey who also tests bats for numerous companies and performs swing analyses for hitters across the state. “You don’t have to hit. All you have to do is square the bat up. … You watch some of these (kids) hit home runs, and they aren’t exactly (crushing) the ball. Half the time, they’re should-be pop-ups, but boom, they’re gone. It’s the bats.”
The bats that have “changed the game,” Stewart said, are known as composite bats.
Composite bats began appearing and became popular in the early to mid-2000s and have since replaced traditional aluminum bats.
A composite bat is made of a carbon fiber polymer that provides two primary advantages over aluminum. The first is improved ability to control weight distribution, which can make a bat feel lighter and allows hitters to choose what kind of balance they’d like their bat to have. The other, the single most important evolution in bats in recent years, is the increase in a bat’s trampoline effect.
Bats made of composite materials allow the barrel of the bat to flex slightly inward during a swing, which in turn allows the pitched ball to retain some of its energy. This results in harder and further hits.
Wood and aluminum bats do not have as much give and therefore will not flex, so the ball loses energy upon impact with the bat, shortening the distance the ball will travel.
For a few years, these composite bats were practically unregulated, and “balls were flying out of the park,” Stewart said.
Finally, in 2009, the National Federation of State High School Associations and NCAA imposed stricter sanctions on how much spring the bats could have. They called the rule the BESR (Ball Exit Speed Ratio) Performance Standard, which limited the trampoline effect of composite barrels. Two years later, the standard gave way to the current BBCOR (Batted Ball Coefficient of Restitution) standard, further dampening the effect.
These new rules stifled bat companies for a short time before they found a new way to increase the distance balls are hit.
They began tampering with the shaft of the bat. Similar to the most modern and technologically advanced golf clubs, new composite bats are made in two pieces with the shaft able to bend or flex. This change generates a whipping effect that increases bat speed.
“When the first two-piece bat came out,” McCleerey recalled, “I remember seeing a 90-pound little girl hit the ball over the fence. The game hasn’t been the same since. It’s exploded.”
Tuesday, four different New Palestine Dragons cracked home runs against Indianapolis Cathedral. Head coach Ed Marcum said he does not remember that happening since 2010.
Stewart said results like these come as no surprise. The Cougars coach said he used to have one or sometimes two girls on his team who were capable of hitting the ball out of the park on occasion.
“Now, one through nine can hit them,” he said. “The days of 1-0, 2-1 ballgames are long over. Much of that has to do with improvement of athletes, better training, but also a lot of it has to do with these bats.”
Stewart said when he arrived at Greenfield-Central 12 years ago, there had only been one Cougar in the history of the field to have deposited a ball over the fence.
“One,” he said. “Now we hit 18, 19, 20 a year. It’s crazy how much has changed.”
Buy or beware?
McCleerey stands next to the bat rack in his store. He unshelves two high school softball bats.
In his right hand, he holds an Easton aluminum basic fastpitch model. Pricetag: $40.
In his left hand, he holds a DeMarini CF8. Pricetag: $349.95
“These,” McCleerey said, holding up the aluminum bat, “aren’t even on the same planet with these.”
If a girl wants to succeed in the increasingly competitive softball world, McCleerey said, her parents either need to buy in or get out.
“I discussed this with my dad (former McCleerey’s owner Mac McCleerey) about 10 or 12 years ago, and I said, ‘You know what’s sad? You can be the best player ever, and if you don’t have one of these, and everybody else does, you’re not even going to stay on the team.”
It’s not that cut and dry, area coaches said.
“I’d rather have a kid with a $500 swing than a $500 bat,” said New Palestine baseball coach Shawn Lyons.
Stewart echoed the sentiment.
“We always joke with the girls, ‘You have a $600 bat (but) a three-buck swing,’” he said.
The thing is, Lyons, Stewart and other area coaches know they do not live in a world where they do not have to make that choice.
They can tell by taking a quick look at the bats lined up in their dugouts: Most of their players wield upper-echelon bats.
Hancock County’s leading hitter (.541 batting average, 14 extra-base hits), New Palestine dynamo Keegan Watson, swings a 2015 DeMarini Voodoo Overlord FT, a $300 bat.
Eastern Hancock slugger Peyton West, a .489 hitter with seven doubles, prefers her 2015 Louisville Slugger LXT ($299.99) but also has a DeMarini CF7 Insane ($249.99) in her bag.
Greenfield-Central’s Morganne Denny, one of the biggest power hitters in the area (five home runs and a .483 average) wields a pair of 2015 Louisville Slugger Xenos ($299.99) and uses a past-its-prime DeMarini CF5 in practice.
These players aren’t the exception. They are the norm.
“Most of the girls probably have a couple,” Stewart said.
In Part II on Friday: At what cost safety?