BY ZACH HELFAND
Daily Sports Writer
Published February 21, 2011
They say chicks dig the long ball.
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The chicks, then, must have loved when former Wolverine first baseman Mike Dufek hit a walk-off solo home run last year against Northwestern to complete one of the most improbable comebacks in Michigan baseball history. Down 14 runs after three innings, Michigan rode four home runs to a 15-14 victory. The comeback was shocking, to say the least.
What’s equally as shocking is that had the game been played a year later, Dufek’s blast might never have left the park.
Effective this season, the NCAA has imposed strict new standards for the metal bats used in collegiate play. According to sophomore centerfielder Patrick Biondi, Michigan coach Rich Maloney told the team that the NCAA expects home run totals to be cut in half.
The standards, announced in 2008, are partially in response to an increase in offensive numbers in the past five years. The NCAA cited a 41-percent increase in home runs per game from 2006 to 2009 as evidence that bat technology has been improving too rapidly.
According to a news release on the NCAA’s website, “The goal is for non-wood bats that meet this new standard to perform similarly to wood bats.”
The main issue the NCAA’s Batted Ball Coefficient of Restitution certification addresses is the trampoline-like effect of modern metal bats by measuring and limiting a bat's “bounciness.” Normally, when a baseball meets a bat, the ball compresses and in the process loses some energy. But newer composite bats only have a thin outer layer of metal that compresses instead, springing the ball forward like a trampoline.
Michigan is a team with little power to begin with. Aside from junior designated hitter Coley Crank, who had 14 home runs last year, the rest of the team’s returning players totaled just 13 home runs all last season. The Wolverines don’t have much power to lose.
But their lack of dependence on home runs can actually be an advantage. Unlike teams who rely heavily on the long ball, Michigan does not stand to lose much offensive production from the new bats.
“These bat standards couldn’t have come at a better time,” senior second baseman Anthony Toth said. “We are a small-ball team. Coach has always preached that. It really plays into our hands really well. We have a lot of speed, we have good defense, we’re going to have solid pitching, and the bats are going to play into our favor.”
Even for a small-ball team, the new bats require an even more intense focus on fundamentals. Maloney said the team has put in extra work this offseason on things like bunts, steals and hit-and-runs.
With more emphasis on fundamentals, the Wolverines will have to clean up their play in the field. While normally solid defensively, Michigan committed six costly errors in three games during the Big Ten/Big East Challenge last weekend. The average of two errors per game almost doubles the Wolverines' average from last season. But the team can look to improve as they get more game experience outdoors.
Of course, the overall formula for success in baseball remains unchanged: timely hitting, defense and, most importantly, pitching. Redshirt sophomore pitcher Bobby Brosnahan said he doesn’t plan on changing the way he attacks hitters.
“You’ve been doing it your whole life, you pitch the same way,” Brosnahan said. “But I think pitchers are going to be able to get away with more. Hanging curveballs aren’t going to be hit 500 feet. It’s still going to get out of the yard, but I don’t think you’re going to see as many balls fly out of the yard if they don’t really square it up.”
The chicks may not dig that, but the pitchers certainly will.