It is an iconic movie scene for any sports fan. The star of The Natural, Roy Hobbs, steps to the plate wielding his famous bat “Wonderboy” that he’s used since high school. Hobbs hits a long foul ball. As he jogs back to the plate, he notices “Wonderboy” has split in two. Hobbs hesitates, stunned.
Think it’s a bit overdramatized? It’s not.
Any baseball player will tell you their most cherished piece of equipment is their glove, but bats are a close second. Just ask USC junior first baseman Ricky Oropesa. As Oropesa tells it, he can “pick up a bat and just know.”
But as of March 8, Oropesa, who is sixth on USC’s all-time home run list with 38 long balls and was named a 2011 preseason first-team All-American, was hitting just .250. He had yet to hit a home run, had recorded five RBIs and had struck out nine times.
Oropesa is not one to make excuses, but he had one.
He didn’t have his bat. Or, more specifically, he wasn’t allowed to use it.
At all levels of amateur baseball, players use metal bats, which are considered safer and more durable than wood because they do not break and splinter.
From a hitting perspective, metal is considered superior because the bat actually compresses on impact, causing the ball to “shoot” off much faster than it does off wood. Additionally, metal bats are not subject to the variations of natural wood, where certain parts of the bat simply hit the ball harder than others, giving a larger “sweet spot” that extends across most of the barrel.
When metal bats were first introduced to college baseball in 1974, batting averages jumped eight points. After 11 years, averages were up 40 points.
To combat rising batting averages and home run tallies, the NCAA has twice limited the length-to-weight ratio of a bat. In 1986, it was minus-5, then in 1997 was reduced to minus-3, meaning a bat could not be more than three inches longer than its weight in ounces.
Each time, stats quickly decreased, only to climb back to previous levels. Pitchers also became increasingly endangered by the speed at which balls were hit back at them, often in excess of 100 miles per hour.
In 2008, the NCAA announced it was revolutionizing the way it regulated bats by limiting the amount of power using the Ball-Bat Coefficient of Restitution, which measures rebound-ratio of a ball bouncing off the bat.
“The new BBCOR formula provides a better measure of the bat’s performance and therefore allows the rules committee and bat testing laboratories to better predict field performance based on lab tests,” the NCAA said in a statement. “The goal is that non-wood bats that meet this new standard will perform similarly to wood bats.”
The NCAA set the limit for the BBCOR at 0.50, which is roughly the same as the best wooden bats. Almost none of the metal bats used at the time matched the limitation, and certainly none used at the collegiate level. As a result, bat companies had to go through a lengthy certification process that cost upward of $10,000. Most college players use a 33-inch, 30-ounce bat, although some prefer bats an inch and an ounce shorter or longer.
But Ricky Oropesa’s bat of choice is 35 inches long and weighs 32 ounces, and as the only player who uses that size, it is rare a bat company would choose to certify a 35-inch bat.
Oropesa, as a result, was forced to start the season using a 34-inch, 31-ounce bat. That difference might not sound like much, but for a player like Oropesa it was significant.
“It was like I had a twig in my hand,” Oropesa said of the smaller bat. “I was so uncomfortable, so unconfident at the plate.”
After countless calls from the USC coaching staff, Nike did certify a 35-inch, 32-ounce bat. Oropesa got his new bat March 10, and the difference was clear.
Oropesa has hit .426 since, raising his average to a team-leading .364. His slugging percentage has risen from .386 to .582 and his on-base percentage from .313 to 426. He has added 22 RBIs and has hit five home runs in 16 games.
But that still doesn’t mean Oropesa is happy with the new BBCOR bats.
“Honestly I’d rather hit with wood,” the slugger said. “They perform the same and I just like them better.”
Though the new metal bats still have more “pop” than wood, the sweet spot has been reduced to that of a wood bat, forcing hitters to “square it up” and hit the ball with the sweet spot.
“It’s still metal,” said USC interim coach Frank Cruz. “So it still hits harder than wood. It’s just harder to do than it was before.”