Safety first: Youth bat regulation offers protection on baseball field
Being a pitcher is inherently dangerous, but USA Baseball hopes to lessen the risk in youth baseball with its standardization of baseball bats.
Starting in 2019, 9U-12U are required to use a bat with a 2 1/4 inch barrel or 2 5/8 inch barrel with a USA Baseball stamp, while 13U and 14U Teener leagues will use bats with a 2 5/8 inch barrel with a USA Baseball stamp. Sixteen-and-under, junior Legion and Legion will use a bat with a Bat-Ball Coefficient of Restitution (BBCOR) certified stamp.
Even with a grace period in 2018, it's a quick, big change in youth baseball, one that didn't see a progressive evolution like in higher levels.
"They got rid of two-piece bats and composite bats, with the old style," Mitchell Post 18 Legion baseball coach Luke Norden said. "I'm surprised they didn't have a progression like that with the youth bats, too. Instead, they just decided bam we're going to make a change."
Even without the progressive change, Norden thinks the standardization of bats is a little overdue.
"When you have kids, especially the youth stuff, throwing from that short of a distance, the most important thing is safety," Norden said. "At that level, when you have kids that are a lot bigger than other kids out on the mound, that's the most important thing."
Safety goes hand-in-hand with the switch. Making the bats more wood-like results in a smaller sweet spot, meaning less hard-hit balls. The change also lowers the ball's exit velocity off the bat, giving fielders, specifically pitchers, more time to react.
"(The bats aren't) as lively, so depending on the maturity level of the player, they're able to handle the situation on the field," Danny Frisby-Griffin, South Dakota VFW Baseball Chairman, said.
Batters might experience a transition period at the plate, such as when BBCOR bats were introduced in higher levels. But that shouldn't last long.
"It'll take some getting used to, swinging one certain bat, because you grab another model or another brand, and they're all balanced totally different," Norden said. "And that's just like wooden bats. Just getting used to the balance of the bat was a huge deal when we first started with the BBCOR."
Once kids get used to the difference, the bigger barrel could lead to more contact and fewer strikeouts.
Norden and Griffin believe it will help kids' overall development since skill will be pushed to the forefront. It takes equipment out of the equation and gives kids a more uniform progression through levels.
"Hopefully it creates a situation where kids growing up are getting used to (how a) wood bat feels," Griffin said. "As they mature and their skills develop, they're able to handle the livelier bat, so it gives them a progressive building block approach to the game of baseball."
With some kids swinging a "hot bat," as Norden likes to say, it's evident why there is a push to make the youth game safer.
"We were trying to align ourselves up with the USA bat standards so it didn't matter if you were playing little league or VFW baseball, everything was standardized across the state," Griffin said. "It gives us a year grace period for families because we didn't want it to be really costly."
However, Griffin doesn't believe the new bats will cost more than current bats. Also, with the announced change coming in late-2017, he hopes it gives parents enough time to make the switch by the 2019 season.
VFW's goal of safety and development goes beyond bats, though. Last year, VFW gave Selby, Webster and Dell Rapids a total of $2,500 to help make new batting cages and improve safety.
"What they sent to us was: tell us what your need is. Tell us how you're participating with the VFW local post, or if you don't have one. What your goal is to achieve with youth baseball," Griffin said.
The game might not be changing, but how it's being played and the safety measures taken are.
"We want kids to play," Griffin said. "We want them to play in a safe and respectful environment, and that's really our goal."