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By Tom Miller, Published May 27 2009

Offense slumping with wood bats

Grand Forks, N.D. - In 2007, North Dakota became the only state to exclusively use wood bats in all of its high school baseball games. It became a national story as baseball officials from all over the country who were mulling similar switches wanted to see the impact such a change would make.

The three-year agreement to use wood bats runs out this spring, and North Dakota coaches will have to decide whether to continue with wood or switch back to metal.

Coaches at the East Region baseball tournament at Kraft Field this weekend seemed to believe the wood bats were here to stay.

“I like (the change to wood bats) so much better,” Devils Lake coach Jason Wandler said. “It has given pitchers more of an advantage, but I think hitters are starting to grow and learn what they have to do.”

Fargo Shanley coach Joel Swanson compiled statistics from Class A schools from 2004 to 2007 to gauge the effects of the change.

His findings include: Batting averages dipped from .301 between 2004 and 2006 to .272 in 2007. Runs per game also slipped from 6.3 per game to 4.6.

“Quality hitters are still going to hit quality balls,” Swanson said. “I think it has been a great change, and I don’t think we’ll ever go back to metal.”

Wood bat proponents say this reduction in offense is a small price to pay for the safety of the players.

Red River coach Mark Varriano said he can see both sides of the wood and metal debate.

“If you’re a purist of the game, it’s great,” Varriano said. “I think you can make a strong case (for wood and metal bats) either way.

“Wood bats make kids become better hitters. However, it also means kids aren’t going to get as many at bats. And there are lots of kids that just aren’t strong enough to really use wood bats.

“But it is what it is. It’s not a bad thing.”

Swanson also gathered statistics that show financial benefits from wood bats. Aluminum bats can cost as high as $400 each, while wood bats generally cost less than $100. Swanson reported that metal bat budgets from 2004 to 2006 averaged $1,793. With wood bats in 2007, the average bat budget was $1,120.

Fielding and pitching statistics were also affected. Fielding percentage, for example, increased from .907 to .935.

Pitchers were also found to be throwing less. In 2007, pitchers threw 13.39 fewer pitches per game than in 2004-06. Another interesting comparison is with strikeouts, which went unchanged from 4.82 between 2004-06 to 4.82 in 2007.

“Pitchers are able to hit both edges of the plate without kids hitting bleeders,” Wandler said. “Balls off batters’ fists aren’t going to the outfield anymore.”

There are still lingering concerns among wood bat opponents, including the adjustment from high school to American Legion baseball in the summer, where teams still use metal bats.

Other metal bat supporters worry about players struggling to adapt to college baseball, especially defensively as reaction time is smaller with metal bats.

However, wood bat proponents believe colleges get to see the high school player for their true ability.

“I really enjoy wood bats,” South coach Donn Bryant said. “It makes a pure game. You don’t see any 5-foot-7, 125-pound kids hitting home runs.

“And I think college recruiters like it. Now they know who can truly hit.”

The Grand Forks Herald and The Forum are both owned by Forum Communications Co.