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A Possible Solution to the Aluminum v. Composite Bat Controversy in College Baseball

As you may recall, FisheriesDawg called our attention to the fact that the Athens Banner-Herald’s John Kaltefleiter publicly questioned whether the Diamond Dogs were disadvantaged by having to use Nike bats in the College World Series. Evidently, Gordon Beckham shared Kaltefleiter’s concerns.

Because of the importance of the topic, I examined the issue and asked Kettering University physics professor Daniel A. Russell about the subject. Dr. Russell obligingly provided a detailed response, which appeared here at Dawg Sports in two parts.

Brandon, the proprietor of the SB Nation South Carolina Gamecock weblog Garnet and Black Attack (who posts under the screen name "cocknfire," or "C&F" for short), was skeptical. After reading the first half of the interview, he opined:

Fresno outscored Georgia 31-18, including a 19-10 slugfest. So the difference in bats would have to be considerable enough to allow for a 13-run difference overall and a nine-run difference in a single game for the complaints to be valid. Not saying it's impossible, just that the burden of proof needs to be very high.

Upon reading the second half of the interview, Brandon concluded that the burden had not been carried:

C&F admits he is hardly unbiased on this matter, but the evidence from Russell's e-mail isn't enough to convince C&F that the bats made the difference. That is not to say that the Mayor doesn't lay out a plausible scenario where superior bats could have accounted for the win; he does that quite well. But even Dr. Russell seems unwilling to go so far as to say that composite bats are, in fact, superior to aluminium ones.

That, for C&F, is a key part of the case that has to be proven before he will say that the bats, and not the players swinging them, lost the College World Series.

These are reasonable objections, although it is important to be clear what arguments are, and are not, being made. Kaltefleiter conceded from the outset that it was "crystal clear" that "Fresno State was the better team for the final two games against Georgia and deserved the championship."

Dr. Russell concurred, noting: "I would have to see some pretty serious statistics of team performance for the entire season and through the playoffs before I would be willing to believe that the bats they used are the sole reason why the Bulldogs lost the championship game." I reiterated that same sentiment, observing that it "is important to remember; Fresno State won the College World Series finals because the West Coast Bulldogs were the better team over the final two games, period."

No one is asserting, therefore, that Georgia lost for any reason other than the fact that Fresno State played better baseball in two of the three games of the College World Series finals. Brandon is right that the case to the contrary has not been made.

C&F’s characterization of those finals, however, is an unfair one. It is as inconsequential that "Fresno outscored Georgia 31-18" as it is that Al Gore received more popular votes in 2000, for the nationwide popular vote is not how we elect our presidents and aggregate runs scored in a series do not decide baseball championships. (If they did, the Atlanta Braves, who scored more total runs over the course of a six-game World Series, would have beaten the New York Yankees in 1996.)

The West Coast Bulldogs won the series, two games to one. The Red and Black won the first game. F.S.U. won the second game, which was as much of a rout as it appeared to be. The third game, however, was a close contest decided (literally) by inches.

Although the final score of the final game was 6-1, Fresno State had only a narrow 8-6 advantage in hits. Fresno State took a 2-0 lead in the top of the second stanza when a hard-hit ball off of Steve Susdorf’s bat glanced off of Rich Poythress’s glove and Steve Detwiler hit a home run that cleared the wall by such a small margin that Georgia fans initially celebrated what appeared to be an out. (Even Fresno State’s official postgame report acknowledged that the ball "barely cleared the right-field fence, just getting over the glove of Matt Olson.")

In the bottom of that selfsame frame, Ryan Peisel came up to the plate with two men out and the bases loaded, sending a long ball into center field that did not carry quite far enough to be a grand slam and providing the evening’s first exhibition of the Diamond Dogs’ "warning track power."

Had Detwiler’s bat sent the ball an incrementally shorter distance and Peisel’s bat sent the ball only marginally farther, the score after two innings would have been 4-0 in favor of Georgia rather than 2-0 in favor of Fresno State. For Georgia, those two swings of the bat could have been the difference between a 6-1 setback and a 5-4 victory. It isn’t much of a stretch to ask whether the scant differences in distances in those two instances of putting the ball into play were affected just a little---just enough---by the quality of the bats being used. (As for the "operator error" issue, Peisel hit .341 over the course of the 2008 campaign. We shall address Detwiler forthwith.)

That, though, is conjecture on my part, however probable. Here, then, are the data that we know for certain:

  • Georgia uses Nike bats. Fresno State uses Easton bats.

  • As reported by Kaltefleiter, Easton introduced its new composite bats to the market in early April.

  • Also in early April, it came to be believed in Bulldog Nation that the Nike bats used by the Diamond Dogs were inferior. Similar complaints about the shoe company’s bats had been heard from the Kansas State faithful when, after the hiring of Bob Huggins in 2006, K.S.U. signed an all-sports contract with Nike similar to Georgia’s.

  • Fresno State went 15-13 between February 22 and March 30. Fresno State went 32-18 between April 1 and June 25. After dropping the first game of a May 17 double-header with Sacramento State, F.S.U. lost just four times in the Golden State Bulldogs’ last 20 outings during a hot streak that began roughly six weeks after Easton’s new composite bats were introduced.

  • After Easton’s composite bats were introduced, a Georgia squad that posted the best conference record in school history went 5-9-1 against teams using Easton bats.

  • Steve Detwiler, a No. 8 hitter with a .256 average playing with a severely injured thumb in Omaha, hit three home runs in the College World Series, became just the fourth player to hit two home runs in a C.W.S. championship game, and went eight for 13 with nine R.B.I. in the three games of the finals.

  • Dr. Russell reported to Dawg Sports that, "[a]s composite bats age, their performance improves. This is especially true in slow-pitch softball, to the extent that the batted-ball speed for a slow-pitch softball bat might increase by 3-5 mph from brand new condition to after 500 hits have been put on it. A 5-mph increase in speed as the ball leaves the bat could make the difference between warning track and over the fence."

A slight increase in batted-ball speed, of the sort that might be expected from a composite bat after extended use but not from an aluminum bat after extended use, could make the difference between reaching the warning track and going over the fence.

In the second inning of the last game of the College World Series finals, Steve Detwiler, armed with an Easton bat, put a ball (barely) over the fence for a two-run home run, while Ryan Peisel, armed with an arguably inferior Nike model, sent a ball to the warning track, producing the third out rather than a grand slam.

Has it been proven that the bats made the difference in the decisive third game of the College World Series? Absolutely not. Is it the least bit unreasonable to raise the question? Not hardly. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to find it a mite curious that a middling team using bats which get better over time just happened to go on a late-season hot streak.

Over the course of the entire campaign, Georgia was a markedly better baseball team than Fresno State and Ryan Peisel was a markedly better hitter than Steve Detwiler; something caused the last three games of the season to differ so dramatically from the season as a whole, and, while that something might not have been sinister---hot streaks admittedly happen, for legitimate reasons or for no discernible reasons at all---there is some evidence that differences in equipment quality existed. Asserting assumptions as accomplished facts is ill-advised, but asking whether those possible differences had an impact in a close contest is entirely valid.

Where, then, does that leave us? Well, not to go all Billy Martin on you or anything, but what about deanpat92’s suggestion?

Dr. Russell observes that "it is entirely possible that composite baseball bats may actually be performing better than aluminum in recent college games because these composite bats may be broken in to the point that they perform better than they were originally designed to," so why not pull, say, five bats out of both teams’ racks before the start of the College World Series finals and test them to make sure they still comply?

If they no longer comply, get Easton or Nike to send over a brand-new batch of unused bats that pass the test. If they still comply, well, then Fresno State doesn’t have to put up with guys like me raisin’ questions like these. It’s a win-win situation, which would allow both sets of Bulldogs to know that the winners won, and the losers lost, a fair fight on a level playing field.

That might be---that probably is---what happened in actuality, but both teams deserve to know for certain . . . as, for the matter of that, do C&F and I, and all other fans of college baseball, as well. N.C.A.A. testing of a random handful of both teams’ bats (by firing a baseball from a cannon towards a resting bat gripped in a pivot that may rotate after contact) just prior to the start of the College World Series finals would satisfy the burden of proof and answer all of these questions. We can know for certain; why shouldn’t we?

Go ‘Dawgs!