Branford’s Anthony Gentile has two sons playing Little League this spring. He’s one of the lucky ones when it comes to the experience of buying bats for his sons, Alex, 12, and Bennett, 10.
Gentile shopped around, compared prices and found a coveted DeMarini CF5 for Bennett. Alex is comfortable with the same bat he swung a year ago, an Easton Rampage.
“Alex is a casual player and the Rampage is a very good bat,” Gentile said. “Bennett is into baseball a little bit more, and we knew that was the bat he wanted. If your kid is really into the sport, then you try to support him, and if you can afford it, buy him a better bat.”
But for many others, purchasing a bat for a Little Leaguer is slightly less agonizing than taking him or her to the dentist for a root canal. And maybe just as expensive.
“It’s a racket,” Gentile said. “The bat companies want you to buy these costly bats, but how long are your kids really going to use it? Then, during the season, someone comes along with another bat that they like and want. That’s when you have to say no.”
With the Little League season around the corner, there are some basic things to consider before buying a brand new bat.
Parents should first be aware of their respective league’s regulations. Little League baseball bats are bigger and better than ever. Some of them are also banned (almost all composite-barreled).
The vernacular has changed. It’s no longer just about length and weight, wood or aluminum. The words now are “drop” weight, composite-barreled, alloy, hybrid, graphite and titanium. There’s also Bat Performance Factor (BPF), Accelerated Break-In (ABI), and Ball Exit Speed Ratio (BESR).
When buying a bat, remember that Little League bats must be 32 inches or less and have barrels no more than 2¼ inches in diameter. The bat type will be either wood, aluminum, or alloy and will cost anywhere from $40 to $250. It pays to shop around and have your future slugger try out the various models. There are also numerous websites, like justbats.com, where you can find some good bats at decent prices, as well as the most expensive and best bats on the market.
Invariably, a player’s size in relation to the size of his bat will determine his success at the plate.
“The name of the game is bat speed,” said Mark Stevens, the owner of the Strike Zone baseball training facilities in North Branford and Wolcott. “If you’re using a bat that is too big for you, it’s going to take you out of proper mechanics, which is possibly going to lead to some balance issues and your bat speed is going to be affected by that. So you have to use a bat that you can comfortably swing and have bat control over, as well as maintain proper mechanics out of the swing. The bigger the bat, the farther the ball is going to go, but you still have to maintain high bat speed. Bat speed is power.”
Generating bat speed is the reason youth bats have much larger weight drop ratios than middle school and high school regulation bats. For example, a Little League bat that is 32 inches long and weighs 21 ounces has a “minus 11” drop. Most high school bats have a “minus 3” drop. Ted Williams, by the way, swung a bat that was 35 inches long and weighed 33 ounces.
Bigger and stronger youth players prefer composite, aluminum or alloy bats that are 31-32 inches long and weigh anywhere from 20-22 ounces. Smaller players should be swinging bats that range from 27-30 inches and 17-19 ounces.
Youth wood bats are less expensive and typically heavier (drop 5s and 6s) than aluminums. Non-wood bats used in youth divisions must be printed with a BPF rating of 1.15 or less, although it is rare to see a Little League player step to the plate with a wood bat.
Economics aside, Stevens, a hitting guru who has coached at the high school, AAU and collegiate level, including Division I Fordham, would prefer to see everybody using wood bats.
“The game was invented and has been played with a wood bat from Day 1 and is still at the highest level,” Stevens said. “The wood bat is going to give you instant feedback on whether you’re staying through the ball or just something simple like ‘contact point.’ You’re going to get a truer feedback from a wood hit. Also when you mishit the ball you’re going to get feedback. The bat is going to break. A lot of times, kids that are constantly using metal bats never really develop because of that false security that they are getting. You’re not getting a true feel with that metal bat.”
The lighter weight of the aluminum, composite and alloy bats also increases the “sweet spot” — that hitting zone on the barrel when the ball meets metal.
“The composite bats are nuts,” said Gentile, who coaches in Branford’s Majors division. “Balls are flying off these bats.”
Combine that with the equipment manufacturer’s improving technology and you can see why some safety issues have arisen. Indeed, you’re likely to see more and more youth pitchers wearing masks this spring.
“You get kids that are really bigger and stronger for their age, to me, it’s dangerous for them to be swinging a metal bat,” Stevens said. “Again, it gets back to bat speed. His bat speed is obviously a lot greater, the ball is going to come off his bat quicker and the reaction time with the pitcher and even with the infielders on that small diamond, it could be dangerous.”
On Sept. 1, 2010, Little League International placed a moratorium on composite bats for all of its divisions: Juniors, Seniors and Big League. Little League officials found that, based on scientific research, “composite-barreled bats may exceed the performance standard that is printed on the bats, after the bats had been broken in.”
The moratorium on composite-barrel bats still exists, but here’s the rub. You can still use some composite bats in Little League. Bats like the Combat B4, DeMarini CF5, Easton Omen, Eastern Stealth and the Louisville Slugger TPX — some of the best and most expensive (between $100-$250) bats found on a Little League diamond — met the BPF and ABI standards and received a waiver. A full list of these bats can be found at littleleague.org/learn/equipment/licensedcompositebats.htm.
In the end, getting the right bat for the right price is an individual choice.
“Confidence is obviously one of the main ingredients at any level, in particular with younger players,” Stevens said. “A lot more of your success is going to be determined by your mental approach and your confidence level. And I’m sure a lot of that has to do with… are they comfortable with the bat that they’re trying to hit with?”