Thursday, November 19, 2009

'Dores to test their mettle with wooden bats

By Ryan Schulz - Metal or wood? For many college baseball fans, the question alone strikes a nerve that could lead to hours of debate. The argument for or against the type of bat used in college baseball has raged on for years and will likely continue to for the foreseeable future.

During the regular season, college players use metal bats, but come the summer months, the sound that fills the stadiums in summer leagues across the country is the crack of a wooden bat, not the ping of a metal one.

Next week, Vanderbilt’s baseball team will make the transition to wooden bats when the squad travels to the Far East to play four games against Japanese universities.

Just as Vanderbilt’s basketball team was granted before it traveled to Australia in August, the baseball team was also given 10 additional days of practice by the NCAA to prepare for the trip. During those 10 practices, the team has used wood bats to prepare for what they will face in Japan.

“It is just a different feeling (using a wooden bat),” said sophomore Aaron Westlake, who led the SEC in hitting last season. “The main thing is getting confidence with it. Once you feel confident, you are not worried about breaking a bat or stuff like that.”

Most of Vanderbilt’s players spent their summer using wooden bats and then made the switch back to using metal bats once fall practice began. One of the hardest adjustments the players have had to make during the 10 days of practice is transitioning back to wooden bats after using metal earlier in the fall.

“The biggest thing so far this fall against our pitchers is getting our timing back,” junior Curt Casali said. “The (wooden) bat doesn’t go through the zone as quickly as a metal bat, so that’s probably the biggest thing. Keeping the bat through the zone as long as possible is another tough adjustment that a lot of us with shorter swings have a little bit of a problem with.”

Because the weight distribution in wooden bats differs slightly from metal, players also have a tendency to get under pitches and pop the ball up more often.

“The thing you will see most is the barrel dropping,” Westlake said. “It is a different weight compared to a metal bat. You will see a lot of fly balls or swings and misses under it just because the barrel is dropping.”

Swinging a wooden bat will also bring out weaknesses in a hitter that can otherwise be masked by a metal bat.

“Good wood bat hitters can hit an inside pitch or an outside pitch,” Casali said. “You can definitely exploit a bad wood bat hitter if you throw them an outside pitch and they break the bat. Wood bats definitely bring out the better hitters.”

The team’s Vanderbilt will face in Japan don’t have to make the same transition from metal to wood or vice versa during the year. Instead, the teams are accustomed to wooden bats because they play with them year round.

Vanderbilt’s players have different degrees of experience handling the lumber. Players such as Casali have played with wooden bats every summer for the past five or six years, while some of the younger players have only used wooden bats a handful of times. No matter where they are in experience, Westlake believes the team will be prepared for whatever the challenge ahead.

“It just takes time and experience with (a wooden bat),” Westlake said. “I think over the past couple of weeks we’ve gotten that, so I think we should be ready for Japan.”

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