Great Articale By: By JR Parachini
Amazingly, more home runs were hit in the Union County Tournament semifinals and the Group 4 state championship game last year than the amount of snow we had this winter.
Ironically, the only real snowstorm we had didn’t take place in the winter, but in the fall and on Mischief Day eve of all afternoons.
After brutal winters in 2010 and 2011 that included record amounts of snowfall, we got a break with a mild winter this year.
The beginning of spring so far has also been quite pleasant, with record warm temperatures and hardly any rain.
When the regular season begins a day earlier this year on Saturday – March 31 to be exact – we shall now see if the baseball will travel off the bat as far as it did in the past.
A total of 10 home runs were hit out of Elizabeth’s Williams Field – five in each game – in last year’s UCT semifinals. Seven more were crushed over the fences at Ken Frank Field when Manalapan defeated Westfield in last year’s Group 4 final at Toms River South.
In the UCT semifinals, Governor Livingston – on a three-run homer by senior Mike Cranston with two outs in the bottom of the seventh – outlasted Westfield 17-14, denying the Blue Devils an opportunity to reach a fourth straight final. In the game before, eventual repeat champion Cranford knocked out Scotch Plains 15-5 in a battle of the previous two UCT champs.
Then on the first Saturday in June, Manalapan downed Westfield 29-14 in the Group 4 final.
Whatever happened to the 3-2 or 2-1 games? They still existed last year, but were – perhaps – the exception rather than the norm.
Enter these new BBCOR bats that are being used by programs all over the Garden State.
HOW MUCH OF AN IMPACT WILL THE NEW BBCOR BATS
HAVE ON THE UPCOMING SEASON?
A popular baseball cliché is that a double play is a pitcher’s best friend.
This year in New Jersey, pitchers may also come to welcome the new BBCOR bats that are in fold.
BBCOR stands for Batted Ball Coefficient Restitution.
BBCOR Certified Adult Baseball Bats were required in collegiate baseball for 2011 and in high school baseball for 2012. These bats have a 2 5/8” barrel, a (-3) length to weight swing ratio and are stamped BBCOR Certified.
BBCOR-certified bats are still aluminum, but designed to perform much more like wood.
As a result, fans may see far less home runs and the average score of games may be closer to 5-4 than 15-11.
“You hear stories about the University of Texas where in the last year with the other bats they hit 83 home runs and last year with the new bats they only hit 13,” Governor Livingston ninth-year head coach Chris Roof – the 2011 Star-Ledger state Coach of the Year – said. “The ball goes 25 feet less. I think these bats are actually better than the ones used last year at the college level.”
Roof’s Highlanders, who last year set the program record for wins in a season after finishing 26-6 including a season-ending nine-game winning streak, will open at home Saturday at 11 a.m. vs. Roselle Catholic.
“It will be interesting to see what happens,” Roof said. “The game is not going to be the same.
“Players will have to be able to handle the bat better and learn how to bunt and move runners over. Manufacturing runs will be even more important.”
Legion baseball went to wood bats – for the regular season – several years ago. There was an immediate effect where fewer baseballs were leaving the park.
“The ball does not jump off the bat at the same rate or speed as it used to,” Roof said. “There’s no trampoline effect.
“The diameter of the barrel is smaller and thinner than the other bats. If you want to hit the ball good, on the sweet spot, it will go.
“However, if you hit the ball below the sweet spot, those balls that would bloop in for hits with the other bats, won’t with these.”
The BBCOR bats still have the appearance of aluminum bats.
“They’re a little bit of a step above wood bats,” Roof said.
Scott Illiano guided West Essex to its first state championship two years ago when the Knights captured Group 2 honors. West Essex repeated as North 2, Group 2 champions last year and made it all the way back to the Group 2 final where the Knights fell to second-time champion GL.
“I think there’s obviously a difference in the bats,” Illiano said during his first scrimmage at GL. “However, with our program we always make our preparation relative to facing a scholarship pitcher.
“What I mean by that is on the days that you maybe can expect to get double-digit hits, our style isn’t going to change with the new bats. For us it’s going to be a lot more about the Jimmies and the Joes than it would the Xs and the Os in terms of our strategy and our approach.”
West Essex will wrap its scrimmage schedule at Kearny at 11 a.m. Saturday and then open the season with a big home game against Montclair Monday at 4 p.m. in North Caldwell.
“I do think that the game will be played a little bit differently,” Illiano said. “I think that, all around, you will see some more small ball and I think you’re going to see more balls stay in the park.”
In addition, nobody wants to see the pitcher’s head taken off with a shot back to the box. There may be less of a chance of that happening with these new BBCOR bats.
“It has to do with the basic speeds and the reaction time of the pitcher who is 60 feet and six inches away,” Illiano said.
“The majority of changes will center around safety and for good reason,” said second-year Millburn head coach Brian Chapman, who in his debut season last year guided the Millers to a 24-7 record that included the GNT final and the North 2, Group 3 title.
“So far I haven’t noticed a huge difference from a hitting standpoint,” Chapman said. “Good hitters will hit with authority, with the ball carrying similar to that of the old bats.
“The biggest change I’ve seen so far is coaches taking a different approach in the pre-season. Almost universally teams are more apt to bunt, run and play small ball.
“However, no team I’ve ever been a part of as a coach was so good offensively that it didn’t practice manufacturing runs.”
In Chapman’s 12 th and final season as an assistant coach on Dennis McCaffery’s staff at Cranford in 2010, he, McCaffery and assistant coach Kevin Feeley enjoyed their first state championship together when the Cougars captured Group 3. Chapman’s first team at Millburn last year was one win shy of getting back to Toms River for the Group 3 final.
“I haven’t approached the game any differently this year with the new bats,” Chapman said. “Last year we bunted a ton and had a crazy number of stolen bases.”
Millburn stole 126 bases in 145 attempts last year, for an average of four a game.
“For us we always emphasize defense,” Chapman said. “Offensively, we’re taking the same approach.”
McCaffery, who runs one of the top programs in all of New Jersey, enters his 14 th season as the head coach at Cranford with a sterling record of 273-85 (.763) – an even average of 21 wins per season. He is 30-12 (.714) in state tournament games and 38-6 (.864) in UCT contests, including all seven county championships the program has won.
McCaffery, a 1987 Roselle Park graduate, has guided the Cougars to a perfect 7-0 record in UCT finals and has also led Cranford to four state championship games, winning Group 3 in 2010. His record in sectional finals is 6-2, in group semifinals 4-2 and in group finals 1-3.
“There’s definitely a difference and I think it’s going to go back to the kind of old school baseball, so it’s definitely going to change a lot of people’s philosophies as far as what they’re going to be able to do,” said McCaffery, whose first scrimmage was at his alma mater, Roselle Park. “I don’t think you’ll see as many high-scoring games as we’ve had in the past.
“You just look at college hitters and look at their stats. Last year the Division 1 teams that went to these bats, the home runs were down and runs scored per game were down, so I think it’s going to play a huge impact on the games.”
Cranford, coming off a 20-5 campaign that saw it go 3-0 against Group 2 state champion GL including a decisive win in last year’s UCT final, is scheduled to open Tuesday at home at 4 p.m. against Union County Conference-Watchung Division rival Union. Of Cranford’s 10 combined losses the last two seasons, two were at Union, one in 2010 and one in 2011.
“We’ll figure it out as it comes,” McCaffery said. “Looking at the bats and watching the balls off the bats and seeing some other teams scrimmage I think it’s the closest thing we’ve seen to wooden bats.”
How about the pitchers? McCaffery, for the third straight year, has top-notch hurlers on his staff in senior right hander Kurt Rutmayer and junior lefty Ryan Williamson.
“Again, it’s going to allow the games to be lower scoring and have the games moving quicker and give the pitchers a better chance,” McCaffery said. “I think some of those bats we were using in the past really allowed a large margin of error for the hitters and I think now it’s going to kind of put everyone on an equal playing field.
“If it increases the safety of the game I’m all for it. I would hate to see a kid get hit by a ball and get hurt. I’m glad to see that that’s the reason they did it.”
Before Union travels to Memorial Field to face the Cougars Tuesday, the Farmers will host Dickinson of Jersey City Saturday morning at 11 in their season-opener.
“I’ve seen the difference on a couple of shots launched to the gap,” said sixth-year Union head coach and 1989 Union graduate Frank Napolitano. “Both outfielders have been able to run them town. In years past with the trampoline bats they would have been doubles in the gap or sometimes triples.
“There’s definitely more of a wood feel. Some kids have hit the ball near their hands and have shaken their hands afterwards. There’s definitely a noticeable difference.”
With the weather being so fabulous and cooperating this spring, Union managed to get eight scrimmages in and will be seeking its ninth and final one at home Thursday against Holmdel, who is guided by former Linden head coach and Elizabeth assistant Dan Mondelli.
“In all of our scrimmages so far we’ve only had three home runs,” Napolitano said. “I think these new bats will help our ERA from last year.
“They will play to our advantage because our outfield is a strength and our pitching got a little better, overall. We have a faster team than we normally do, so these new bats might help us out a little bit that way, too.”
Roselle Park head coach Nick Agoglia, a 1995 Roselle Park graduate who is in his 11 th season at the helm of the Panthers, guided last year’s team to its first sectional championship in 12 years.
“I think they’ll change the game a little bit,” Agoglia said. “I think certain guys that have ability won’t be affected too much.”
After an 18-7 season in 2011 also included the Union County Conference’s Valley Division title, Roselle Park’s first of four scheduled scrimmages was at home against defending Watchung Division champion Cranford.
“There were a couple of guys on their team that are real good hitters who didn’t seem to really struggle with it,” Agoglia said. “We put the ball in play pretty well.”
Roselle Park captured North 2, Group 1 last year for the first time since 1999, with returning third baseman Richie Johns – now a junior – delivering the game-winning hit – an RBI-single to left – in the bottom of the seventh in a 5-4 home win over Hoboken.
Roselle Park is scheduled to play at New Providence in Valley Division competition Tuesday at 4 p.m., which is the season-opener for both.
“I think there will be more routine outs, I should say, and – possibly – some of the younger guys will struggle a little bit,” Agoglia said. “I think it will be a different game, but I think it will still be competitive.”
Back to hold down the opposition for Roselle Park is sophomore right hander Luis Amaro, who tossed an eight-hitter in beating Hoboken in a complete-game effort. He fashioned a 7-2 mark his freshman season.
“The name of the game is pitching for us,” Agoglia said.
Why not just go right to wood bats?
“I think the reason we can’t go to wood is that these bats can’t break as easily as wood,” Agoglia said. “I think that a lot of schools probably, financially, would have a tough time going to wood. It would be tough trying to get wood bats here and then if they break, you’re kind of stuck.”
Mike Policastro, a 1990 Bloomfield graduate, is in his sixth year as the head coach at Bloomfield. He led his 2008 squad to the North 1, Group 4 championship, while last year’s team posted a winning record of 16-12.
“I think the new bats are going to change the game drastically,” Policastro said. “So far I’m not a big fan of them yet.
“I liked the excitement of the walk-off home run. Coincidentally, we won three games on walk-off home runs last year.”
Policastro and Napolitano were assistant coaches under Mike Hamberg at Union in 2002 when the Farmers went 26-3, captured Group 4 for the first time since 1974 and finished No. 1 in the final Star-Ledger Top 20 poll.
“I think these bats will affect the ground ball hitters more than the better hitters,” Policastro said. “I don’t think the greater hitters will be affected that much.”
One of Policastro’s top returning players is junior center fielder Mike Carter Jr., a three-year starter. Carter batted .383 last year with 36 hits in 94 at-bats.
“A kid like Carter could hit with a broomstick,” Policastro said. “I think the greatest impact is going to be for the middle-of-the-order power hitter, who is a guy that say, may have been a home run hitter for any club last year, but is going to have to adjust his swing because now the ball is traveling less distance.”
Policastro gives an example, talking here about another three-year starter in senior pitcher-right fielder Zeb Smith:
“Smith hit some bombs for us last year, but so far in the pre-season he has had a lot of flyouts, which isn’t a good thing,” Policastro said.
Smith slugged two home runs among his 19 hits last year and drove in 17 runs.
“I have seen some home runs in scrimmages, but not monster home runs like years past,” Policastro said. “The first day we were outside I took a couple of swings with a BBCOR bat myself to get a feel for what type of bat it is.
“To say the least, I wasn’t a big fan of how the ball came off the bat, but that’s the game now. What I have noticed so far is more small ball, more squeeze bunts and more hit-and-run baseball.
“It’s an emphasis the college coaches put in our heads at clinics.”
Bloomfield is scheduled to open at home Monday at 4 p.m. vs. Columbia.
“I think you will see (batting) averages drop some and pitchers’ ERA will drop as well,” Policastro said. “It’s going to become a pitcher’s game and the team that plays defense the best will win.”
One of Bloomfield’s top returning players, senior shortstop Jared Guglielmini, who will be headed to William Paterson University to continue his baseball career in the fall, doesn’t mind the switch in bats this spring.
“So far, from what I’ve seen, we’re going to have to play a lot of ‘small ball’ this year,” said the Bengals’ four-year starting infielder, who batted .370 last spring. “And, it’s really going to come down to who plays the best small ball. We’ve been executing our bunts well, moving runners over, a lot of hit and runs as well.
“It’s going to be a pretty different game this spring, that’s for sure!
“The sound, it almost sounds like a ‘thud,’ not like the ‘ping’ with the metal bats. The ball drops about 30 miles per hour off the bat and more like a game with wood.”
Carter, Jr., one of the top junior outfielders in the state, said he doesn’t fret about the switch to BBCOR.
“I don’t mind the change at all,” said the Bengals’ young standout. “I’m a contact hitter. You’re not going to get the same pop off it, obviously, and the pop-ups aren’t going to go out as far, they’re going to stay shallow, which is good for the pitchers; they’ll have a lot of fun with that.”
Union and Essex county head coaches interviewed for this story included Chris Roof of Governor Livingston, Scott Illiano of West Essex, Brian Chapman of Millburn, Dennis McCaffery of Cranford, Frank Napolitano of Union, Nick Agoglia of Roselle Park and Mike Policastro of Bloomfield. They have all been part of sectional championship teams as either a head coach or as an assistant coach .