Sunday, July 16, 2006

Bats Too Powerful, Fields Too Small

When Carl Stotz decided to start a new summer baseball program for boys, almost seven decades ago, his vision was a league that provided all of the amenities of the big-league game on a miniature scale. Uniforms, umpires, scorekeepers, manicured fields, scoreboards -- whatever the big leaguers got, Little Leaguers would get on a smaller scale.

Stotz and a bunch of neighborhood boys from the town of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, determined the size of the fields after several days of playing on fields with different diamond sizes. Stotz knew from the start that the field could not be regulation size -- 90 feet between the bases and 60 feet, 60 inches from the mound to the plate. For tykes as young as 8 years old, it was just too much. So he and the neighborhood kids experimented. Eventually, the settled on a diamond two-thirds the size of a regulation field -- 60 feet between the bases and 44 feet from mound to plate. (The pitching distance was later increased to 46 feet.)

I thought about Carl Stotz's unscientific approach to designing the Little League field when I read an article in The New York Times (Sunday, July 16, 2005) about the battle over aluminum bats.

Ira Berkow, the terrific columnist for The Times, reports on three lines drives that have threatened the lives of kids in youth baseball leagues. In 2003, a line drive killed an 18-year-old pitcher in an American Legion game in Miles City, Montana. In April 2005, a line drive almost killed a 16-year-old high school pitcher in Oak Lawn, Ill.; after being in a coma for two weeks, he has begun a long march back to health. Right now, he's learning to do simple tasks like bruising his teeth and tying his shoes. And in a Police Athletic League game in Wayne, N.J., last month, a line drive put a 12-year-old into a coma, where he remains today.

These incidents -- and other scares -- have prompted many coaches and parents to ban aluminum bats from youth baseball leagues, including Little League. The logic is simple: Balls fly off aluminum bats 20 miles per hour faster than wooden bats. That extra zip virtually eliminates a pitcher's reaction time on well-hit balls.

The wood-bat movement's most vocal advocates are Duane and Deb Patch, the parents of Brandon Patch, the Montana boy who lost his life in the Legion game. It's a battle that has been going on for years. Amhert College head coach Bill Thurston has been leading the charge for years. It might seem like a simple battle -- who could argue against something to protect the safety of kids? -- but it's complicated by the vested interests of bat manufacturers and bitter disagreements about research methodology.

Companies like Easton have fought not only the wood-bat movement but an effort in the NCAA to regullate the design of aluminum bats so that batted balls would jump off metal no fater than they would jump off wood.

Researchers say that the "balance point" -- the bat's center of gravity -- plays a critical role in the speed of the ball off the bat. Manufacturers make bats with different balance points, with weight distributed at different points along the bat from the knob to the barrel.

Little League CEO Steve Keener is a believer that design can make aluminum bats safe. Little League sets clear standards for the ratio of a bat's weight to length taht produce the same ball movement as wooden bats. Since aluminum bats are more durable, Keener opposes replacing them with timber.

Ultimately, the question is not whether bats are wood, aluminum, or some kind of ceramic compound. Design can insure that bats produce different speeds on batted balls.

The bigger questions for Little League -- and other youth sports -- concerns the size of the field and the sizes of the kids playing on them.

Little League still uses the same 60-foot-base field that Carl Stotz marked out back in 1939, even though the average size of kids has grown dramatically and the size of the star players has grown even more.

When Stotz laid out the Little League diamond, the game was for a wide range of kids, from age 8 to 13. That range includes the tiniest tots and adult-sized athletes. Over the years, Little League has created a number of different divisions for its leagues. The organization has five basic programs -- tee ball (a program for kids aged 5-8), Little League (11-13), Junior League (13-14), Senior League (14-16), and Big League (16-18) -- which help to sort out kids appropriately. (Most Little League programs also provide a "minor" league for 9 and 10-year-olds.)

Still, each of these age groupings includes a mix of big and small players. The biggest player in thye 2006 World Series had three times as much heft as the smallest. Unlike youth football, baseball does not create weight limits for its different leagues. So you have the spectacle of some very big kids overwhelming very little kids.

The problem goes further than the size of the kids. To accommodate a diverse array of player sizes, Little League uses only two field sizes. You play on 60-foot bases through Little League and then make the leap to 90-foot bases in Junior League. PONY League, by contrast, creates slightly bigger fields for kids as they move from one age group to another. The movement to bigger fields is slow and gradual.

Why does field size matter?

The best Little League players throw the ball 70 miles an hour or more. Some pitchers have been measured at over 80 miles an hour. The problem is that at on Little League fields, there's almost no reaction time for batters or pitchers. A Little League pitch coming in a 70 m.p.h. allows the batter as much reaction time as a major leaguer getting a 91-m.p.h. pitch. An 80-m.p.h. Little League pitch is the equivalent of a 104-m.p.h. pitch.

Likewise, the speed of batted balls can be blistering on smaller diamonds. Even taking Steve Keener at his word -- that Little League bats have the same basic properties as wooden bats -- there's a real danger of kids getting hurt because the reaction times are too short on the small diamonds.

Last winter, Little League made its first change in field dimensions in years. The organization increased the distance to the outfield fences 20 feet, from 205 to 225 feet at the two stadiums in Williamsport that host the Little League World Series. That extra distance will make it harder to muscle balls out of the park and more room for outfielders to chase fly balls.

It will help reduce the spectacle of powerball that has overcome Little League's big show in recent years. Pitchers will have a little more incentive to let the batters put balls into play, rather than blowing them away with strikeouts. Baseball is always better when it's a balanced game -- not just a game of homers and strikeouts, but also a game of doubles and triples, outfield assists and daring first-to-third runs.

But Little League needs one more reform for the sake of both safety and a balanced game. Little League needs to follow the lead of the PONY League and provide a gradual increase in field sizes. Right now, too many big kids are playing on miniature fields.

The bigger the kids, the bigger the field. Make sense?

3 Comments:

Blogger saddad said...

Little League bats are not even close to equivalent to wood. There is no BESR for Little League bats.

Another factor that has made the field size even more of an issue is the change in the age limits this year. There will be far more kids who are physically mature now that kids who almost 13 1/2 will be allowed to play in the LLWS.

8:48 AM  
Blogger Charlie Euchner said...

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6:21 AM  
Blogger VanDyne said...

The kids age 11-13 that are playing little league should be playing on a 50/70 field. Most are going into Junior High, where in some cases they can play middle school baseball on a 60/90 field.

3:45 PM  

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