Southwest Regional Preview
Baseballs were flying out of high school ballparks all across the Perfect Game Southwest Region in record numbers in 2011, thanks to a trio of sluggers who were plying their trade in New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada.
Albuquerque (N.M.) Academy shortstop/catcher and 2011 Perfect Game All-American Alex Bregman smacked a New Mexico state record 19 home runs in 25 high school games last season.
Phoenix (Ariz.) Mountain Pointe High School catcher/right-hander Kevin Cron set two Arizona prep records in 2011 when hit a single-season best 27 bombs and finished his four-year career (2008-11) with a state record 60 homers.
And then there was Las Vegas (Nev.) Bishop Gorman third baseman Joey Gallo, another 2011 Perfect Game All-American who blasted 25 home runs and drove in 76 runs while leading Gorman to its sixth straight Nevada State Championship last season.
His 25 home runs were four short of the Nevada single-season record of 29 hit by McQueen’s Chris Aguila in 1997. As Gallo embarks on his senior season this spring, he has 46 career home runs, just 14 away from the state career record of 60 held by Galena’s Steve Lerud (2000-03).
They are impressive records and they may never be broken. The National Federation of State High School Associations has declared the old, juiced-up aluminum bats illegal across the country, and has mandated state associations to require either the use of the toned-down BBCOR composite bat or wood and wood-composite bats.
Nevada and Arizona are among the majority of states that will turn to the BBCOR bats. New Mexico joins New York and North Dakota in deciding to use wood bats in 2012.
“This is going to bring drastic change to the game,” Albuquerque Academy head coach Josh Ayala said of his state’s decision to use wood bats. “My staff and I feel it’s a positive thing. I think it’s going to change the game and I truly hope the other (states) throughout the Union decide to go this route – and the colleges, too.”
The NCAA mandated the use of BBCOR bats starting with the 2011 season, citing safety as its main concern. A ball coming off the old aluminum bats at nearly 100 mph could pose a serious health threat to pitchers and infielders.
Bishop Gorman head coach Nick Day realizes the risk of serious injury is real but is undecided on whether mandating the use of a different bat is necessary.
“I’m not sure because I’m a fan of the kids hitting lots of home runs and hitting the ball of the park,” he said. “I understand where they’re coming from but for me it doesn’t matter if you’re using a BBCOR or not, if you hit a ball hard back at the pitcher he’s going to get hurt anyway. It’s just part of baseball.
“But I understand it and this year’s going to be an adjustment for everybody.”
Ayala also acknowledges that safety is an issue; he called the old 34-inch, 29-ounce minus-5 compression bats a “weapon.”
“I’m glad to see that we’re transitioning back to how the game used to be played,” he said.
The country’s best high school hitters, top prospects like Bregman and Gallo, are likely to be unaffected by the switch to BBCOR or wood bats. They’ve been swinging wood bats at Perfect Game WWBA tournaments throughout their high school careers, and Gallo used a wood bat to crush a monumental 442-foot home at the San Diego Padre’s PETCO Park during last year’s Perfect Game All-American Classic presented by Rawlings.
“I don’t think it’s going to have much impact at all on Joey – pretty much zero. He’s still going to hit the ball out of the ballpark to every field,” Day said. “Now I have seen some other guys hit some balls hard that were usually doubles and triples, but they’re being caught now.”
California, which joins Hawaii in Perfect Game’s Pacific Region, was the only state to mandate the use of the BBCOR bat at the high school level in 2011. Valencia High School head coach Jared Snyder, who has Perfect Game All-American slugger Trey Williams on his roster, said coaches in the states just now making the transition need to be ready to adjust the way they manage a game.
“You have to be more aggressive (and) you have to take more risks. You have to do a lot of things differently and you can’t just sit back and expect to hit a home run anymore,” Snyder said. “In the past you could sit back and think that anybody in your lineup with one of those (aluminum) bats could hit a home run. There was just no question.
“What I’m seeing now is the good hitters are going to get their hits; the good hitters are fine,” he continued. “It’s the hitters that used to be able to walk up there and hit doubles off the wall, the eight or nine hitters – those (old) bats favored everybody.”
Bregman is a terrific hitter who used a Rawlings 5150 BBCOR bat to hit 14 home runs in about 5 minutes at last year’s Perfect Game National Showcase at City of Palms Park in Fort Myers, Fla. Ayala, his coach at Albuquerque Academy, likes the thought of his star player – a two-time Gold Medal winner for USA Baseball who PG ranks the No. 64 overall prospect in the upcoming MLB Draft – swinging a wood bat this spring.
Ayala recalled that when top outfield prospect Max Walla was being heavily recruited and scouted back in 2008 and 2009, scouts would often ask Walla to hit with a wood bat after Albuquerque Academy’s practices and games were completed. Walla was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in the second round of the 2009 draft is currently playing in the Brewers’ minor league system.
“Right now, I think it’s a plus-plus everywhere you turn,” Ayala said of the switch to wood. “Your pitching gets better, you can’t take a day off defensively – infield and outfield play – your bunt coverages have to be at their ‘A’ game every day, and offensively you also have to be able to get a bunt down and get those other things done.”
Snyder agrees that the switch away from the old aluminum bats makes everyone better.
“It gives the colleges and the pro scouts a lot better look at what that player is capable of doing. You’re not going to get any false reads or things like that,” he said. “I think it’s a good thing but you have to be able to find guys that can execute now. Execution is going to be a big part of the game, and defense is too.”
Run production is sure to drop as the nation’s high school hitters adapt to their new bats. At the NCAA Division I level, runs per game dropped from an average of 6.7 in 2010 to 5.3 in 2011. Before the start of the 2011 season, LSU head coach Paul Mainieri worried about fans getting bored with low-scoring games but also offered an important caveat.
“They like the offense, they like the excitement, and come-from-behind rallies and all that kind of stuff,” he told Perfect Game in the fall of 2010. “You worry that if the bats prohibit you from being able to hit the ball out of the ballpark, you may not see much at all of that. But I’ve told my players the only thing LSU fans like more than offense is winning.”
It's interesting to note that both Bregman and Gallo have committed to LSU and plan on being roommates next fall - if they ever make it to Baton Rouge. Both will be very high draft picks - Gallo could be one of the first 10 players selected.
Perfect Game first required the use of BBCOR bats at its 15u-18u BCS Finals last summer, and a completely unofficial study discovered a drop in run production during the first day of pool-play in the 16u BCS Finals from 2010 to 2011. Teams combined to score an average of 10.1 runs per game last year as opposed to 11.2 per game in 2010.
Fewer runs scored aren’t necessarily a bad thing, especially to the most ardent baseball purists.
“I think it’s going to level the playing field out a little bit and we’re going to see the scores lower, which means anyone can win,” Bishop Gorman’s Day said. “Instead of being down six in the seventh inning you might only be down by two now, and if you put something together you can win that game a lot easier than you could coming back from six.
“We have a lot of power and speed and we have a lot of guys who can run and a lot of guys with some pop, but there will be situations that I probably would have hit in last year that I’ll bunt in this year,” he continued. “It’s going to be real important to score one or two runs because that could be the difference in the game, where in years past we had a chance at rallying waiting for the home run because we hit a lot of them.”
Games are likely to be shorter. Ayala said his team played a recent 1-0 game that wrapped up in a little over an hour-and-a-half. The players will need to be on their toes at all times.
“I don’t think you can take a second off,” Ayala said. “We can’t rely on Bregman going up there and hitting a four-run dinger and putting us up four runs. He can do it – if anybody can do it in the state of New Mexico and still hit with power and hit the home runs that he can. I wouldn’t be surprised if he leads the state in home runs again. But you can’t rely on that huge nine-run inning anymore.”
Fans can rest assured that the big boppers will continue to drop their bombs. Even the nation’s top pitchers will struggle to keep sluggers like Bregman, Gallo and Williams in the yard this season.
“Guys like Trey, the bats won’t affect them,” Snyder said. “But the other kids – the guys you were hoping might hit one or two home runs at some point – they’re not going to hit them anymore.”