"I try to get my pitchers to work inside and forget the opposite-field, jamshot singles," says Long Beach State coach Dave Snow. "But it's tough to get them to do it." Says A's righthander Mike Moore, who was the first pick in the 1981 draft out of Oral Roberts, "It took me years to learn to pitch inside."
"Hitters get conditioned to diving out over the plate to hit the ball," says Wilken. "And because the majority of players in the big leagues today have grown up with that outside style, you see so many hitters get hit or nearly hit by pitches that are very close to being strikes. When major league pitchers use the inside part of the plate, a lot of hitters collapse on the ground as if Bob Gibson had just thrown at them."
Boston righthander Mike Boddicker says, "The strike zone has been pushed out so that the majority of umpires won't call strikes on the inner few inches of the plate. It's practically impossible to get a strike on the inside corner today."
Even more disturbing to some: The aluminum bat practically demands that a pitcher throw breaking balls. "With the aluminum bat the idea is to make the hitter swing and miss," says Grieve. As a result, many in professional baseball believe that college coaches frequently force their pitchers to throw too much breaking stuff.
Says New York Mets vice-president Joe McIlvaine, "When you get 19- and 20-year-old kids throwing a ton of breaking balls, not only do they often hurt their arms, but they don't build up their arms, and therefore their fastballs, at a time when they are developing physically. I cringe when I see some of these college games and coaches are calling 50 and 60 percent breaking balls. The aluminum bat has done a lot of damage to the game, both to hitters and pitchers."
At last month's College World Series, in Omaha, 98% of the bats used were made by the Easton Company of Los Angeles, a firm that went from manufacturing archery products to becoming the largest producer of aluminum bats in America. Easton makes no wood bats, so, not surprisingly, Jim Easton, the company's president and a son of its founder, downplays the differences between wood and metal. "There's more myth than fact to the complaints about the aluminum bat," he says.
Easton cites a 1976 Stanford study that shows that aluminum bats do not drive a baseball farther than wooden bats do, another claim sometimes made about aluminum, and that more variation can be found among baseballs from the same box than between the two kinds of bats. However, the Stanford study was done before advances in aluminum-bat technology began to soup up the bats. "In the late '70s, guys in college all knew that the bats suddenly got livelier," says the Mariners' Bradley.
"Technology changed radically at that time," says Hillerich. "There's a lot you can do with aluminum, and we all learned to do it. The kids wanted it. We offered wood bats free to one local league, and the league was enthusiastic about accepting them. After a few games, the kids all wanted to go back to the aluminum."
"The aluminum process has come so far that we can do anything we want with a bat," says H & B engineer David Ottman. "The colleges want the liveliest, most souped-up bats we can make, and you can't blame the kids for wanting an edge. But we can make an aluminum bat that performs almost exactly like a wood bat. We can make the sweet spot any size we want. We can make the balance points any place we want. We can make it so the weight is the same and the ball jumps the same. The only difference might be in the handle, but we can make it more like a wood action down there than it is now. It just won't break. If the pros sit down with Easton or with us, we can design specifications to fit any of their needs. The bat companies aren't going to stay in the wood business much longer, so baseball might as well start thinking about it."
Easton, H & B and Worth have all experimented with a ceramic-graphite composition bat, which produces a sound more like that of wood and—except near the handle—performs more like wood than aluminum does. "The problem is that those bats involve two elements and they don't hold up to constant usage," says Ottman, whose company does not make such bats. "They're not cost-efficient, and I can't see the day when they'll be perfected. Take batting practice for a couple of hours with one, and it's not the same. The graphite bat is really just to please those concerned with the aesthetics of how they sound."