In January 2018, many youth baseball players will need to buy a new bat with the USABat standard. Here are the details, starting with facts, moving on to advice, and ending with opinions about this change.
I interviewed several authorities for this article, including Russell Hartford, who is the “bat guy” at USA baseball, in addition to his role as Director of National Team Championships.
The Facts about USABat
In August of 2015, USA baseball announced a new standard, USABat, to go into effect January 1, 2018. The USABat standard will be required on all bats used in Little League, PONY league, and several other recreational youth baseball leagues. Bats with this logo will begin to be available in the fall of 2017 and will be the only bats permitted for use in most recreation leagues in 2018.
Here is a full list of organizations who have so far committed to adopt the USABat standard in 2018, requiring players to purchase bats with the USABat mark:
- American Amateur Baseball Congress (AABC)
- Amateur Athletic Union (AAU)
- Babe Ruth Baseball/Cal Ripken Baseball
- Dixie Youth Baseball
- Little League Baseball
- PONY Baseball
USABat replaces BPF 1.15, a youth baseball standard that restricted bat barrels to have elasticity (“pop”) of a certain limit that was higher than the elasticity of wood bats (wood BPF is typically around 1.05). Players using bats with the BPF 1.15 mark were therefore able to hit the ball harder than wood bats of equivalent size, weight, and weight distribution. Also, bat makers have been able to exploit flaws in the BPF 1.15 test protocol to push bat performance beyond the limits initially intended by the BPF 1.15 standard.
The USABat test protocol is based on the coefficient of restitution (COR) from a bat-ball impact. This is the same idea as BBCOR, a stringent standard which is used for high school and college play. I have yet to determine exactly how similar this is to BBCOR, as the testing methodology for the USABat standard has not been made public. I will update this paragraph when I find out.
When BBCOR was introduced to college baseball several years ago, home-run rates and batting averages dropped to approximately 1973 levels, which is when wood bats were last used. BBCOR was clearly an effective standard for holding bats to wood-like performance.
The reason stated for the change to USABat in the press release is that a wood-like performance standard will best provide for the long-term integrity of the game.
The USSSA organization has publicly stated they will continue to use the BPF 1.15 standard. The majority of travel ball tournaments in the U.S. are USSSA tournaments. Therefore, an expanded set of bats will be permitted for use in USSSA travel ball tournaments (presuming they also allow USABat), while a more restrictive set of bats will be permitted for use in recreation leagues such as PONY or Little League, and in nonUSSSA travel ball tournaments such as USABaseball’s 2016 National Team Identification Series.
Many regional travel ball tournament organizations have not yet decided whether to adopt the USABat standard. For example, All World Sports, which organizes 200 baseball tournaments per year in Northern CA and Nevada, will not be making or announcing a decision until August 2017, according to Director Ed Feldman.
The Little League national organization has not permitted 2 5/8″ bats to be used at the younger ages in recent years. In conjunction with the move to the USABat standard, in 2018 Little League will permit bats with 2 5/8″ barrels in addition to 2 1/4″ bats. Some websites are claiming that Little League will not permit 2 1/4″ bats but the Little League FAQ (item 20) clearly states that both 2 1/4″ and 2 5/8″ barrel sizes will be permitted.
How USABat Will Impact Your Bat Buying (Advice)
Players age 13 or over don’t need to worry about this new standard. By the time it takes effect, they’ll be 14 and required to use drop 3 BBCOR bats. Players who begin using BBCOR certified bats at a younger age than 14 won’t have to concern themselves with USABat.
However for players below BBCOR age, what to do depends on whether their participation is travel-ball-only, rec-ball-only, or both rec and travel ball. Breaking it down into these 3 possibilities:
For travel-ball-only players there will be no change if players stick to USSSA games. This site’s comprehensive bat guide will continue to be appropriate in this scenario. USSSA travel ball players may continue using and purchasing BPF 1.15 bats until reaching the age of 15, when BBCOR bats are required. Though the majority of travel ball tournaments are associated with USSSA, some are not. Some tournaments not associated with USSSA may require the USABat standard.
Players below age 14 may be able to use bats with the USABat mark everywhere. However, in practice most players will want to have a BPF 1.15 bat in USSSA-associated games in order to be able to hit the ball as hard as everyone else.
Players of recreation baseball only (Little League, PONY, Babe Ruth/Cal Ripken, Dixie) will need a new bat for the 2018 spring season with the USABat mark. My observation is that most recreation players outgrow their bats every 12-18 months. Therefore, 2016 bat purchases shouldn’t be an issue. The question is what to do when purchasing a bat in 2017. My advice is to steer clear of buying an expensive bat in 2017. If your player needs a bigger bat, either get an inexpensive bat or borrow a teammate’s bat until the new bats become available with the USABat logo in September of 2017.
Players who do both rec and travel ball will usually want to own both a BPF 1.15 bat for USSSA travel ball and a USABat for most other events.
You’ll want to check with your local leagues to see if they’re strictly adhering to the January 2018 deadline, or allowing families a grace period before requiring USABat.
Manufacturer Opinions about the Change to USABat Standard
I discussed the new bat standard with Jay Helmick, who heads the Axe Bat division of Baden Sports. Jay did not express much enthusiasm for the change. Specifically, he believes:
- The transition will be messy for both consumers and bat makers.
- There may be unintended side effects, such as participation rates in youth baseball. Will some players quit if it’s harder to get good hits?
- Testing certification procedures are expensive and not worth while for bat models that don’t sell well. Some bat makers may forgo making USAbats altogether in order to avoid risk.
- With Little League allowing 2 5/8″ bats at the younger ages, large sporting good chains believe there will be little interest in 2 1/4″ bats after this change. Therefore, Jay believes that few if any bat makers will be making 2 1/4″ diameter bats with the USAbat logo.
My Opinions about the Change to the USAbat Standard
Participation in youth baseball has been declining steadily for a decade despite a great deal of innovation pushing the envelope on bat performance. If participation were at least partly tied to bat performance, then we would not have seen such a large drop in participation over the past decade given the rapid innovation in bat design we’ve seen during this period. In my opinion, changes in bat technology have had nothing to do with dropping participation, and changes caused by the new bat standard will also have no impact on overall participation numbers for youth baseball.
However, I think it is possible participation could shift between travel ball and rec ball. Parents who place a higher priority on safety (or perhaps a more traditional feel to the game with wood-like bat performance) may prefer their players to play in rec leagues and/or the few summer tournaments that insist on the USABat standard. On the other hand, there may be a preference by some families for high tech bats which make it easier to hit balls hard. There may also be families who no longer want to do both rec ball and travel ball in order to avoid owning and swinging two different bats—so they’ll simply choose one or the other.
I do wonder about Jay’s comment on 2 1/4″ bats. My observation has been that most kids between the ages of 7 and 9 have difficulty swinging even the lightest (drop 10) 2 5/8″ bats. It is possible that manufacturers will take up the design challenge and figure out a way to make drop 12 or drop 13 big barrel (2 5/8″) bats that also meet the USABat standard. However, it is also possible that such bats will be more expensive than the typical 7-year-old parent is willing to pay.
Personally, I’m hoping there will be some 2 1/4″ bats that are drop 12 or drop 13 available for very young players. If the lightest bats are drop 10, then coaches may need to encourage smaller players use 26″ or shorter bats. Such players would have less plate coverage and therefore struggle to hit pitches on the outside corner of the plate.
While not everyone is happy with this change, I personally think it’s overall a good change, for safety reasons . . .
Shortly after my 4′ 5″ tall son turned 10, he attended a tournament where he pitched to a 5′ 9″ 10-year-old using a high-end bat. First time up, this batter hit a 250′ home run. Second time up, he drilled a line drive just as hard, right at my son’s head, at a batted ball speed I estimate in excess of 70 MPH. I couldn’t even see the ball. I just heard the crack of the bat and then another crack. By some miracle I still don’t understand, my son got his glove up right in front of his face in time to catch that ball. If he hadn’t, who knows what would have happened.
While the stated reason for this change was “the long-term integrity of the game,” the safety issue matters to me, and will matter to some others as well. Wood bats don’t have as much pop as the current generation of BPF 1.15 bats. By adopting a wood-like standard, the risk of serious injury to pitchers (standing 46′ away from potentially adult-sized batters) is going to decrease at least a little.
Of course, we all know that the batter matters far more than the bat. If safety were the top concern, I could imagine switching to a system stratified by height and/or weight, rather than age. Any time an adult-sized hitter is swinging against a pitcher standing 46′ away, there’s going to be risk to the pitcher.
I do wonder why all the regulatory effort centers around bats instead of balls. Less bouncy balls could accomplish safety and traditional-game goals with less cost and complexity. Balls are already regulated in softball by the Amateur Softball Association of America, and our local league uses softer level 5 balls for the 7- to 8-year old Pinto division, and even softer balls for 5- to 6-year old Shetland. Baseball scientist Alan Nathan is unaware of any scientific reason why the Coefficient of Restitution and stiffness of the ball could not be regulated. However, so far as I know, ball regulation has not been part of the conversation in recent years.
Regardless of anyone’s opinion about this change to bat standards, it’s coming. So if your son or daughter will be under the age of 14 and playing recreation league baseball in 2018, you’ll be buying a new bat.