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The giant hole in the NCAA’s bat inspection process, the safety hazard it creates and the NCAA’s reluctance to fix it

 Chris Lee   in Baseball

Recent events shine light on some major flaws with the NCAA's bat inspection process, as well as the issues it's causing with safety and the game's integrity.

Last Friday, Tennessee’s Jordan Beck hit a home run in the Vols’ 6-2 victory over Vanderbilt. Vandy catcher Dominic Keegan picked up Beck’s bat and showed it to home plate umpire Damien Beal. After a short discussion, Beck was ruled out and his bat confiscated for the remainder of the three-game series. 

Beck and Tennessee coach Tony Vitello later stated that the sticker that certified Beck’s bat as game-legal had fallen off. Based on that alone, the penalty seemed random and capricious. 

Those who’d remembered the tumultuous 2009 college baseball season had some doubts. That season, Aaron Fitt reported that “… 80 percent of the composite bats exceeded the current NCAA acceptable performance level.” 

Here are the facts of what happened last weekend, a look at a similar case at Texas A&M the week before, explanations from all sides to try to lend some clarity on what happened, and why the integrity and safety of the game appears to be at risk. 

The process of bat inspection and certification and how bats fail

Competitive integrity aside, bat regulations are there for safety. Baseball-related deaths are rare, but they do happen. With exit speeds of 115 miles an hour off the bat reported in college baseball this year, that presents a potential danger. (This article is a little dated, but explains the issue well.) 

Because of this, the NCAA has strict regulations about what bats may be used. But the same bat won’t stay the same forever. The compression level and other performance measures of a bat can change. Those things are important because they help determine how balls travel off the bat.

Compression levels and other features of the bats for which the NCAA tests can change through both perfectly normal and legal means, but also illicit means. And the NCAA has a process that is designed to prevent some of this.

Whether it’s for a single game or a weekend series, representatives from both teams examine the bats together to make sure all bats from each team meet standards. Teams commonly fail their own bats, at which point they’re thrown out of competition for that game or that weekend. Passing bats must pass visual inspection, a ring test and a barrel compression test. (The procedures are listed here.)

Once a bat’s been ruled game-legal by both teams, it’s certified with a sticker. Ben Brownlee, the NCAA’s assistant director of championships and alliances, playing rules and officiating, says he doesn't know the chemical composition of the stickers, nor does the league require a particular type of adhesive. Brownlee says the NCAA recommends a particular type of sticker which he described as a “thin-vinyl type that is destructible so that it cannot be easily transferred to a different bat.”

Sources with knowledge of the certification process in the Tennessee-Vanderbilt series confirmed the inspection process went according to NCAA protocol. As is customary, Vanderbilt, as the home team, provided the stickers for the process, with Vanderbilt representatives affixing the stickers to its bats, and Tennessee, to its.

The adhesive used on the stickers from the Tennessee-Vanderbilt series is similar to the adhesive used to affix stickers to license plates. It’s strong enough that someone generally needs a razor blade to take off the sticker. Stickers are made of material that, if they're removed, tampering should be evident.

Brownlee oversees matters like this for all 299 Division I teams. He said that the NCAA had not been made aware of any issues with stickers falling off bats. 

“We’ve not really received more than one or two questions (about bat stickers) and it’s not been really addressed,” he says. 

As for compression levels, they can change for many reasons. The weather has an effect; one Division II administrator told me the same bat that fails a pre-game examination one week often passes the next week if the weather is warmer. A bat can fall out of regulation by normal wear and tear that comes with hitting.

And then there’s the seedy side of baseball. Bats have what’s referred to as a “trampoline effect,” and that can be magnified by the process of what’s called “rolling” the bat, or shaving off part of the inside of the barrel. There’s also “bat weighting.” Those types of things were widely suspected for the offensive surge around 2009. 

The gigantic loophole and the NCAA’s hesitancy to fix it

There are other bats in the dugout that are not game-approved. Players have extra bats just for batting practice. Coaches have extra bats used for fungoes. None of those bats would have a certifying sticker for that game or series if they weren’t tested. This in and of itself isn't a problem because these bats aren't expected to be used in games. 

The problem is that, whether by accident or intent, one of those bats can make it into a game. Though an umpire could notice the bat on his own, the rules do not instruct umpires to check for them. Given all the responsibilities an umpire has, it’s anyone’s guess how often they look. 

“Yes, (the bat-checking process) is somewhat based on the appeal of a player or the umpire noticing there wasn’t a sticker on the bat,” Brownlee says. 

And the NCAA admits this could be an issue. We asked Brownlee if there would be anything to prevent a player from grabbing a non-certified bat from the dugout and using it in the game. 

“No,” he says. “There’s not something that would stop them but they’re not following the rule.”

A simple solution would seem to be to have the umpires ask to see the sticker for each bat before a player steps into the batter’s box. On Tuesday, we asked Brownlee if there could be a mid-season modification, and his answer indicated that the NCAA isn't leaning that way. 

“At this point we would not be making a change to the protocol. If there’s a need, the rules committee could consider an interpretation,” Brownlee says.  

Pressed further on the issue, Brownlee offered this:  “It’s not normal practice. We don’t make rules changes until our annual meeting.”

Not the first time

The previous weekend, a similar situation occurred when Auburn visited Texas A&M when Auburn’s Mason Land was called out for using a bat without a sticker. Again, it was a catcher (Troy Claunch) who caught it.

“Every now and then, Claunch will check a bat and that one didn’t have a sticker on it,” Aggie coach Jim Schlossnagle said. “It becomes an illegal bat, which means he’s out.”

Brownlee said he’d not been made aware of the incident from the Tennessee-Vanderbilt series, nor had he been alerted of a similar situation that arose the previous weekend in a game between Auburn and Texas A&M, until we brought it to his attention. He added that the reason for this is that there is no reporting requirement to the NCAA when such incidents take place. 

Uncharted territory

Because the NCAA does not require reporting if there's an instance of a bat confiscated during the game, there’s no NCAA-authorized process to check a confiscated bat for tampering. However, there’s also nothing to stop an umpiring crew from checking it on its own. Given the safety risks associated with bats that don’t meet specifications alone, it's probably in the SEC and NCAA's best interest to know exactly what’s going on—especially since it’s only the second time that opportunity has presented itself.

And in the case of last Friday, multiple sources with intimate familiarity of the weekend’s events confirmed there was a private inspection of Beck’s bat the day after was confiscated. The result of that inspection was that Beck’s bat was found to have fallen 400 PSIs below the game-legal limit. 

We tracked down umpire Clint Lawson—the second-base umpire for Friday’s game—as he was leaving Vanderbilt’s Hawkins Field following Sunday’s game. In a brief conversation with Lawson, we asked him multiple questions about the incident, the private testing and any outcomes or consequences of that testing and whether the bat had been returned to Tennessee according to protocol. (On Monday, Tennessee, through athletics communications spokesperson Sean Barows, confirmed it received the bat after Sunday's game.) Lawson politely declined comment on each question and directed us to the Southeastern Conference office. 

We sent an email to Herb Vincent, the SEC's associate commissioner for communications, later on Sunday. In that email were questions about whether our information on the PSI testing on Beck’s bat on Saturday was accurate, about whether there were consequences for failed tests, whether Beck and Tennessee were given the bat back after the series as we were told, and whether the league would comment on its procedures in general. 

Vincent returned our email on Monday stating this was an NCAA matter while adding this:

“Bat testing procedures are established by the NCAA and those procedures were followed this weekend. The bat was deemed illegal because it did not have a proper sticker on the bat. By rule, the batter is called out if a bat is determined to be illegal before the at bat or after the at bat. Illegal bats are surrendered to game management for the duration of the series, then returned to the team.  By process, if it is a compliant bat it will pass the bat testing process the next time it is tested for competition. If it is non-compliant, it will not pass the test the next time it is tested for competition.”

Through Barows, we asked Tennessee for comment and whether it disputed the information we received regarding Saturday’s private test.

“The bat underwent routine pre-series testing and was cleared for use along with the rest of Tennessee’s bats,” Barrows says. “We have nothing to add beyond the postgame comments offered by Beck and head coach Tony Vitello on Friday, which I’m confident you’ve seen.”

Enforcement, liability and moving forward

What’s clear from our conversations with the SEC and the NCAA is that nothing will change—at least on the outside—heading into the fourth weekend of conference play. The SEC has made it clear that the NCAA is in charge of this. The NCAA has put its faith in players and coaches to play by the rules and takes the stance that no further guardrails are necessary for now. 

But what matters most is safety, and the current system seems to leave far too much to chance. What if a player or fan gets killed by a ball hit off a bat that’s later found to be tampered with and not game-legal? And with that as a possibility, is the NCAA in the process of developing a strategy to protect itself from legal exposure if that happened?

We posed that question to the NCAA, which responded with the statement below. Pay particular attention to the part in bold. 

“The bat testing process was implemented to ensure that teams and student-athletes are using bats that meet the Batted Ball Coefficient of Restitution bat performance standard. The BBCOR standard was created to ensure that bats are produced and perform in an equitable manner. The NCAA Baseball playing rules (Rule 4.4.c.) require the head coach to confirm during the home plate meeting prior to the game that all players are properly equipped. This confirmation is for all equipment. The playing rules do identify a penalty for the use of an illegal bat. If the illegal bat is detected before the first pitch, the batter is called out and the bat is removed from the game. If the bat is detected after the first pitch, the batter is called out, and base runners (if any) shall not advance as a result of the batted ball and the bat is removed for the game.

“The NCAA will continue to review and evaluate the bat testing process as part of the annual rules process. The NCAA works closely with our certification laboratory to evaluate the BBCOR protocol. As previously noted, rules interpretations can be issued during the year to provide clarification. If changes to the rules or penalties related to bat testing or use of equipment are considered, that will be done during the NCAA Baseball Rules Committee annual meeting.”

We posed the same question to the SEC, which Vincent answered as follows:

“The SEC will continue to be diligent about enforcing the rules around the use of legal bats. The bat testing policy is in place for the purpose of identifying legal bats for competition. A bat on Friday did not adhere to that policy, so it was appropriately removed from competition.”

Let’s be clear: Mistakes can happen with anyone. It would be easy for Beck, Land or any hitter to pick up a non-cleared bat in the dugout and innocently take it into a game, and so using a non-legal bat doesn't prove it was an intentional infraction. But on the other end of the spectrum, if nobody’s checking stickers, it would be possible for every hitter in the country to hit with a bat that’s fallen outside of regulation. 

And that puts everyone in an awkward position, including people who play by the rules. And truthfully, that’s probably most players and coaches, but how are we to know? That’s not good for anyone, and that includes the NCAA, and it will be interesting to see how the season plays out given what we already know.