Unlike the big leagues, high school baseball experiencing a power shortage

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Edward Little senior Grant Hartley is one of the team’s big hitters that will provide power in the lineup to give a big punch to the offense this season. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

AUBURN — Like most baseball fans, Grant Hartley is enjoying the upswing in home runs in Major League Baseball. He also likes the accompanying new wave of analytical data in the game having to do with the long ball.

Like most young ballplayers, the Edward Little senior is curious what the analytics would say when he goes deep.

“I don’t know my launch angle and my exit speed, but it’s a really cool stat. It’s a cool way to compare players,” he said

Compared to his high school peers, Hartley is bucking the trend in that started in 2012, when the National Federation of State High School Associations mandated BBCOR bats for player safety. 

The bats reduced the size of the “sweet spot” on the bat and the “trampoline effect” when the bat makes contact compared to the aluminum or composite bats used at all levels of amateur baseball for decades.

Hartley, who since middle school has used BBCOR (Batted Ball Coefficient of Restitution) bats, hit five home runs in 54 at bats for Edward Little last season. That’s more than some teams hit in 2017.

Less lively bats, and less time spent playing baseball, are the biggest reasons home runs have become less and less a part of the high school game.

Spruce Mountain coach Brian Dube skippered 1999 Class C state champion Livermore Falls, a team that hit 33 home runs during the season.

Some of that gaudy number can be attributed to the Andies’ tiny home field, Griffin Field, which the Phoenix still call home. But that team’s power, which saw every batter in the starting lineup hit at least one dinger during the season, wasn’t a product of its home. The Andies blasted two home runs in the state championship game at the more spacious Mansfield Stadium in Bangor.

“That team hit maybe six or seven in batting practice regularly,” Dube said. “Now, if anyone hits one out in batting practice, there’s a major celebration. (Since the change to BBCOR bats), we might average one or two that were hit in a game all season.”

Coaches have no choice now but to de-emphasize the long ball, Dube said.

“If you’re building your team around hitting home runs, you’re going to be in trouble,” he said.

While the professionals are placing more and more emphasis on analytics such as exit velocity and launch angle, and tailoring swings to improve those numbers, Hartley follows the philosophy of Edward Little coach Dave Jordan and many other high school coaches in the state —  including his father, Lewiston coach Darren Hartley. 

“For my swing, I don’t go for launch angle. I go for hard contact,” he said. “I get launch angle from just having my hands above the barrel when I swing, which creates an upward swing.”

Listed at 6-f00t-3 and 220 pounds, Hartley has little trouble generating the power behind his uppercut swing.

Jordan is delighted to have a power hitter like Hartley in the heart of his lineup, but whatever power he or anyone else produces will have to come naturally. High school coaches have to focus more on the fundamentals.

“A lot of kids just don’t play as much in Maine as other states. We’re just trying to get some core elements accomplished when they’re at the plate,” Jordan said.

Fields such as Griffin Field or Dirigo’s Harlow Park, where the fence is 285 feet to right field, still entice those who consider themselves power hitters. But coaches like Dirigo’s Ryan Palmer preach finding a good pitch to hit and hitting it hard and let physics take care of the rest.

“I’m a line drive hitting coach. If you square it up and get it good, it’s going to go,” Palmer said.

A grasp of each player’s launch angle or exit velocity might help coaches develop more home run hitters, Palmer said. But swing analyzing hardware and software isn’t cheap, costing several hundred dollars in most cases.

The cost can be worth it in terms of the momentum swing one mighty swing of the bat can cause.

“Absolutely, because it’s kind of a rare thing in the state of Maine,” said Hartley, who listed a home run he hit against then UMaine-bound Pete Kemble in a win over Bangor as the biggest he hit last season. “It’s get the whole team crazy, gets their energy pumping. It’s a sign of hope, too.”

“I think it’s a huge part of the game, especially professionally now,” he added. “People pay to watch someone throw it 100 miles an hour and someone to hit it 400 feet. I don’t know of any way that you could make it happen more at the high school level with BBCOR and everything.”

Jordan has some hope for a long ball revival in high school baseball. He said he’s seen a slight uptick in homers over the last couple of years and credits improvements in BBCOR bats.

“I think companies, staying within the standards that are established, have done a lot to liven the bats up,” Jordan said. 

Which means there may be more balls flying over fences at ballparks near you this spring.

Edward Little senior Grant Hartley is one of the team’s big hitters that will provide power in the lineup to give a big punch to the offense this season. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Edward Little senior Grant Hartley is one of the team’s big hitters that will provide power in the lineup to give a big punch to the offense this season. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

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