Shepard continues a long-standing summertime tradition
Baseball is a game in which failure is much more common than success.
Nowhere else would an individual be considered an above-average performer when he makes good only 30 percent of the time. But no one criticizes a .300 hitter.
As a coach, Frank DiFoggio understands that as well as anyone. He also realized long ago that being properly schooled in fundamentals is the best way for a player to maximize his potential.
And that isn’t only true for those who toil at the sport’s highest level.
In fact, a dedication to the basics is probably more important for a high school athlete whose skills are still in the developmental stage. However, the standard use of aluminum bats often allowed athletes to play through flaws by enabling them to send balls flying even on desperation swings.
In 2004, DiFoggio decided to try something radical to ensure that his Shepard players wouldn’t rely on shortcuts. In the summer of that year, he had the Astros use wood bats for the first time.
Not unexpectedly, Shepard’s run production dipped substantially, but DiFoggio was looking long term, not short. A few extra summertime losses would be easily forgotten if the Astros’ attack was able to properly support a respectable pitching staff that would be in place for the spring of 2005.
Interestingly, improved offense wasn’t the only thing DiFoggio hoped to gain from the wood-bat strategy.
“One of the things I wanted to do was to teach the guys that defense and playing little ball were going to make the difference in a lot of games,” DiFoggio said. “The way I was able to have them buy in on that was by giving them a wood bat because it’s a lot harder to hit with wood, so I figured it would teach them that we have to bunt, we have to run bases well [and] we’re going to have to learn to defend. We just can’t sit and wait for strikeouts — we’re going to have to make smart plays defensively.
“It really focused our boys because we had a very bad summer hitting-wise, but they really learned how to run bases, learned how to bunt [and] they learned how to scrap to win games.”
DiFoggio appeared prescient when the Astros captured a regional championship in the spring of 2005 and repeated the feat the following year. After that, it was a given that Shepard would employ wood bats each summer.
However, DiFoggio did make one adjustment a couple years ago when he had some smaller players who “would have no chance with a wood bat.”
“That’s when I turned this into a hybrid, where the older guys I want to swing wood and then the newcomers and the young guys can swing aluminum still because they’re just not strong enough,” DiFoggio said.
He said nearly every senior has used wood bats over the summer and two seniors-to-be, first baseman/pitcher Adam Gregory and catcher Bobby Peterka, claim those sticks have indeed made them more fundamentally sound.
“I feel like when I use wood it makes me a better hitter [because] I see my flaws,” Peterka said. “If I don’t hit it on the sweet spot, then I’m not hitting the baseball. And it helps me to focus on hitting that sweet spot, so when I go back to aluminum I’m smoking balls [to] left field, right field, center [field] — just good, solid hits.
“[Using wood bats] helps me see the ball. I’m focusing on the ball and where I hit it on the bat. It makes me a better hitter.”
Even though batters tend to fail at a slightly higher rate over the summer — growing accustomed to getting hands inside the ball, for instance, and finding the smaller sweet spot on a wood bat takes a little time — the benefits usually seen the following spring make the practice worthwhile.
“I find my weaknesses in my swing [with wood], so it helps me that much,” Gregory said. “I like it because then I can work on that through the winter.
“After using wood, I feel a little bit stronger with the aluminum [and I am] swinging it a little bit better.”
Aluminum bats were outlawed by the National Federation of State High School Associations in 2012, ostensibly to reduce the chances of serious injury. The BBCOR bats now in use have reduced power numbers and created a greater need for teams to manufacture runs.
DiFoggio, as it turns out, was simply way ahead of the learning curve.