When a baseball comes face to face with the bat of Eric Carlson, fans sitting close enough to the action usually hear a sound that's gloriously familiar, yet strangely foreign given the context of American Legion A baseball: A crack.
Not a ping, or a doink, or an empty, airy thud. A crack.
That's because the Ashland Pilots' slugger is swinging a hot stick right now. That is, Carlson is hitting about everything that moves, and he's doing so with a bat that's made of honest-to-goodness, no-kidding, straight-out-of-the-earth wood. Maple, to be exact, buffed to a syrupy shine and fused to a composite handle that's less likely to split when fighting off a mean inside slider.
Why choose wood and its inherent flaws — miniscule sweet spot, thin barrel, teeth rattling reverberation — over a slew of perfectly fine composite bats equipped with features like "carbon nanotube technology" and "membrane modal control"?
"It just seems to have the most pop for me," Carlson says of his DeMarini Pro Maple 243 Composite, which was recommended by Pilots assistant coach and former Ashland High slugger Brent Hegdahl. "I just decided to try it since this is summer ball and you've got to try new things."
Immediately, Carlson knew he was onto something.
"I just stroked the ball," he said. "I was hitting gaps really far, I was hitting hard line drives. I just felt like I should stick with it. Then I got one for my birthday and that's it."
Even the most dedicated aluminum bat fan would have a hard time arguing with the results. With three-quarters of the Pilots' regular season in the books, Carlson leads the team in batting average (.514), slugging percentage (.764), RBIs (27) and runs scored (26), and on July 8 became the first Ashland player to hit a home run with a wood bat since "… well, nobody knows.
So impressive is Carlson's spray chart, a few of his teammates have opened their mind to making the switch. In last week's sweep of Klamath Hawks, Tommy Hulick roped a triple over the left fielder's head with a wood bat.
Choosing wood over composite would have seemed like batting average suicide only a year ago, but now that BBCOR certified bats are the standard, more players may start eschewing metal for maple. BBCOR, or batted ball coefficient restitution, refers to the standard by which all bats used for high school or college baseball must now adhere to (starting this year, only bats bearing the BBCOR certified label were considered legal in high school ball). Compared to the composite bats of years past, BBCOR bats have much less pop. This is by design, the end result of an effort by the National Federation of State High School Associations to limit what is known as the trampoline effect and thus cut down on line-drive injuries.
In theory, BBCOR bats and wood bats should now be on equal footing, but the vast majority of players still prefer composite models.
"If you hit the sweet spot, you don't feel the ball at all, but it goes," he said of his wood bat. "It just launches straight off the barrel."
Carlson isn't suggesting that switching to maple can turn an average hitter into a great hitter, however. Far from it. In fact, a miss-timed swing with a wood bat will quickly remind anybody, no matter how strong, why composite bats continue to be much more popular. Going old school requires a fundamentally sound swing and perfect timing.
Luckly for the Pilots, Carlson, who moved to Ashland from Santa Clarita, Calif., the summer before his seventh-grade year, seems to possess both. But he's not perfect.
"You definitely know for sure when you hit it off the handle or off the end," he said. "It gives you instant feeback. I've hit a lot of hard ground balls, but I've hit a lot of little dinker ground balls, too. I just gotta get used to the new feel."
So far, Carlson is handling the switch well. He's been one of the bright spots on a Pilots' team that, at 16-9 overall, is fighting for its playoff life heading into the last two weeks of the regular season. During one particularly impressive five-game stretch, Carlson was 14-for-19 with three doubles and two triples. And he's not cooling off. He's 7-for-14 with four doubles in the Pilots' last four games.
"I think people did see (Carlson's) potential during the varsity season, and they expected him to come out and have a great Legion season," Pilots head coach Josh Hamik said, "but I think he's doing better than even we all expected him to do. I think he just has great hand-eye coordination. Even when he's fielding the ball, the ball always seems to end up in his mitt. "… Where some (high school players) are still fumbling over their feet, he seems to have put it together quickly. And he's got confidence, too."