There was a time when Aaron Cunningham had no particularly special baseball talent.
At least that’s how he tells it.
“I was just your average player,” Cunningham said of his career at South Kitsap High School, where he didn’t make the team as a freshman, played junior varsity the next year and was an all-league varsity contributor his final two seasons.
To support his humble claim, Cunningham mentioned a surprising statistic: During his prep career at South Kitsap he hit only one home run.
A five-tool system is used to evaluate a baseball player’s ability and potential. The tools are hitting for average, hitting for power, running, throwing, and fielding.
Cunningham said he had none of them in high school.
“I can honestly tell you I had no tools,” he said.
Things certainly changed.
Today Cunningham, a 22-year-old former Everett Community College player, is one of the top prospects in the Oakland A’s organization. Through July 14 the 5-foot-11, 195-pound outfielder was hitting .309 with 25 extra-base hits and 30 runs batted in 64 games for the Class AA Midland RockHounds.
A big reason for Cunningham’s rise is his ability to hit with a wood bat, something he said he honed at Everett Community College.
After hitting the lone homer with an aluminum bat in high school, Cunningham put on 20 pounds and transformed into a dangerous wood-bat hitter at Everett CC. During his only season with the Trojans he hit .465 with 10 homers (leading his conference in both categories), was converted from an unsure second baseman to an outfielder and went from being a player who received sparse college recruiting interest to a sixth-round major league draft pick.
At Everett CC, which plays in the all-wood-bat Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges, Cunningham proved he could hit with wood.
“And it gave him an opportunity to go play, and he’s (made) the most of it,” said Levi Lacey, Everett CC’s head baseball coach.
But a bat’s a bat, right?
Not even close. Many players kill the ball with aluminum bats in high school and at four-year colleges but find the transition to hitting with wood, which all pros must make, is startlingly difficult. Cunningham is an exception.
The reasons for many players’ struggles are numerous:
— Swinging a wood bat, which compared to an evenly balanced metal bat is heavier in the barrel, feels different.
— Wood bats frequently break and can expose swing flaws.
— The “sweet spot” on a wood bat is much smaller and the ball jumps off a metal bat faster, players and coaches said.
These factors and others make the switch to wood an often intimidating challenge, especially for new minor leaguers who also contend with better pitching, more games, frequent travel and lots of late nights.
Here is a closer look at the metal-to-wood transition, including how it feels to hit with different bats, when players start learning to hit with wood, what pro scouts look for, and possible reasons why so many guys with Northwest ties — like Cunningham, Grady Sizemore, Brent Lillibridge, Travis Snider, Mitch Canham, etc. — successfully made the jump in recent years.
‘The best feeling’
A basic way to understand the differences between hitting with aluminum and wood is the sound. The solid smack made by a wood bat that solidly strikes a ball is drastically different than the collision of metal and ball.
For a hitter, nothing beats the sensation of a pure wood-bat blast, said Lillibridge, an Atlanta Braves shortstop and former Jackson High and University of Washington standout.
“Without a doubt, squaring up with a wood bat and hitting it perfect and hitting a home run, it’s the best feeling,” he said.
Lillibridge used aluminum bats in high school and college, but these days he can’t stand them.
“You just don’t want to hear the ping of the metal bat anymore. It isn’t baseball,” said Lillibridge.
Everett AquaSox outfielder Dennis Raben — who played at the University of Miami and was a second-round draft pick by the Seattle Mariners in June’s draft — had a similar opinion.
“Just hearing that crack (of a wood bat), it just sounds natural. The aluminum bat ping isn’t the same,” he said.
Besides being significantly heavier in the barrel — or end-loaded, as some players call it — wood bats are solid, unlike metal bats, which are hollow.
Here’s how Beau Blacken, a former college and pro player who is now a player/coach for the semi-pro Everett Merchants, described the sensation of using a wood bat: “You can actually feel what the barrel’s doing while you’re swinging.”
Aluminum bats, players and coaches said, are easier to control and have larger sweet spots, which turn mis-hits into bloop singles or even long fly balls. But they also mask a hitter’s flaws.
‘A different game’
Blacken said he struggled to hit with wood for the Everett Merchants during the summer after his freshman year of college at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M. He previously excelled at every level with aluminum, but playing for the Merchants in the wood-bat Pacific International League he discovered a major hole in his swing: It was too long.
“For the first time you actually feel what you’re doing wrong because you can feel the bat,” Blacken said.
With wood bats, “it’s definitely a different game,” said Blacken, who eventually learned to hit with lumber and played four seasons as a power-hitting pro in the independent Frontier League.
“You’ve got to be a lot more direct with the ball,” he said. “You’ve got to be a lot more accurate. It’s not about how hard you can swing. It’s about how well you can swing.”
Derek Jones, a Washington State University recruit who in May helped Snohomish High School win the Class 4A state championship, started competing in wood-bat tournaments for his select team, the Seattle Stars, the summer after his sophomore year. He learned a lot.
“If you have a bad swing you’ll either break a wood bat or not hit it as far. It’s kind of a teacher in itself,” he said.
Finding wood hitters
In the late 1990s when the Pacific International League changed from being an aluminum-bat league to a wood-bat league, Harold Pyatte’s Everett Merchants suffered a power outage.
Pyatte, manager of the semi-pro Merchants, whose roster consists mainly of college players, said his team went from hitting 25 to 30 home runs per year with metal in a 40-game season to smacking just four or five homers per season with wood.
“The transition was very profound,” Pyatte said.
It changed how he recruits. Now Pyatte seeks junior college players who compete in wood leagues. He’s not as interested in Division-I, four-year college guys who use metal.
Lacey, Everett CC’s head coach, takes a similar approach when recruiting talented prep players. He’s not obsessed with gaudy stats because he knows high school players who put up monster numbers with aluminum bats won’t necessarily succeed in the NWAACC.
When Lacey brings in potential recruits for workouts, he’s interested in things like core body strength and hand strength — skills that make hitting with wood easier.
The method seems effective. Lacey’s teams have generally hit well and several players, like Cunningham, have been drafted or received D-I scholarships.
“Our transition phase hasn’t been as long as some of the other programs (because of) the simple fact that we recruit players that we feel can make the transition faster,” said Lacey.
Kids must have bat speed and strength to hit with wood in the pros, said Jim Fitzgerald, the Seattle Mariners’ Northwest scouting supervisor. That’s what he and other scouts look for when they evaluate prep and college players who use metal.
It’s a potentially deceptive process.
“You can get a little fooled with aluminum if you look at how far a kid hits it,” Fitzgerald said. “A guy can hit one off his hands and he can hit it out of the ballpark. If he has wood in his hands the bat blows up.”
Ideally, pro scouts evaluate players at summer wood-bat showcases or private wood-bat workouts in the spring, said Fitzgerald.
With plenty of opportunities available, many local players with the financial means are hitting with wood bats at an earlier age.
Blacken, a 1999 Lake Stevens High graduate, didn’t start practicing with wood until the summer before his senior year. But guys like Lillibridge and Jones began competing in wood-bat tourneys early in high school.
Blacken, who runs the School of Hard Knocks hitting facility in Lake Stevens, said he gets more and more young players who want to hit with wood.
“The kids have realized that you’ve got to have wood in your hands. You have to own some wood bats,” said Fitzgerald of the Mariners.
Twenty years ago high school-age players didn’t know how to hold a wood bat (the correct way is with the label up or down) or where to buy a good one, Fitzgerald said.
“Now, it’s expected. Kids show up with a few wood bats in their bag,” he said.
For Lillibridge, the first taste of hitting with wood in a game came in a three-day tourney when he was 14. Pitchers dominated and the bats felt heavy, he said, but it was a good experience, one that foreshadowed his future.
“You kind of felt like a big leaguer when you (hit with wood) when you were younger,” he said.
Lillibridge suggests players with pro aspirations swing wood as often as possible. He often did it during high school and college batting practices.
It’s better to get comfortable sooner than later, he said: “When you get drafted, there’s no more metal. You’ve just got to figure it out.”
With its cold, wet winters and springs, the Pacific Northwest seems to pose a problem for young baseball players: They don’t get the same year-round playable conditions as peers in baseball havens like California, Texas and Florida.
But even when they’re stuck indoors Northwest players can drastically improve their skills.
Pro scouts like the mentality of hitters from this region, Everett CC’s Lacey said, because “when we’re here all winter long the best thing we can do is swing in the back of that (indoor batting) cage.”
Hitters who focus during the repetitive but valuable cage sessions learn important techniques, like staying “inside” the ball and keeping their hands in, said Lacey.
Oregon State University (back-to-back College World Series champs in 2006 and 2007), Lewis-Clark State College (winners of 16 NAIA titles, including the past three) and Jackson High School (unbeaten 2006 state champs who finished with a No. 2 national ranking) are all examples of premier-quality baseball programs that overcame the Northwest’s less-than-stellar conditions.
Said Fitzgerald of the Mariners, “Even with this bad weather there’s good baseball up here. It’s a product of kids playing baseball at an early age and good summer programs.”
Writer Mike Cane: email@example.com. Check out the prep sports blog Double Team at www.heraldnet.com/doubleteam.