STANFORD, Calif. -- Travis Higgs used to hit at least seven home runs during a 40-minute session of batting practice. Using one of college baseball's new, safer metal bats this week, he cleared the fence just once.
That's fine with the University of San Francisco catcher, and his coach. Same with Dons pitcher Matt Hiserman, who survived a life-threatening skull fracture last February when he was hit with a line drive during an intrasquad game.
Many college players have been swinging the new bats since fall workouts, getting a feel for what it's like to have the sweet spot shrink from some 22 inches to barely more than 5. Coaches and players figure power numbers and batting averages will be worse this spring and ERAs much improved in the initial season as everybody adjusts.
Pure hitters should still get their share of home runs.
"A bat's a bat," said Stanford freshman infielder Brian Ragira, a 30th-round draft pick by his hometown Texas Rangers who chose to go to college. "If you square the ball up with this bat, it's still going to go out."
While the bats play closer to their wooden counterparts minus the weight and mass, they also are designed to decrease the exit speeds of the ball off the bat. The average speed had been considered 93 mph, but many hits were coming off at rates of 100-103 mph and making for dangerous situations in which players had little or no time to react or protect themselves.
The new bats must meet a standard called the Ball-Bat Coefficient of Restitution -- or BBCOR. California high schools are already going to these bats, while the rest of the country has another year to use the older, lightweight composite models.
College teams began formal practices this week, with many playing their first games Feb. 18.
"I think it's the biggest adjustment on offense that our game will ever see," said 13th-year USF coach Nino Giarratano. "It's really going to bring the game back to being fun. You'll see a drop in average and better pitching numbers. You'll definitely see the home run totals diminish and time of game will be shorter. What it does is give the inside of the plate back to the pitcher. True power is going to be true power."
Outfielders might need to change how they react to balls that suddenly aren't coming to them quite as quickly, though many believe it will be a minimal change.
"Do I think the bats will make a difference? I don't know," 24th-year San Jose State coach Sam Piraro said. "I don't see where there are going to be as many home runs as there've been, which is fine with me. I love playing the game of baseball where you earn what you get."
Hiserman's speedy recovery and extraordinary comeback in a matter of two months last spring surprised his parents, coaches, teammates and especially doctors, who weren't sure the reliever would return to class let alone the field. Now he's in graduate school and back for his senior season.
"He's as good as he's ever been. If anything, he's stronger," Higgs said.
During a Feb. 13, 2010, intrasquad scrimmage, Hiserman was hit by a sharp line drive off the bat of teammate Pete Lavin. Hiserman spent four days in intensive care as doctors monitored the bleeding of his brain to see if he needed surgery.
Hiserman's skull fracture extended through the facial nerves and inner ear bones without seriously affecting them. He suffered a blown out right eardrum and slight decrease in hearing.
In nearby Marin County last March, then-16-year-old high school pitcher Gunnar Sandberg was hit by a line drive during a scrimmage and suffered a brain injury. That sparked the Marin County Athletic League to ban metal bats and require its 10 teams to use wooden bats.
Doctors removed a part of Sandberg's skull to relieve brain swelling. He slowly recovered in a San Francisco rehabilitation facility after initially being in a medically induced coma.
"I will speak for our team, we accept the challenge of having a newer bat with less pop and less power," Higgs said. "For us, it's just a bat and you've still got to put a good swing on it. Balls that you put good swings on will turn into home runs, maybe not as many. For the safety of the game, it will be safer because balls won't come off as hard. There will be a lot more small-ball games. You just take it for what it is."
The injuries were especially noteworthy in Northern California last year.
At Saint Mary's College, one of USF's top rivals across San Francisco Bay, closer Dorsey Ek missed half of last season with a head injury after he was hit during batting practice and sustained a concussion. He also is back this season.
"Ninety feet might not be what it used to be," California coach Dave Esquer said of the bat change. "Teams might play a little bit smaller. They can't wait for a double or a home run."
The injuries and close calls have affected numerous programs across the country, too. The bats for 2011 must meet the new rules to be approved for NCAA use.
The Rawlings bats used by USF players feature thinner walls, one of the efforts by manufacturers to eliminate what is referred to as the "trampoline effect" of the ball coming off the bat at such a high rate of speed.
"I think two or three years down the road kids won't notice a difference," Giarratano said.