Thursday, November 27, 2008

Maple Not Ash, Not Lately

Terminology for a baseball bat.

The barrel is the thick part of the bat, where the bat is meant to hit the ball. The part of the barrel best for hitting the ball with, according to construction and swinging style, is often called the sweet spot.

The bat drop of a baseball bat is the difference of its weight (in ounces) to its length (in inches). For example, a 30-ounce bat, 33-inch long bat has a bat drop of minus 3 (30-33=-3). Larger bat drops help to increase swing speed. Bats with smaller drops create more power.

Supposedly the first player to use a maple bat was Joe Carter. The former Cub and Toronto Blue Jay hero, who ended his career wearing orange and black as a Giant.

Barry Bonds used the bat the season he passed Mark McGwire for the single-season record of home runs, when he hit 73 to McGwire's 70. And during that devastating year, 2001, when you think of the rubble and smoke where the Twin Towers stood a short while ago on 9/11, and someone speaks of maple bats, you might think of flying chunks of wood. But when number 25 stepped into the batter's box, you saw nothing but a ball taking a ride or lots of pitches out of the strike zone.

Recently, Major League baseball has debated whether maple bats are safe to use, due to the tendency for them to shatter into pieces. And this is where the major leagues is at. MLB needs more information before a decision on maple bats can be made. What are their limitations, as far as the adjustments made to the bat by the player who purchases them.

Some good information on this subject was received by reading John Donovan's article in on June 17, 2008. He starts out the piece with: In the parlance of batmakers, it's not the species, it's what you do with the species.

Maple bats are generally considered denser, heavier and less flexible than their ash counterparts. "Maple bats break much more dramatically because of the shorter grain structure. When they break they explode, " says Rick Redman of Louisville slugger, the biggest supplier of bats to major league baseball (mlb).

Louisville slugger, the imprimatur (license to print) of batmaker Hillerich & Bradsby, now makes more maple bats for big leaguers than ash bats.

Jim Sherwood, who runs the Baseball Research Center at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, has done research for MLB into how maple bats break. The league, too, has started to compile some information on its own. But no data has been released.

Jim Anderson says his company (Max Bat's) would welcome revised regulations on bat specifications. The current rules, he says, allow for barrels that are too big (up to 2 3/4 in diameter) and handles that might be considered by some as too skinny (and sometimes are made even skinnier when players shave them to cut down on weight.) The relationship between the size of the barrel (Anderson says they should be no bigger than 2 1/2 in diameter) and the size of the handle (regulation states it can be no skinnier than 16/19 of an inch), if too severe, may well cause bats to snap.

The rules on the relationship between the length of the bat and the weight of it also should be revised, he says. Anderson's company, for example, would like to see a limit of what he calls "minus -2" between the length of the bat (in inches) and its weight (in ounces). "It's not the wood species. It's the profile."

All of these changes would presumably enable the companies that make maple bats- there are more than 30 (no exact number was given) registered batmakers with MLB, all of whom must carry liability insurance- to use better wood stock to produce safer, more dependable bats.

Tom Verducci (of Inside Baseball) wrote a piece that appeared in on June 17, 2008. Verducci mentions how commissioner Bud Selig has expressed his concern about the maple bats and will have his major league baseball officials meet. This date was set at June 24th. According to Verducci, doing nothing no longer is an option. Well, nothing has happened yet and we're just about to enter December of 2008.

The league has to look at all the facts and establish guidelines every bit as important as the steroid policy because these bats are a threat to someone's safety.

You need to go all the way back to 1893- when flat-sided bats were banned with a rule stating "bats must be completely round" -to find a change to hitter's equipment as the one that might be forthcoming.

Baseball will NOT be able to claim, in court, that it was unaware of the hazards caused by maple bats, which routinely break apart in large jagged pieces that put players and, most especially, fans in harms way. Major League Baseball has been collecting breakage information for years from club equipment managers and, most obviously, seen the scary highlights nightly.

Approximately 55% of major leaguers use maple bats.

"I'm not so much worried myself," Blue Jays third baseman Scott Rolen said. "I'm locked in and concentrated on every pitch and every swing. I can see the ball and the bat. But I don't want my family sitting near the field unless they are behind the (backstop) screen. The bats are a hazard for fans more so than players."

Rolen said he tried maple bats briefly, but gave them up when two of those bats exploded even though he made contact with the baseball on the sweet spot of the barrel, a common complaint among maple users.

Players who prefer maple bats note that they do not flake like ash bats can and tend to maintain their hardness longer-as long as they don't bust in half.

Nimbleness and responsiveness never have been part of baseball's strong suits. But the danger of maple bats is unmistakable.

And as a reminder, Verducci adds...

Baseball players gradually have moved toward light bats with thick barrels and thin handles, in part because they have learned to hit with metal bats. For instance, Babe Ruth, in 1927, wielded a 35" bat that weighed 40 ounces while becoming the Father of power hitting (I like Dad of Dong). But Ruth probably didn't need such weight, or mass, in his bat. Because the bat already has so much more mass than the ball, bat speed (velocity) is much more significant than the mass.

(thanks to Tom Verducci, John Donovan, and Baseball-Reference)

Kevin Marquez