ESPN Article with Q and A on Maple Bats… FYI for MLBloggers

I was out of town and forgot to write an article in advance for Sunday. Here is a reprint of an ESPN.com article I found interesting with a Q and A session about maple bats. It was originally reported by Amy K. Nelson of ESPN, and I found the results to this question very interesting. Hopefully you will enjoy this frank discussion on the bats that have made more than a few MLB players sweat during 2008.  In the coming weeks, I will try and write a 3-part series on the maple bat controversy and the steps being taken to fix this before 2009.



In search of more information about maple bats, we spoke to players
and two experts in the industry — Chuck Schapp of Louisville Slugger
and Sam Holman, owner of The Original Maple Bat Corporation — for
their opinions on the ash vs. maple debate.

1. When were maple bats introduced to Major League Baseball?

It’s
tough to know the exact date, but Holman says Joe Carter first used a
maple bat in a major league game in 1997. Holman, a carpenter from
Ottawa, Canada, first met Blue Jays scout Bill MacKenzie in a local
watering hole where Holman was asked to make a maple bat. By the end of
the 1996 season, Holman and McKenzie went to the Triple-A Ottawa Lynx
and got Fernando Seguignol
to use a maple bat. Holman thinks Seguignol is the first professional
player to homer with a maple bat. By the next season, word about maple
bats had spread and big leaguers with the Blue Jays asked for a
shipment. Schapp says he first noticed players using maple in 1998, and
a year later, Louisville Slugger began production of maple bats.

2. Who makes the maple bats used in Major League Baseball?

MLB
has licensed 32 companies to produce maple bats. Louisville Slugger and
Rawlings are two of the biggest. Holman’s company sells maple bats
exclusively.

3. Where does the maple wood come from?

It
depends on the company. For instance, Louisville Slugger has its own
wood production company, but also outsources with a few different
timber companies, most of them in the New York/Pennsylvania area.
Holman uses a company out of the Catskills, which he says produces
better quality maple.

4. What are the benefits of using maple over ash?

It’s
a very subjective decision. Most players prefer the feel of maple over
ash; ash bats tend to soften faster than maple. “It gets soft and the
grains separate,” Schapp says of the ash. But those players who like a
little more give in their bats, or what Schapp terms “flex,” usually
prefer the ash. “For me, it’s a feel thing,” said Angels second baseman
Howie Kendrick,
who has used an ash bat his entire career, except in 2006. “I like how
the ash has some give.” Holman said that Barry Bonds once told him he
preferred how the maple didn’t bend, so he didn’t have to compensate
with his swing as much as he did with an ash bat.

5. Are the characteristics of a maple bat any different than those of an ash bat?

Yes
and no. Holman says there isn’t a larger hitting area on maple bats.
Schapp adds that the specs are exactly the same for both woods and that
neither one has proven to hit balls any farther than the other. But
Angels center fielder Torii Hunter
said the only time he used a maple bat (for the month of April this
season), he felt the difference in how hard the maple wood made contact
with the ball. “It feels like a car crash at full speed,” Hunter said.
“It’s like you killed the ball. [They're] a little more powerful.”
Kendrick said his ash bat starts to splinter toward the head after just
a week of use, and he uses maples exclusively for batting practice,
because ash tends to break faster than maple. The irony is that maple
bats last much longer, but when they break, it happens with far greater
violence.

6. How many major leaguers use maple bats?

It’s
difficult to know an exact number, but Schapp says that 65 percent of
Louisville Sluggers sent to major leaguers are maple. Hunter said he
tried maple for a month because of all the hype. He quickly went back
to ash. “It’s a mental thing,” Hunter said. Indians center fielder Grady Sizemore
said he used ash for a year, but prefers maple. Sizemore said he
couldn’t really identify a difference; he just preferred the feel of
maple. Because of the recent controversy over the breaking of maple
bats, some players have decided to switch back to ash. Schapp said a
few months ago Jason Bay
decided to go back to ash in part because he wanted to readjust in case
maple bats were banned. “I hope they don’t decide to get rid of them,”
Sizemore said.

7. Who are the most noteworthy players using maple?

Manny Ramirez, Prince Fielder, Dustin Pedroia, Jason Giambi are a few. What about the balls that Josh Hamilton hit at Yankee Stadium during the Home Run Derby? Those were hit with an ash bat. Sizemore, Dan Uggla and Chase Utley were among those using maple for the contest.

8. Why are there more maple bats breaking than ash?

Part
of the reason is the wood itself, Schapp said. Wood is made up of cells
that identify its texture. Ash wood tends to be a longer, leaner piece
of wood. “Ash is longer than maple while maple is more rigid,” Schapp
said. “When [maple] fails, it’s catastrophic.” Each piece of wood also
contains a percentage of water. The water content usually ranges from 6
to 12 percent in a typical piece of wood at the lumber yard. All
Louisville Sluggers — both maple and ash — have 12 percent water
content. Schapp says Louisville keeps it at 12 percent so the bats
won’t dry out. Some players speculate that maple has a tendency to
break violently because maple is a harder wood. Holman, whose bats
contain just 5 percent of water, suggested that the quality of many of
the other companies’ bats might be subpar, thus increasing the chances
of breaking. “I don’t know what the other manufacturers do,” Homan
said. “But to me the quality of wood is not there.”

9. What would it take to make the maple bats safer?

Companies
are researching that now. Louisville Slugger is currently working with
its chemical vendors to find a way to enhance the bats’ durability
without adding weight. Holman said chemicals have nothing to do with
it, and what Major League Baseball needs to do is invest in paying for
better wood, which would raise the cost of the bats.

10. What is the difference in cost between a maple and ash bat?

The
difference is around $15-$20. Louisville maple bats are currently sold
for an average of $65 each, while ash sells for $48.

11. What is the process for ordering bats?

If
baseball were to ban maple bats, Schapp said his company would need a
minimum of six months to adjust. Schapp’s already submitted his 2009
estimates to the timber companies. He says November through January are
his busiest months; that’s usually when the teams place their official
orders for the bats needed in spring training. As for the players, they
normally have their team’s equipment manager place orders whenever they
need more. Sometimes, the players will speak directly with the bat
company representatives, who frequently visit baseball clubhouses.

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