Are Maple Bats the True Bad Guys ?
This is the 2nd installment of my little blog series on the epidemic of bat breakage in the MLB. If you did not read the first installment, I wrote it on 1/20/2008, and please feel free to check the archive for the blog.
Susan Rhodes is not a usual attendee to a baseball game. But why is it that on May 25, 2008, she was in the wrong place and the wrong time and met the barrel end of a tomahawking bat that shattered more than her jaw that day. She was sitting 4 rows behind the Los Angeles Dodgers dugout, usually a safe place for everything but the occasional foul ball. She ever saw the shard coming towards her, she was instead watching the play develop as the ball headed into the outfield. She suffered a concussion and the force of the bat fractured her jaw in two places.
Broker bats have been commonplace ever since the advent of baseball, but the Rhodes accident along with Rick Hellings impalement and both players and fans injuries have brought a new danger to the game of baseball. Even the men behind the plate, the umpires have not been ruled out as victims in this saga of wood and pressure. So has America;s favorite pastime been invaded by a new dangerous trend, and is the maple bat the sole item responsible for this trend?
Babe Ruth’s hickory bats are long gone and now it seems that the old memory of those heavy and cumbersome pieces of lumber show a simpler time in the era of baseball. It now seems that the obsession with ash bats for the last couple of decades has dwindled and is almost a forgotten bat material to most major leaguers’. Thanks to the popularity of the maple bat during Barry Bond’s run to the home run title more and more players are opting for this potentially lethal bat type. But we are not blaming Bonds for the recent problems, he did not design, test or even manufacture bat for a living, he just used them as a tool for his trade.
Atlanta Braves Manager Bobby Cox got a first hand account of the danger on June 19, 2008. While Cox was sitting in the dugout, like Rhodes, he was watching the ball and did not see second baseman Kelly Johnson’s bat shard coming towards him in the dugout. The bat ended up going above his head, but like Rhodes, he never saw the bat coming his way at any moment before it struck the dugout wall.
On June 24, players like Mariners’ pitcher Aaron Heilman and Royals catcher John Buck were members of a Major League Baseball committee to look into this new danger and try to decide what should be done for the safety of everyone in baseball. Scientists and engineers have also been consulted on the ever growing problem. By using the basics of science, they know the ways that according to MLB standards, a baseball bat should be shaped and hit. And they have studied the way it can react and also break under pressure.
Early in the annuals of baseball, bats also broke, but not at the regularity that they do today. The maple versus ash bat controversy did not exist because neither bat was developed at the time for use by baseball players. As we mentioned before, at the time Babe Ruth was swatting balls into the grandstands, players used hickory bats every time up to the plate. During those days hickory was a common wood and it is still known today as a truly strong wood to use in industry. But though time, batters wanted a lighter, more fluid wood to use for hitting, and the hickory bat became a dinosaur of modern bats.
Even though ash was not as strong as hickory, it did possess that lighter feeling in your hands, and could be sanded down easier to conform the handle to your touch and liking with simple sandpaper. The problem with most wood is that its overall strength can be totally compatible with weight. So if you desire a strong wood to produce your bats, you will get a heavier model because of the weight. And in simple contrast, if you go lighter wood, you get lighter overall weight, but you give up some levels of durability under pressure.
It is said that in the 1990’s, Toronto outfielder Joe Carter might have swung the first maple bat, and his shot to win the World Series for the Blue Jays might have been viewed by opponents as the key to power in that decade. Because he was using a maple bat, players began to look into its cost and usage and began to request them by the dozens. With maple now as an alternative, it was appealing because it showcased more strength without the cumbersome bother of weight . And because of it strength, it quickly got a reputation as the tool that would let you hit farther and longer in games.
Ash had a tendency to produce flakes of ash that came off the bat like snow, but it held together better and did not separate at the barrel end. Because of the flaking, players did not go through bats as often, and that was the main reason they stuck to them for so long. But in 2001, during Bond’s display of power and strength, players became obsessed and craved this new bat type, and quickly put ash bats in the dark recesses of the locker room or garages of the players.
For 50 years, white ash was the preferred wood for baseball bats, but with over 50 percent of all players using maple now, it was a quick and revolutionary change for the game. Maple and ash bats all break a certain way because of their unique characteristics. Ash tends to flake or chip in smaller chunks and do not propel through the air, while maple has a tendency to break into larger jagged shards that are propelled by the stored up energy of the bat. But can the change in breakage patterns be attributed to their cell difference and the size of their pores within the wood.
Scientists agree that the tree pores, which transports moisture inside the trees before they become bats shows that ash has more flexibility to it than maple samples. Ash wood has what is considered a ring porous character. within its grains you will find more avenues and pores that can carry moisture throughout the wood. And of you went into the region of its growth ring, where the grain doesn’t exist, you would see that it is more or less solid fiber.
Because the voids in wood are confined to certain areas, the growth planes are considered a weak area of the wood. When an ash bat hits an object, its cell walls would collapse, and that would produce the chipping and the flaking experienced with ash bats. The barrel would just begin to soften and small flaking pieces would begin to fall off the bat. It makes for a great indicator of the lessen density of the wood and its possibility of breakage and snapping while hitting.
Maple on the other hand is considered ring diffuse, meaning that its pore are more evenly distributed throughout the piece of wood. that makes the bat barrel more durable than any other part of the wood, and you do not get the cautionary flaking or chipping warning that ash bats give you before they break apart while hitting.
Cracks form in both types of wood as a bat is used to hit a ball after ball after ball. But the same pore structure that makes a ash bat flake also produces cracks along the channel of the bat. Meaning that it has a long way to go before a crack can materialize to actually crack a bat in half. And batters can see these cracks beforehand and exchange the bat before the process results in an explosion of the bat upon contact.
I know we have all seen a hitter take the barrel end of the bat and bounce it off the ground or the plate to see if they get vibrations out of the bat that will be a sure sign of it breaking. It was an early warning sign of sorts for the wood to let the batter know it was about to take its last swing, or break apart during the hitting process. That made the ash bat a lot safer and more predictable before danger could happen. But it also could happen multiple times during a game, and the cost of replacing a box of bats might have been the deciding factor in hitters looking for alternatives.
Because of the maple bats diffuse pores, cracks in the wood can grow in any number of directions. This could make them more apt to hide the cracks and breaks as they break out towards the barrel. That is the main reason that maple bats produce such a large chunk or shard when they finally do explode after cracking. And sine they do not flake or ship, they do not ever send a warning sign to the batter that his bat is cracking or might end up in the stands or in the infield barely missing a opposing player.
But a culprit that might go unnoticed even by the hitter is that fact that the wood can take on different characteristics considering how the bat was cut from the wood. A billet of misaligned wood can affect it subjectivity to breakage as well as force upon the wood. A bat is considered stronger when the grain lines up with the length of the bat. Because of its dark nature, this grain is considerably harder to see in maple than in the light tones of the ash bat. Maple also has a tendency to not have as straight a grain as ash, which can be instrumental in fatigue and breakage when used to extremes.
If you do not have a bat that is cut with the grain, you will have a weaker bat. That might not be a scientific phasing for you, but it is a stark reality with baseball bats. But can that be one of the multitude of reasons that a maple bat and explode and send shards throughout the stands or infield. Another factor take take into consideration is the fact that the batter could hit the ball in a bad position and make the bat break upon his swing. Which would have nothing to do with the bats chemistry, or it’s compounds or porous material.
The bat comes into contact with the ball in a small area for only one thousandth of a second in most swings. The short time it takes to make that impact can sends upwards of 5,000 pounds of force through the wood. If you hit the ball badly, or not within the are of the “sweet spot” of the bat, you could get this stinging sensation in your hands. That is a visual sign from the bat that it is bending and vibrating to release the force without breaking in your hands.
If the bending is compacted into enough of an area, it can produce a bat break in any type of bat. The bending of the bat can lead to its breaking usually in ash bats at the point of the least material, which on an ash bat, is its handle. The bat that Todd Helton had in his hand on the day that Susan Rhodes got injured broke at the handle and sent the barrel tomahawking into the stands towards her. This leads to another concern about today’s bats. Could a narrower handle on the bat be a reason for the increase in bats breaking and exploding all over the ballpark.
Over 100 years ago, bat handles were a lot more thicker and more bulky than today’s bats used by every level of baseball. Some say the advent of these small handles is a compliance to metal bats that are used at lower levels before players become professionals. Because the metal bats do not possess a thick, rugged handle players are unaccustomed to hitting with the extra meat on the handle. As time progressed, the handle also went through a series a changes to become more streamlined and comfortable to today’s players.
The narrow handle makes a baseball bat made out of wood more prone to breaking and take away the sturdiness of the bat. To make modern bats more accustom to metal bats, did we make the breakage problem worse, or just provide another avenue for the bats to break upon force. Because of the numerous injuries and episodes during 2008, the issue of the bats has come again into the limelight.
Again, another episode that happened in 2008, was on June 24, in Kansas City, as MLB umpire Brian O’Nora was hit in the head, while wearing his protective gear behind the plate during a game. Think about this for a second. Here is a guy less than 3 feet from the epicenter of the bats explosion who had his protective gear popped off his forehead and sustained a gash upon his forehead.
You do not want to think of the repercussions of him maybe not even having a safety device on and getting clobbered with that bat shard. I would love to have a poll done of MLB catchers to see how many of them have to have trainers or medical personnel during or after the game take out splinters or small sharp wood chips from their equipment or their bodies. I think that kind of poll would not help the bat situation, because most catcher see that as part of the game, like a foul ball getting your fingers or cracking you in the inner thighs.
You have to wonder if engineers and scientists have a good theory on why bats crack and break. I know we see multitudes of bats breaking during games today, but is there any true data outsides of the hands of the MLB that can tell us . We know that the MLB has collected bats from 2008 and have analyzed and categorized their breakage and the bats type of wood. So is there real evidence that we have not seen yet that would show that bats are breaking now at alarming rates compared to the past. And to what extent does the maple bat hold either a advantage or a danger as a bat of choice by the MLB players.
Could there be a variable that since ash bats show their breakage points before breaking fully, that the safety factor of these types of bats provide more protection to hitters and others around the batter’s box. Whereas maple bats only show their weakness when struck and will not give any visual sign of breakage before the audible sign of the crack of the bat during a swing. There are probable a dozen of ways to reduce the number of broken bats that have either been suggested or advised throughout the years.
Maybe the action of thicker handles, and the compliance of players to not shave down handles and make them customized after manufacture could be another solution. Maybe the MLB has to provide a maximum diameter for the handles of bats by the manufacturers. But would a thicker handle minimize the shards flying still throughout the stands and the playing surface. If you thicken the handle you will make it safer. But alone will this help some of the problem.
Or is the fact that wood bats fail, that it is a part of the game to see bats splinter and crack. But some of today’s bats do not make a simple splintering or cracking, but produce a missile that takes on speed as it leaves the batters box. So with that in mind, we have to face the reality that bats fail, and that maple bats will fail far more times than ash bat in the future. MLB could be doing a study right now on wood types and maybe implementing restrictions on certain wood types that display more brittle properties in them. Or maybe even think of implementing a specification on the grain alignment to help them stopping breaking in alarming rates in 2009or beyond.
Individually, the teams could set up more protective netting in front of the lower level infield seats in stadiums with the premise to protect their fans. I know that Detroit Tigers center fielder Curtis Granderson suggested such a measure on his ESPN.com blog. Because players have their attention and eye towards the batter, they have more ample time to dodge and even see the shards coming towards them. While spectators in those front rows have a tendency to look in other directions because of the multiple attention getting sights and sounds of the game.
That might be a way of protecting the fans, but those people pay good money to sit in those sections and most know the dangers firsthand from foul balls and errant throws to first or third base. To suggest that they are the only ones in the ball park to be protected might not be viewed as well by fans above the dugout, or further down the foul lines in stadiums. And anyways, who want to sit there on the front row and have to look through a net the entire game. If I wanted to look through glass or netting, I would go to an NHL game, not want to watch the greatest game on dirt.