Sunday Rewind: “Are Maple Bats the Bad Guys?”
This is the 2nd installment of my past series on the epidemic of maple bat breakage within Major League Baseball. If you did not read the first installment, I wrote it on 1/20/2009, and please feel free to check the archive for the blog. As has been my custom during the off season, this is a posting of a blog written during the 2009 season. So hopefully you will enjoy this look into the past.
Susan Rhodes is not your usual attendee to a Major League Baseball game. But why is it that on May 25, 2008, she just seemed to be in the wrong place, and the wrong time, and met the barrel end of a tomahawking maple bat that shattered more than her jaw. She was sitting just 4 rows behind the Los Angeles Dodgers dugout, which is usually a safe place at an MLB game. Rhodes never even saw the shards of the broken bat coming towards her, she was instead watching the play develop as the ball headed into the outfield. She suffered injuries that included a concussion and a fractured jaw in two places.
Watching players break bats at the plate has been a commonplace sight since the advent of baseball, but the Rhodes accident along with Rick Hellings impalement have shown that there might be a new level of danger to the game of baseball. Even the men behind the plate, the umpires, have not been ruled out as innocient victims in this saga. So has America’s favorite pastime been invaded by this new dangerous trend, and could the expanded use of maple bats be the sole item responsible for this trend?
The hickory wooden bats used by hitters like Babe Ruth are long gone from baseball, and now it seems that those heavy and cumbersome pieces of lumber showcased a simpler and safer time.Thanks to the growing popularity of the maple bat during Barry Bond’s run to the Home Run title, more MLB players opted for this potentially lethal bat wood type. I am not blaming Bonds for the recent problems, he did not design, test or even manufacture any of these bats for a living, but just used them as a tool for his trade.
And Atlanta Braves Manager Bobby Cox got a first-hand account of the dangers posed by maple bats on June 19, 2008 while Cox was sitting in the Braves dugout. Like Rhodes, Cox was watching the hit ball and did not see Braves Second Baseman Kelly Johnson’s maple bat shard coming end-over-end towards him in the dugout. The bat shard ended up going just above Cox’s head, but like Rhodes, he never saw the bat piece coming towards him before it slammed into the back of the dugout wall.
All throughout the annuals of baseball, bats have broken when hitters went to the plate, but not at the regularity they do today. The maple versus ash bat controversy did not exist back then because neither bat was fully developed at that time for use by baseball players. At the time Babe Ruth was swatting balls into the grandstands, players used heavy hickory wooden bats. During those days, hickory was a commoningly used wood, and it is still known as a strong wood to use for baseball bats. But batters wanted a bat that uses a lighter, more fluid wood for hitting, and the hickory bats quickly became extinct like the dinosaurs.
Even though ash is not as strong as hickory, it does possess a lighter feeling in your hands, and the wood can be sanded down with limited sweat and pain to conform the bat handle to your personal touch and liking with just a fine grade sheet of sandpaper. The problem with most other woods 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 model bat that is heavier because of the woods density. And in simple contrast, if you go lighter wood, you get lighter overall weight, but you can give up some safety levels of durability under the constant pressure bats go through every time you go to the plate to hit in a game.
In the 1990’s, Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Joe Carter might have swung the first maple bat, and his Home Run shot to win the World Series for the Jays might have been a key moment to the potential power of maple bats. Because Carter used maple as the wood of choice for his bats, players began to look into its cost and usage and quickly began to request them by the dozens from bat manufacturers.
With maple now seen as an alternative to the customary ash models, it quickly became more appealing to hitters because it showcased more strength without the cumbersome bother of weight to quicken a player’s bat speed through the hitting zone. And because of it strength, it quickly got a reputation as the tool that would hopefully let you hit farther and longer in games.
Ash bats, which were currently the rave, had a tendency to produce flakes of ash that came off the bat like snow, but held the bat intact and did not separate at the barrel end like maple bats. Because of the flaking, players did not go through bats as often, and that might have been the main reasoning that many hitters stuck to ash bats for so long. But during Bond’s display of power in 2001, MLB players became obsessed with them and craved this bat type, and quickly put ash bats in the dark recesses of the MLB clubhouses.
For 50 years, white ash was the preferred wood for baseball bats, but with over 50 percent of all MLB players now craving maple, it was a quickly changing the game. Maple and ash bats both break a certain way because of their woods unique internal 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 basic wood cell difference and the size of their pores within the wood, or is there another culprit?
Scientists agree that ash wood cell structure has more elastic flexibility than their maple wood cousins. Ash wood has a ring porous character within its grain where you will find more pores that can carry moisture throughout the wood. And if you ventured into the region of its overall growth ring, where the grain doesn’t exist, you would see that it is a more solid fibered wood than maple.
Because the voids in wood are usually 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 greater visual indicator of the lessening density of the ash wood bat and its possibility of breaking or snapping when used while hitting.
Maple on the other hand are 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 signs that ash wooden bats give you before they break apart while hitting.
Cracks do tend to form in both types of wood as a bat is used to hit ball after ball after ball. But the same pore structure that makes an ash bat flake, also produces cracks along the channel of the ash bat. This brings about a more durable bat type that has a long way to go before a crack can materialize to crack that bat type in half. And MLB hitters can see these visual cracks signals long beforehand and replace their ash bats before the end process results in an explosion of the bat upon contact with the ball.
I know we have all seen a hitter take the barrel end of the bat and bounce it off the ground, or Home Plate to see if they get vibrations waves out of the bat that is a great signal of its breakage. It is an early warning signal by the wood to let the hitter know it was about to get its last swing, or break apart during the hitting process. That made the ash bat a lot more safer and predictable. But it also could happen to hitters during 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 to ash bats.
Because of the maple bats diffuse pores, cracks in the wood can grow in any number of directions. This could make them apt to hide the potential cracks and breaks as they slowly or instantly 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 since they do not flake or show any form of chipping, they do not send any visual warning sign to the hitter that his bat is about to crack and might end up in the stands, or somewhere on the field barely missing an opposing player.
But each type of wood can takes on different characteristics considering how it is cut too. A billet of misaligned wood can affect it tremendously to produce an unexpected breakage. A baseball bat is considered stronger when the grain tends to line up with the length of the bat. Because of its basic dark color, the grain on a maple bat is considerably harder to see than in the lighter wood tones of an ash bat. Maple also has a tendency to not have as straight a groove in their grain as ash wood, which can be instrumental in early bat fatigue and breakage.
If you do not have a bat that is cut “going with the grain”, you can easily produce a weaker bat model. But can that be one of the reasons that a maple bat can just explode and send shards throughout the stands or infield? Another factor to take take into consideration is the fact that the batter could hit the ball in a bad hitting position and make the bat break with his upward or ackward swing. Which would have nothing to do with the bats chemistry, or it’s compounds or porous material.
The MLB approved baseball bat models comes into contact with the baseball in a small area for only one thousandth of a second on most hitters’ swings. The short time it takes to make that initial point of impact can sends up to 5,000 pounds of force through the wooden bat. If you hit the ball badly, or not on the “sweet spot” of the bat, you can sometimes get that stinging sensation in your hands. That is a visual signal from the bat that it is bending and vibrating to release the force without breaking apart in your hands.
If the bending is compacted into enough of an area, it can produce a bat break in any type of bat, even ash wood. 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 area. The maple bat that Colorado Rockies hitter Todd Helton had in his hands on the day that Susan Rhodes got injured broke at the bat’s handle and sent the barrel tomahawking into the stands towards her. This leads to another area of 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 any level of baseball. Some say the advent of these small handles is a compliance to metal bats that are used before players become professionals. Because the metal bats do not possess a thick, rugged handle players are more accustomed to hitting without the extra meat on the bat handles. As time progressed, the handle was streamlined and made more comfortable to today’s players.
The narrow handle makes a baseball bat made out of wood more prone to breaking and take away the basic sturdiness of the bat. To make modern bats more accustom to metal bat handle types, did we make the breakage problem worse, or just provide another avenue for the bats to break upon force.
And could the events that happened on June 24,2008 during a game in Kansas City show that people on the field are not protected from these maple bat shards. In that contest, MLB Home Plate Umpire Brian O’Nora was hit in the head with a maple bat shard, while wearing his protective gear behind the plate. Think about this long and hard for a moment. Here is a guy, less than 3 feet from the epicenter of the bat’s initial explosion point who had his protective gear completely popped off his head and produced a bloddy gash upon his forehead.
You do not want to think of the injury repercussions of him not even having a safety equipment on himself and then getting clobbered with that same maple 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 maple bat splinters or small sharp wood chips from their catching equipment or from out of their bodies. I think that any kind of poll like this actually would not help the bat situation because most catcher see this as part of the game, like a foul ball getting your fingers or cracking you in the upper thighs during an at bat.
MLB could possibly 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 gideline to the specifications on the grain alignment by bat manufacturing companies to help stop bat breakage in alarming rates in 2009 or beyond.