Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Hitting with Wood: Coach's Log 24.9.7

My 11-year-old son, Conor, is a classic lead-off slap hitter (he's also a switch-hitter). He's beginning to develop a bit of a power stroke, but for the most part, this 4'10" 90 pounder who will be 12 in October, gets himself on base by slicing singles and beating out infield grounders.

Last year he hit with a metal Easton Stealth 31" minus-thirteen, meaning that he was swinging an 18-ounce bat. Yesterday we were at the field hitting in the batting cage with a 25-ounce, 30" wood bat, a Chesapeake Thunder youth bat made by Talbot Turnings. We were doing an experiment.

We were just working on soft-toss. I would flip the ball up for him and he would try to drive it hard. It took a few swings but he got the hang of it and probably hit every third ball on the money. These days we are working on hitting right back up the middle, but with the heavier, less forgiving wood bat he kept pulling the ball in the cage. I think it's harder for him to keep his hands and wrists locked in the hitting zone at the point of contact. In other words, his wrists are rolling as he strikes the ball. We went through about 20 balls or so and he was doing okay.

Then we switched to metal. This was our experiment. On the first two swings he topped the ball and it just fizzled into the long grass. On the third toss came that familiar "PING" and he drilled the ball hard up the middle. Another toss, same thing, only this time the ball just shot off the bat. If we'd been in the open field it would easily have been a Little League home run -- and not the floaters hit during August's Little League World Series. He hit the ball square and true with full force. It was impressive. The same thing happened on four out of five tosses after that for another 15 balls or so. He was surprised. I was intrigued. There is no question that after hitting just 20 tosses with wood he was nailing the ball with his old metal bat.

Afterwards, while we were picking up all the balls, he said, "Whoa! I had no idea that there was so much difference! No wonder that Steven kid got hit in the chest..."

I worked with his older brother after that for a bucket of balls. Jesse only hits with wood these days (which should be true of all high schoolers, if you ask me). When it was Conor's turn back in the cage he left his metal bat outside the fence. I didn't have to tell him anything. "There's no way I'm hitting with my Stealth anymore," he said. "I need to stick with wood if I want to be a good hitter."

By the end of that session he was still struggling to consistently drive the ball straight and true, but it was clear that he'd figured out that the challenge was to hit with wood.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Where to Shop for Wood Bats

As the wood bat craze grows, so too does the marketplace for buying wood bats. There are some great online stores with a wide selection of brands including justbats.com, prowoodbats.com, batwarehouse.com, baseballsavings.com, justwoodbats.com and slambat.com. Check out Hitting World as well for a large selection of bats, training aids, videos, etc.

Baseball-bats.net is also a great site. Not only do they offer a broad range of makes and models, but they provide visitors with a host of informational offerings including a history of baseball bats, a baseball bat online forum, and tips on how to choose the right bat. Baseball-bats.net also provides a very nice handy-dandy list of manufacturers in a database format with columns for where they're located, what types of bats they offer, links to manufacturer's websites, etc.

In addition, and proof that at least some in the retail market know this trend is for real, the latest Baseball Express catalog carries its widest array of wood bat offerings yet (some four pages!). Included in their inventory are bats made by Mizuno, Nokona, BWP, Marucci, BambooBat, Xbat, Sam Bat, DeMarini, Louisville Slugger, Mattingly, Brett Brothers, Old Hickory, CTG, Dbat, and Rawlings.

Make sure to check out these past blog entries as well: "Customizing Wood Bats: Tips from Zinger Bats," "Support Your Local Bat Company," and "The Big Boys: Just How Interested in Your Wood Purchase Are They?" All of these entries have numerous links in them to great small and large manufacturers alike.

A note of caution: I like to buy directly from bat companies and go out of my way to make contact with owners and bat masters (my term). As noted throughout this web site, the keys to a good bat are the wood and the craftsmanship. I want to feel confident that I'm giving myself the best chance at getting pro-stock wood and that when I ask for a -3 or -4 drop weight that I'm going to get what I pay for. Also, while many of the companies listed here have what seems like a large selection, there are dozens of other bat makes out there (many of which are listed in articles at this web site) that you may want to take a look at as well, including: Tom Cat Bats, Chesapeake Thunder, Bull Dog Bats (specializing in vintage bat remakes), and The Minnesota Bat Company. (makers of the Granite Bat).

However, buying from one of the retail outlets listed above doesn't necessarily mean you aren't going to get a nice bat. Usually they have a quick turnaround time and their selection allows you to do more comparative shopping. Plus, because they buy in bulk, their prices are often very reasonable.

All in all, wherever you shop, remember that you vote first in this world with your dollars. Supporting the wood bat industry is a vote for real baseball. Baseball Express is selling a t-shirt in their catalog that says: "All Talent, All Work, All Natural." To that I would add "All Wood."

Photos courtesy of: Baseball Express

Friday, September 7, 2007

Customizing Wood Bats: Tips from Zinger Bats

One thing is certain: you can't customize a metal bat. Yes, it's evenly balanced, has a state-of-the-art handle wrap, flashy colors, a big sweet spot, and is made out of high-tech materials, but if you want a flared knob, a narrower handle, a heavier barrel, or you want to name your metal bat, forget it. You pay your $300 or more and you take it or leave it. Will you hit better with it? According to "Don't Take My Bat Away," no. But we know that's not true. Metal bats are certainly more nasty than wood bats. But if you're playing the real game and you're a serious hitter, there are so many virtues to the wood bat buying experience that mass-produced metal can seem like shopping for laundry detergent or frozen pizza.

Traditional wood bats come in so many sizes, shapes, wood types, and colors the discerning player can go online and have a blast figuring out the perfect specs for his or her next bat purchase. You can often select barrel and handle widths down to a thirty-second of an inch, and you can even have your signature laser-burned onto your bat just like the pros.

Xbat is the first company I ever found (back in 2002) that let you customize colors, shape, etc. plus allowed you to brand the bat with a special signature or name -- even a flag. There are many companies out there now that let you do virtually anything to create your own bat. Some of the better website offerings are run by Marucci, Xbat, Superior Bat Company, Talbot Turnings, and Zinger Bats.

An up-and-coming bat company, Zinger Bats offers a very straightforward array of customizing options for personalizing bats. Zinger is located in Montreal, Canada -- close to the source of a lot of great maple. Company president, Fred Leiberman, takes pride in his company's ability to offer high-quality products exactly to spec for their customers. When Leiberman and his partner bought the company last year the business came with a $160,000 state-of-the-art computerized lathe manufactured in Spain. They also purchased a $30,000 laser burner and high-tech sanding equipment as well.

Zinger is making in-roads these days with the pros. A number of players on the Florida Marlins swing their bats including Miguel Cabrera and Dan Uggla. Bobby Abreu, Carlos Pena, and now even Jason Giambi use Zingers. Their bats are in the hands of numerous players in the minors as well. And at their website they list other great players who have ordered bats like Barry Bonds, Vladimir Guerrero, Miguel Tejada, Sammy Sosa, Maglio Ordonez, and Khalil Greene.

The Zinger Bat customization process is more basic and down to earth than many of their competitors, but Leiberman wants his customers to know that the most important elements to bat making are in their guarantees. "Bat buyers need to be careful," he notes. "There are a lot of companies that let you choose the length of your bat, but they don't guarantee weights. Good companies will always let you choose your weight, and somewhere on their websites they'll tell you that weights are guaranteed."

Another factor in your search for bat excellence is whether or not the company you're buying from makes their own bats or has an OEM do the manufacturing. There's nothing wrong per se with a reseller, especially if they work closely with the OEM on specifications and quality control, but Leiberman points out that the customer is still two steps away from the person turning the wood. "People need to ask that question when they go online, or even call up the company: do you make the bats right there or do you have someone else ship them to you for resale?"

Indeed, bat connoissieurs (i.e., serious hitters) will tell you that if you put in an order for a dozen bats at the beginning of the season with companies that don't guarantee weights, your bats can vary by as much as three to four ounces from each other. "It's all in the wood," says Leiberman. "Only about a third of the wood billets we buy are good enough for our pro-stock bats." Besides guaranteeing weights, Zinger also allows their customers to choose lengths down to the half-inch.

The best thing about the Zinger experience is that they've done their homework. Zinger offers a number of models (nearly 30) that are variations on some of most popular bat models over the years. At their site their offerings break down as follows: big barrel, fungo/trainer, pro-stock, and teen bats (a line of youth bats will be coming soon). The main issues that buyers need to be aware of are exact balance, knob size, barrel size, handle size and color. Zinger keeps the customization process simple and allows customers to choose wood type, length, weight, colors, and whether the bat has a cupped end or not. They also provide engraving as part of their price (most companies add a fee for engraving).

Good metal bats tend to run in the price range of $150-$250 for Little League level to $300-$380 for teen players on up.

A quality wood bat -- i.e., one made of superior maple, ash or what have you (birch, bamboo, hickory -- there are even oak bats out there if you look), with guaranteed weights -- will cost anywhere from $50 - $100, depending upon the factors discussed above. The math is simple enough. You can get a top-flight company like Zinger Bat to tailor your bat to exact specifications for around $110. That means you can buy three perfect wood bats designed by you the hitter, plus go out and get yourself a bat for BP that's maybe a bit heavier and tougher so that you can keep beefing up your hitting muscles all for the price of an assembly line metal Exo, Stealth or Rush.

Is an amateur player going to break all three bats in a season? Who knows. Vibrations will break down wood fibers over time. But most hitting instructors will tell you that if you're getting the barrel on the ball it's pretty hard to break a quality bat in the first 100 at-bats. And certainly, younger players facing slower pitching are a lot less likely to have problems with breakage. As you move up the ladder to the elite levels where batters face elite pitchers, breakage can become an issue. But using a separate BP bat can help out with that problem.

"It's very true that we don't sell cheap bats," say Leiberman. "I don't see how anyone can stay in business if they don't take pride in the wood they use. We only select 20-inch straight grain for our pro-stock." Indeed, while a standard, non-customized Zinger Bat can be purchased for around $65 through re-sellers (Zinger has a sale going on right now at their website offering their X-71 model for $45 plus shipping), a fully customized, maple bat with engraving, and perfected length and weight, using guaranteed pro-stock wood can top out at a bit more than $100.

Should you pay for this kind of quality? "What's a home run worth?" quips Leiberman.