Saturday, December 29, 2007

Wood and Non-Wood Bat Myths and Misconceptions

On average, during the baseball season I track down two to three articles a week by journalists and laymen writing about the bat wars. One very strange phenomenon is that many of these articles regurgitate the same basic misconceptions and myths about bats and the players who use them. I'm not sure, but it appears that these journalists are reading some Master Article, recycling information that is just flat-out wrong. Here's what I'm talking about:

1) At least 20 articles I've read in the past year talk about the fact that good metal bats cost around $250. This is not really true. A good Little League-approved metal bat costs about $250 these days, but good high school (and beyond) metal bats range in price from $329-$399. Rarely is it pointed out that cheap metal bats are often as difficult to get hits with as wood and highly prone to damage.

2) Almost as many articles claim that wood bats break regularly -- "Players may shatter three wood bats, at $60 a pop, in a game." This may be true in an extreme case, but most high school players who play with wood in the summer go through three or four bats in the entire season. A number of players I talked to this past summer said they were still using the bat they bought in May (note, all of these guys were swinging top-quality maple which costs more like $75-$125 a pop).

3) The economics of wood, because it is breakable, have been called into question, especially for school systems who claim they will have to buy hundreds of new wood bats for their teams. This is ridiculous. Most players at all amateur levels buy their own bats. Schools will often purchase two or three metal bats for players who don't have the funding. Obviously, if a school is going to buy three Easton Stealths at $350, for the same price they would be able to order about 20 quality maple bats from any number of companies mentioned in other entries of this blog. (Note: the new 2008 Louisville Air Exogrid -3 is retailing at $399.99).

4) North Dakota's metal bat ban for high school ball came about for the most part because most of the ND season is played while it is still cold (ie, below 60-degrees Fahrenheit). Metal bats are prone to break in the cold and don't perform well at all below 60-degrees. All the bat manufacturers put that information in their bat care literature. This means, in essence, that using a metal bat in the cold is very likely counterproductive for hitters and the people who invested in the bat (usually parents). It also means that high school players who are paying attention to how their bat feels end up replacing their metal bats two or three times during the year (can you say, $1,000?).

5) An auxiliary component of the issue above, is that it just isn't true that metal bats last for several years. You can often tell when a bat is beginning to go just by the sound of the "PING" it makes. The trampoline effect begins to break down when the metal walls get brittle and have, essentially, worn down on the inside of the bat.

6) Wood wears down as well. There is no doubt about that. Many people believe that maple bats break more dramatically than ash bats because maple doesn't flex as much. Relative stiffness coupled with players who demand ultra-lite lumber and thin handles can create an "explosive" like phenomenon with maple. Bats break. Playing the game is not cheap. But for Little Leaguers who don't swing the bat that hard and don't face pitching much beyond 58 mph or so, breaking a wood bat is a very difficult feat of strength.

Bat Speed Doesn't Matter?
There are many more myths and misconceptions out there. According to Ari Fleischer and Steve Keener in a press conference they gave this summer, "Just because the bat is lighter and easier to swing doesn't necessarily mean that it's going to produce a ball that comes off the bat faster and harder." In other words, they're saying that it's not true that bat speed gives a hitter more power. Technically, that's true. You have to have strong hands to transfer the kinetic energy of your body into the bat and to absorb the vibration and energy of the bat as it is struck by the ball.

The thing is, right before Keener and Fleischer brought up the weight issue at their press conference, they were explaining why metal bats are so much better to hit with than wood: i.e., even weight distribution and a larger sweet spot with a trampoline effect. Add to all of that a lighter bat and, therefore, faster bat speed, and it would seem like these guys are talking out of both sides of their mouthes (remember that Fleischer is being paid by the companies that sell metal bats).

Hopefully during the '08 season as the bat wars heat up again and more and more players leave Little League and American Legion clubs specifically because they want to play with wood, we'll see better, more informed reporting.

See you out on the field. Spring training is only 61 days away...

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