Thursday, December 17, 2009

Real Kids Doing Real Science

The Public Broadcasting System's Dragonfly TV show for kids ran a great little piece on wood vs. metal bats a while back. You can see it on YouTube by clicking the title of this post or by going here to their website.

I won't spoil the results of Nick's and Reed's experiment. It's a short watch -- about eight and half minutes.

Thanks to Jarrod Brissenden of for bringing this to our attention.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Dead Arms On Arrival

We're a bit late getting word out to folks on this, but on August 9 the New York Times Sunday Magazine ran an excellent piece by Ron Berler detailing the travails of over-pitching for young players. It's called "Arms-Control Breakdown," and you can read it here. If you have a kid who pitches or if you're a pitcher yourself, but especially if you're a coach, this article is must reading.

Berler tells an instructive story about a young pitcher named Alden Manning. It's a very common story. And I think Berler does a good job of not judging the situation and showing how the problem of over throwing for young pitchers is a combined process of denial by players, coaches, parents, and even the medical community.

Amateur baseball has morphed into a three season sport for all intents and purposes. There's high school ball in the spring; summer leagues or travel teams; and then there's fall ball.

Three season baseball is especially true of elite players. The be all and end all tournament of the year is Perfect Game's World Wood Bat Association National Championship held in Florida at the end of October every year. That means the season is 9 months long for most elite players. If you live in the south or the southwest, you can play all the way through Christmas in tournaments, winter leagues, etc. Things are getting sophisticated too now for cold weather areas with indoor hitting leagues, clinics and in some cases even full games in indoor stadiums. Minor leaguers usually knock off at the end of August.

The problem for young pitchers is knowing when to stop, especially when they're good and they know that they need to get exposure with pro scouts and college recruiters. Certainly pain should tell you something. I hear of teenage pitchers who have been told by doctors that they have tendinitis (especially in the elbow) and that they need to rest their arms. Some ignore this advice. Some rest for a few weeks and then go out and pitch more. But if that pain persists even minutely it's time to hang things up and get some professional help, both through rehab and trainers and people who understand the mechanics of pitching.

Last September I watched a promising kid pitching in a college showcase tournament. He'd been throwing off a mound at least twice a week (once in a bullpen and once in a game) since March 1st. Seven straight months throwing maybe 150 - 200 pitches down hill a week (over 5,000 pitches in a season) -- not to mention all the long toss and flat ground work he was doing as well.

The kid was cooking with gas though out on the mound with his fastball in the high 80's. No one was hitting him (this was metal bat so he'd given up three sqwibbers into the shallow outfield). Then, after one out in the fourth his velocity dropped. He got this very odd look on his face. I was concerned. All of sudden hitters started ripping at his fasty and easily staying back on his curve. He was barely able to throw his fastball at 80 mph. He toughed it through the inning, but his coaches and catcher looked worried.

The kid wasn't happy when his coach took him out of the game. What the kid said, though, was telling: "I don't know what happened. It was like my arm just went numb. I mean I couldn't feel it. I still can't."

Dead arm. They kept him off the mound for three weeks after that and didn't let him throw at all. One of his teammates, a year older and looking to get drafted in the spring, kept on pitching. In fact his teammate wanted the ball every day. Sometimes he'd go out and throw 90+, others would be in the low 80s, but he just kept on taking the ball. They needed that. He was picking up the slack for others. All summer he'd start games and then get a closing assignment two days later. The kid was a workhorse stud...

After three weeks the player with dead arm was ready to return to the mound. The plan was for him to come in after the workhorse 90+ guy had thrown four innings. But after two outs in the fourth, the workhorse gave up a big shot to center field. When the hubbub of the big hit died down there was the workhorse -- the stud -- writhing on the ground holding his right arm near the elbow. The pain was so bad he blacked out for a few seconds. The next day we got word he was going in for Tommy John surgery and would be out at least a year. It's been a year and there's a chance he may never play again.

No athlete should be risking the long term future of their playing ability by "toughing" things out. I'd go so far as to say that if you're a serious pitcher, it should be just a matter of course that when you're done with your summer season you hang up that arm and let the guys who always complain about not getting enough innings have their time.

What's most important for parents and coaches and players to understand is that even when you're in your last year of high school or college ball and it seems like you have to impress everyone, you can't impress people when you're in pain or when you've thrown your arm out. And all these high school and junior elite tournaments mean nothing, absolutely nothing to the future of any young player. All too often people turn the "Big Game" into a do-or-die situation. For a pitcher there's only one do-or-die situation and that's in the 7th game of the World Series (when you know you can rest for at least 3 months). Until you get to that place, protect your arm and think long term.

See you on the field, but take it easy until spring training.

Monday, June 29, 2009

How Do You Know What to Buy?

Baseball is right up there with skiing, mountaineering, and golf in the "stuff" category. Players, and their parents, are always confronted with new bats, gloves, shoes, bags, performance undergarments, etc. To a certain extent word of mouth is how information on all the "stuff" that players need is passed along. Yes, you can look at catalogs to learn about all the new merchandise, but how do you know what works and what doesn't? How do you learn, maybe, the back story on certain glove designs or bat technologies? Most importantly, how do you know that the money you spend on something is going to be worth it?

To help with these questions, we've found a great resource that can be of service to folks on almost all levels of play. Baseball Equipment Review is filled with reviews and reference information on everything from cleats to training equipment. We love their wood bat section (and plan to provide guest reviews there soon).

One unique element of owner Brandon Bland's site is that there are numerous Google links built into pages that can take users directly to manufacturer's own sites. This allows the user to compare certain products easily and quickly without having to do a lot of work. It's a way to creatively use Google's Ad Sense system.

The site also has a useful set of recommendations for baseball equipment shopping and a very useful page on training aids that every Little League coach and dad of aspiring high school stars should bookmark and pay attention to.

If you know of other useful baseball equipment information sites, please send links along and I'll try to post information here at HittingWithWood.

In the mean time, I hope you're having good weather and that your coaches are encouraging kids to swing with lumber.

See you on the field.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Apology Post: A Personal Note to Readers

Since March, our family has been inundated by the initiation of Jesse Biddle's junior year of baseball with trips to Arizona State, Oregon State, North Carolina, and the University of Oregon (photo to left was taken in Portland at Game 2 of the renewed Civil War between Oregon and Oregon State, a cold and wet late March Saturday evening) -- all schools making scholarship bids to get the kid to pitch for them.

It turns out Jesse's choice of schools (after tremendous turmoil, he has verbally committed to George Horton's Oregon Ducks) was the easy part. We've been dealing with scouts, prospective advisers, media, focused training, lots of great high school games, and trying to match Jesse's schedule playing with the Philadelphia Senators with special opportunities to play in national showcases in June (USA Baseball Tournament of Stars) and August (East Coast Pro Showcase and Area Code Games).

This post, then, is an apology for not staying caught up on content. There's a lot going on in the wood vs. metal debate and I've dropped the ball.

At the same time, it's been an exciting and wild time watching this kid of ours move into the early phases of prime time as a player. Hopefully, now that the high school season is over and the summer schedule set, I'll do a better job reporting in these pages.

In the mean time, check out this short video clip that Comcast SportsNite did on Jess in April. More perspectives on hitting with wood soon...

See you on the field.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Maple Bats and Amateur Baseball: What Every Young Hitter Needs to Know

Last week I provided a summary of MLB's new maple bat rules that are designed to reduce the number of dramatic, multi-piece broken bat incidents seen so much in 2008. Go here to read this last entry. It's too early to tell how successful these rules will be (checkout this article about the Indians' Triple-A manager, Torey Lovullo, anyway), but it's important for every bat buyer to be aware of their implications.

Young and adult wood bat leagues and tournaments are on the rise throughout North America. In Canada and some northern sections of the country it is common to find high school baseball players playing with wood throughout the spring because of temperatures that render expensive metal and composite bats virtually useless.

Since Barry Bonds made maple Sam Bats the weapon of choice in his last few years of success as a home run hitter, amateur players all over the continent have been in search of the perfect sugar maple bat. Dozens of maple-focused small and medium-sized bat manufacturers have set up shop -- from Old Hickory, the Haag Bat Company, and Granite Bats to Pro Bats, the Ironwood Bat Company, and Rock Bats. In fact, virtually all bat companies now provide options for customers to choose bat models made of either ash or maple (and sometimes other woods like birch).

It's important to note that standard offerings of maple products tend to cost about $20.00 more than ash. So if you're going to choose maple, you're going to pay a premium. Now that we know what Major League Baseball feels needs to be done to solve the problem of dangerous maple breakages, are you going to get the same offerings as the pros? Meaning, can you buy maple bats with ink spots showing the slope of grain, and can you find a bat that has the trademark rotated 90-degrees indicating you should be making contact with the face grain rather than the edge grain (if you don't understand what I'm talking about here, read my last post or go to MLB's website and check out the articles and videos they've listed here).

The answers to these questions are: probably not. We've found only one company (Rock Bats) currently offering maple configured the way the pros are getting theirs. Even Louisville Slugger isn't planning on making any changes to the bats they offer us mere mortals. If there are companies out there taking these new steps, we want to know about them.

But don't fret. Remember first of all that the new requirements add cost to the production process. This means that a normal $65-$90 quality maple bat may cost well over $100. Indeed, numerous bat makers are up in arms about the MLB requirements and the whole maple bat controversy. Their production costs are higher, their insurance premiums are going up, and to a certain extent their reputations are on the line. Some in the industry are saying that what we're really talking about here, if we truly want to resolve the problem, is the need for $200 maple bats. Others simply feel that it may be time to turn back to ash which at least breaks in a fairly predictable manner.

For now, however, if you're going to hit with maple there are certainly things you can do to ensure that you avail yourself of the new standards that MLB feels can help this problem.

First, make sure you buy your new maple bats with either a natural or clear finish for the handles. You may want to do the same with the barrel. At the very least, you want a finish where you can still see the grain like a light walnut. Having the barrel cupped, by the way, should mean that you will have an unfinished view of the grain from the top of the bat. This will let you see how the grain lays out on the barrel.

Also, if you're getting your bats custom-made, you may also want to talk directly to the bat turner and ask them if they can make sure that they're paying attention to the slope of grain. They'll know what you mean. Regardless of whether you talk to them, if you can see the grain when you get your new lumber, you'll know yourself whether you have a product you can use in games or that you just made an expensive BP purchase.

Also, if you can see the grain of the barrel, then you don't necessarily need the guidance of a trademark. You know that you want to hit with the face grain, so you just need to adjust your grip accordingly. In addition, most maple bats are trademarked with adhesive labels (apparently burning a trademark on can weaken the bat). So it's also possible to ask the manufacturer to place the label on the edge grain side. I'm not sure whether your suggestions will meet with a willing craftsman, but it's worth a try.

And for what it's worth, I would suggest bats with 1" (or very close) handles and also, if at all acceptable to you, a weight drop of no less then -2. They're still not sure about handle size and weight but if you're going to spend that kind of money, doesn't it make sense to be careful with your investment?

Why am I so concerned about all of this? I'll tell you. Last summer I watched my 12-year-old and his pals bust two perfectly good maple bats in under two weeks of early season BP. No more than 100 hits a piece.

Worse, although my 17-year-old pitched all summer for Norcal Baseball (meaning practically no hitting or even BP), in the fall, when he went back to being a position player with the Philadelphia Senators, he broke a dozen maple bats in the course of two months. Every one of those breaks showed the classic ovular pattern snap at the handle (there were a few partial ruptures). I'm hoping that the new insights we have from MLB will help. We just ordered both boys Rock Bats for early season BP. I'm keeping my fingers crossed here. Conor and Jesse know the difference between face and edge grains. But both also know that if they don't hit with the sweet spot (Rock Bats also mark the sweet spot region with a diamond pointing at the face grain side) it's likely they're going to break their bats anyway.

In the end, my final question to both of my sons is: are you possibly ready to try ash again? We know there are composite bats out there that are being touted as the next generation of wood, but for now, we're trying to hold fast to the purest ethic, swinging solid pieces of lumber. As far as I know, Derek Jeter uses only ash and if it's good enough for one of the best players of our time, it has to be good enough for a couple of wannabes.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Hitting with Maple

According to Major League Baseball, in 2008 a research team working for their Safety and Health Advisory Committee analyzed 2,232 broken bats gathered from July to the end of the regular season. 756 of these bats broke into multiple pieces (recall there were several instances during the season where people, including an umpire, were seriously injured by flying chunks of maple). The researchers found that maple bats were three times as likely to shatter into multiple pieces than more traditional ash bats. (Note that while all the press seems to be focused on maple as a problem, birch is also on the list of concern).

The team of researchers include: David Kretschman of the Forest Products Laboratory (part of the USDA Forest Service); Dr. Carl Morris, a Harvard professor of statistics; Dr. James Sherwood, an engineering professor and director of the Baseball Research Center at the University of Massachusetts - Lowell; and representatives of TECO, an independent wood certification company based in Wisconsin.

The researchers' recommendations were presented to MLB in December. Their initial findings are based on the structure of maple as a wood vs. ash. Maple is considered a diffuse-porous wood, and ash is a ring-porous wood. In a nutshell, ring-porous wood has different growth stages during the spring and summer, whereas diffuse-porous wood grows more evenly. The result is that diffuse-porous wood yields a sort of sandwich layer between dense wood and less dense, more porous, layers. The less dense layers are the ones that flake and split on ash bats. For maple there is no real sandwiching. Growth layers are more uniformly dense and, therefore, harder. As a result, when maple breaks the rupture is often far more dynamic and unpredictable.

All of this, according to the researchers, relates to trademark placement for bats. Traditionally, trademarks provide hitters with an indication of which face of the bat to hit with. To compensate for the porous layering of ash bats, the idea was for batters to use what is called the edge grain side of the bat (think of hitting something with the side of a deck of cards rather than the top or bottom card). Trademarks, thus, are placed on the face grain side as markers. At one time or another most of us old-timers who learned to love the game swinging wood were told that the trademark denotes the weakest part of the bat. This is why.

(See photo to the right depicting the two different radial faces from the vantage point of the top of a bat).

According to researchers, the side of the bat hitters use is very likely a big part of the problem. Maple is not like ash. Recommendations to MLB are to place the trademark one quarter turn (90-degrees) for maple bats. Players should, in fact, be hitting with the face grain side of the bat (the top or bottom card in the deck).

This issue of wood grain overall is what has researchers most concerned right now. Besides the hitting side of the bat, researchers also believe that many maple bats break because the grain isn't straight enough. The "slope of grain" should be less than 3-degrees at the handle and taper end of the bat where most maple ruptures occur. In essence, the straighter the grain the stronger the wood. This is the main concern at the moment that researchers want to focus on and it implies a host of steps that they want addressed. To that end, the research team has made a number of recommendations that MLB is willing to institute. These are:

  1. Bats must adhere to a slope of grain requirement of a bit less than 3-degrees for the handle and taper regions.
  2. Bat makers must place an ink dot on the face grain side of the handle for maple and birch bats to gauge the slope angle
  3. The hitting surface for maple and birch needs to be the face grain, not the edge grain, meaning a quarter turn (90-degrees) placement of trademarks on bats
  4. Handles for maple and birch bats must be either natural or clear finished (to see the grain and ink dot)
  5. Bat makers need a system to track maple and birch bats that leave their shops
  6. Bat makers need to participate in an MLB sponsored workshop on engineering and grading of wood
  7. Bat makers will be visited and audited for manufacturing processes and tracking systems
  8. Audits will also be made randomly (does that sound familiar?) at ballparks
  9. An on-going third-party certification program needs to be set up to deal with any new innovations that come along in the future
In addition, Major League Baseball has doubled its bat certification fee from $5,000 per company to $10,000. They've also doubled the liability insurance requirement from $5 million to $10 million. As you might expect, a number of quality companies, especially with our current economy, can't make this cut anymore. Also, while a typical pro maple bat might cost about $70 bought in bulk last year, now the price is at least $100 in order to manage all these new costs.

To conclude, it should be noted that the research team MLB is working with by no means feel they have gotten to the bottom of the problem with maple. Wisely, however, they are starting with a first attempt to understand what they believe to be the most salient variables -- the slope of grain, and hitting with the opposite plane of the bat than ash. There are questions as well about some maple drying processes, big barrels, narrow handles, and the possibility that maple hides cracks and fissures while ash doesn't.

It will be interesting to observe how many bats break this year, and maybe a good diversion from all the talk about past steroid transgressions by top players. After all, what is more interesting: whether A-Rod was taking steroids seven years ago; or whether his bat is going to break on the next pitch? I'll let you answer that for yourself.

See you out there on the field soon.

Next week we will delve a bit into the implications of these regulations. Until then, check out all the bat companies we've referenced at this site and find yourself the ultimate wood bat for the 2009 season.