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.