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.

1 comment:

Andre said...

Hi David.. Good job in your post. Couple of things. When buying for a young player, the model is very important. These players will pickout something that resembles a metal model, which are unrealistic in wood. I steer players towards the conventional models 110, 271, 141 and their counterbalance versions. I have the parents bring kids in to swing for me so that I can determine strengths and weakness. I will suggest the model.

As far as maple, the models are a major factor. All these changes and the handle diameter are still the same. Thin handles, thin transitions and huge heads equal projectiles when they break. I don't make many ash models into maple models because of this. If someone insists, I will make transition larger, barrel smaller and bat will be heavier. This works.

The new regulations with the ink drop (to determine slope) and labeling, I am not convinced. If you have a less wood at 12", won't the ink stain run further to each side? Or if bat is sanded smooth to 220, won't the ink run?

The label positioning I kinda understand, they are hoping that the bat, if it breaks, will not travel to far.

Half dipping the bat is a good idea, it will slow down 2nd grade wood from being sent to league. I'm sure alot of 2nd tier wood, stained, was sent to players to keep up with demand and to keep players swinging their bats.

When turning maple, I turn the handle from end with the straightest grain extending 20". I've had great success with this. Keep up good work..