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:
- Bats must adhere to a slope of grain requirement of a bit less than 3-degrees for the handle and taper regions.
- 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
- 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
- Handles for maple and birch bats must be either natural or clear finished (to see the grain and ink dot)
- Bat makers need a system to track maple and birch bats that leave their shops
- Bat makers need to participate in an MLB sponsored workshop on engineering and grading of wood
- Bat makers will be visited and audited for manufacturing processes and tracking systems
- Audits will also be made randomly (does that sound familiar?) at ballparks
- An on-going third-party certification program needs to be set up to deal with any new innovations that come along in the future
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.