Breaking news about baseball bats

The “crack of the bat” at Major League Baseball games isn’t just a cliché, it’s also a safety hazard.

This year alone, a coach in the visitors’ dugout and a fan in the stands, both at Dodger Stadium, have been seriously injured by chunks of broken bat.

In both cases, the bat that broke was made out of maple. As a result of those incidents, and others, players, teams and league officials are now collecting information on the hazards posed by maple bats and looking at what they can do to address this troubling new safety issue.

Once upon a time, all bats were made of hickory–that’s what Babe Ruth used–but hickory, though very strong, is also very heavy. Ash is lighter, which allows for faster swings and thus higher batting averages, and so ash replaced hickory and was the wood of choice for the next half-century. But in the 1990s, maple bats began to appear. They were kind of a fringe choice until Barry Bonds set a new single-season home-run record in 2001 using them. Now they’re the choice of 60 percent of major league batters.

Maple is supposed to be stronger than ash and last longer than ash, but when a maple bat breaks, it tends to fracture into bigger, jagged shards that go flying off in all directions, whereas ash bats tend to crack and flake off in smaller chunks (although people have certainly been hurt by flying bits of ash bat, too). writer Andrea Thompson explains in a recent article that maple and ash break in different ways because the pores in the wood are structured differently. In ash, the pores (which transport water) are concentrated within a few areas in the growth ring of the tree, whereas in maple the pores are more evenly distributed.

Turned into a baseball bat, ash tends to flake as the porous areas collapse under the onslaught of baseballs (which exert more than 2,200 kilograms of force when hit). As well, the pore structure tends to channel cracks the length of the bat. This means a crack has to grow a long way before the bat splits. As well, batters are more likely to notice the crack when they pound the bat on the plate or swing it in practice.

Maple’s pore structure allows cracks to form in any direction–say, from the middle out toward the edge of the barrel. This makes it less likely that batters will notice them, and more likely that when the bat breaks, it will explode into larger chunks.

Hillerich & Bradsby is the company that makes Louisville Sluggers for Major League Baseball. In an interview with Popular Science, company spokesman Bill Williams points out that modern major-league players typically grew up swinging thin-handled, lightweight aluminum bats with big barrels. As a result, they want thin-handled, big-barreled wooden bats, too.

Most of the weight in such a bat is in the barrel. And reducing the diameter of a bat handle by 10 percent–the equivalent of a millimeter or two–reduces the strength of that handle not by a tenth, but by a third.

As Williams says, “You combine a big barrel with a thin handle with a 90-mph fastball and a hitter who has been training with weights, and you set up the possibility of a broken bat.”

Especially if the batter hits the ball badly, missing the “sweet spot.” As anyone who’s played baseball knows, if you miss that sweet spot, the bat will sting your hands, because the bat is vibrating and bending more than usual. That extra bending can put enough stress on the bat that it will break–usually at the weakest point, that narrow handle.

Major League Baseball has just begun its investigation into bat safety. Measures it may consider include extending the netting behind the plate down the first- and third-base lines, putting a minimum limit on the width of bat handles, or even banning the use of maple bats altogether.

In the meantime, if you go out to the ballgame, don’t just keep your eye on the ball: spare one for the bat, as well.

UPDATE: Check out this new technology called WebWrap, designed to make bats safer by wrapping them in “an ultra lightweight winding of high strength fibers often used in bullet proof vest applications.”

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