“FORE!!!,” the classic warning that a golf ball is speeding in the direction of your noggin, is not heard on baseball diamonds, but in 2008 it should have been. That was the year Major League Baseball recognized that with more and more bats breaking—2,232 in the last three months of the season—balls weren’t the only thing flying into territory fair and foul. Ask fan Susan Rhodes, who was knocked into the operating room by a bit of broken bat at a Dodgers game that year.
MLB’s four-year effort to solve the problem has resulted in reducing the number of splintered cudgels by half, but this year baseball bats still broke at an (estimated) average of ".53 per game". So if the World Series (which begins 5pm Pacific Time tonight) goes a full seven games, expect at least three broken bats.
Indeed, one of the key hits of Monday night’s final game of the National League championship series was a broken-bat double. A Joe Kelly fastball splintered the bat of Giants batter Hunter Pence; slow-motion replays showed the bat made contact with the ball three separate times. As a result, the ball traveled in an arc that baffled the Cardinal fielders, and two runs scored.
Before it was determined that the type of wood, the arrangement of the fibers, and the shape of the bat were the culprits in 2008, broken bats had already caused considerable damage. (The lawyers certainly noticed. One law review article was titled, “Baseball Bats Out of Hell.”)
In 2010, Chicago Cubs outfielder Tyler Colvin was racing to the plate when teammate Wellington Castillo went Vlad the Impaler on him. The rookie right fielder had to be hospitalized for several days after a good-sized splinter of Castillo’s shattered maple-wood bat pierced his chest.
In late June of this year, home plate umpire Jerry Layne took it on the chin with the barrel of a broken bat, marking the second time in two years he had to be carted off the field, the first time after being struck with a foul tip. Also in June, Chicago Cubs reliever Casey Coleman was hit on his pitching hand by a broken part of White Sox’s Eduardo Escobar’s bat. (Alert second baseman Darwin Barney scooped up the now-ground ball and threw out Escobar.) “I got lucky,” Coleman said. “It was just the barrel that hit me in the knuckles [but] it's scary when you don't see it and all of a sudden it gets you."
When Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, et al, began bashing homers at record-breaking rates in the late 90s, other players took notice (and perhaps steroids), and by 2008 about half were using bats made of sugar maple, not the traditional white ash. (The most popular woods for making bats are, in order, ash, maple, and yellow birch.) Also, bat size changed, with most batters, not just the power hitters, opting for bats with thicker heads and thinner handles. And that’s when the wood began to fly.
Coming to grips (pun intended) with the problem four years ago, Major League Baseball paid attention to advice from such disparate sources as well-known hitters and the U.S. Forest Service. In addition to size, shape, and type of wood, one of the main reasons bats had been breaking more often is something called slope-of-grain.
According to the informational website www.WoodBat.org, “bat manufacturers always request baseball bat billets [short, thick pieces of wood] that have exceptionally straight grain, which is stricter than most ‘lumber’ standards. The importance of straight grain is critical, because the wood property that has an overwhelming effect on the strength of the final baseball bat is …slope-of-grain [which] is how close to parallel a piece of wood is cut with respect to the longitudinal axis of wood cells in the tree. When a piece of wood is cut parallel to the grain direction of the tree, it will have the highest strength. When wood is cut at an angle to the tree, the strength quickly diminishes.”
According to a recent paper by authors from the University of Massachusetts Lowell Baseball Research Center and the U.S. Forest Service in the journal Procedia Engineering, maple bats are three times more likely to break into pieces than ash (because it is “tree-ring-porous,” it is more likely to flake than shatter). The authors suggest a new regulation for the majors: “add a SOG indicator on the handle of each bat so that inspection would be able to easily identify the SOG of the bat both at the factory and on field." A drop of ink on the wood can show which way the grain runs, a sort of extension of the old anti-breakage rule of thumb to "keep the logo up" when hitting.
Perhaps slugger and all-around great player Johnny Damon can shed some light on the matter. As Damon, who recently switched back to ash from the more frequently breaking maple, told Quinn Roberts of MLB.com, “It’s a serious concern when you have that sharp object floating that could go in any direction. ... A lot of times the fans aren’t even paying attention. ... The fewer the amount of players we have hurt and in the stands, the better.”
In agreement is MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, who told reporters at this year’s All Star Game, “I think we’ve made a lot of progress and we continue to make progress. The union and everybody has been involved…we’ve done everything we possibly can.” For example, two types of maple bats were banned—but only in the minor leagues—in 2010.
Meanwhile, baseball-loving boffins keep examining new types of bats, including composites. (Bat research, such as that conducted by acoustician Daniel Russell at Penn State, may also take the sting out of hitting the ball!)
Maybe it would be better for all concerned if batters emulated Roy Hobbs, the main character of Bernard Malamud’s book The Natural, who made his mythic bat, “Wonderboy,” slowly, carefully, and lovingly, by hand.
And what wood did Hobbs use? Sorry, all Malamud writes is that came from “a tree struck by lightning.”