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The crack of a baseball bat making contact with a ball is among the most-recognizable sounds in sports. However, that crack sound is different at the very top baseball levels compared with the others, like in college or youth baseball leagues. Those who have watched baseball at all levels have to ask, Why do MLB players use wooden bats?
The main reason Major League Baseball players use wood bats is safety. Top-level professional baseball hitters are stronger and more skilled than younger players trying to move up, and modern metal bats (made from aluminum, or other materials like titanium) add enough extra velocity on well-hit balls that they pose danger to defensive players, namely pitchers who are only about 52 or 53 feet away after they release pitches (after their stride from a start point 60-feet, 6-inches away).
They use wood bats in the minor leagues, too, for the same reason, and also because MLB clubs want players fresh out of school to get used to wooden bats since that’s what they must use if called up to The Show.
Non-wood bats can be dangerous at the college and high school levels, too, but for them it’s a matter of cost savings. Wooden bats can break or crack, while those made of aluminum or other metallic material cannot (for the most part, though they can get badly damaged especially on hard inside pitches, or from neglect).
School baseball players and programs simply cannot afford to constantly replace broken bats. But professional baseball players and teams can afford it, and continue to use wood not just for safety, but also tradition. Wood bats have been used by batters since baseball’s inception, in the later first half of the 19th century.
Progress and modern advancements, however, resulted in the mass introduction of aluminum bats in the 1970s, and since then technology has taken over and some bats can produce super-juiced performance adding both speed and distance to balls well-struck.
Wooden Bats and Baseball History
When baseball began to get more popular in America, say around the time just before the Civil War, there was not much industrial manufacturing and wood seemed the logical choice for the big sticks needed by batters to put balls in play.
Additionally, baseball was born in the greatly wooded U.S. East coast, so materials for bat production were plentiful. Know why today’s Adirondack baseball bats carry that name? Because the wood originally came from the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. Today, Rawlings still produces the Adirondack bats, made from the special white ash trees around Dolgeville, New York, and still used by about a third of major league batters.
Bats in the MLB changed significantly over a century or more of use, starting with very thick-handled almost fully cylindrical bats of MLB’s beginnings in the 1870s, into the early 20th century where handles were thinned and knobs added for better batter comfort and control, into the shape we know today which started becoming the norm around 1920.
Pro baseball bats eventually break, usually from a hard-thrown inside pitch that hits the bat from the center-inward, or on the handle. Wood bats also can break or crack if a ball is struck too far near its end. Some wood bats are damaged with a crack unbeknownst to the batter before stepping to the plate, and could break no matter where on the bat the ball strikes.
Through the years manufacturers have tinkered with use of different types of wood, such as maple, which could be harder and more durable and therefore less prone to crack or break. They also have tried many finishes and lacquering techniques, in attempts to reach the same result: fewer broken and wasted bats, possibly better performance. (Barry Bonds used a maple bat during his home run-hitting phase).
Players, too, might amend wood bats to make them harder, such as by rubbing a hard object (even chicken bones!) along the grain to press down wood cells, to either strike balls harder or prevent cracking. Or both.
Then came along aluminum bats, a big new development for adult recreational slow-pitch softball leagues that blossomed in the 1970s, and people began to wonder why the major leaguers weren’t using them too.
The Scoop on Metal Bats
Metal bats have their advantages, but have been controversial almost from the beginning. Major League Baseball never really warmed to them, and they were banned from use in the minor leagues long ago.
The first metal bats surfaced as early as the 1920s, but early models were prone to denting and damages, and the products never took hold on buyers. Then Easton around 1970 began manufacturing metal bats and expanding distribution, igniting a new industry soon joined by Louisville Slugger. The NCAA legalized aluminum bats in 1974, and it remains the highest level of baseball to allow use of metal bats.
Troubles began to surface as the companies raced to meet demand and capture market shares, producing stronger bats as well as engaging technology to pretty much turbo-charge bats. Results were tremendous, performance-wise, but a few things happened that captured attention of officials (and lawmakers):
- NCAA baseball championship of 1998. In a nationally televised game, at the height of the metal bat technology craze, USC topped Arizona State 21-14 in a home run derby that mirrored slow-pitch softball scores of other games in the College World Series tournament. Baseball experts (and “purists”) really began to question use of the new high-tech bats in high-level college games.
The media termed the style of play in the championship tourney as “Gorilla Ball,” and in response the NCAA placed restrictions on aluminum bats, such as limiting the difference between the weight and length of bats to be no more than 3, e.g. a 33-inch bat could weigh no more than 30 ounces. The number of home runs did decline a little, but metal bats in college did not really become equals with their wood counterparts until further requirements started in 2011.
- Decline in popularity of adult slow-pitch softball. Slow-pitch softball enjoyed a renaissance starting in the 1970s and its growth and popularity lasted many years — until too many balls started flying over fences, passersby began suffering injuries when struck with home run balls, and non-power hitters became frustrated (or bored). Public recreation leagues began to shrink around the turn of the century, and one Southern California rec league official said “the bats ruined the game.” (Technologies added to softballs around this time also contributed; there are harder and softer brands and categories of softballs).
- Young player injuries. A significant development was an incident in March 2011 involving a Bay Area high school pitcher, who spent two weeks in a coma after having his skull fractured by a metal bat-struck ball traveling an estimated 100 mph. The pitcher survived (and played again), but school authorities by that time had had enough.
The incident, along with a few others around the same time, spurred public outcry that resulted in new regulations, the most prominent of which called for use of metal bats only if they met a standard called BBCOR, for the Batted Bat Coefficient of Restitution. This is a measurement of how lively a struck ball will come off a bat. Targeted were what are called composite bats, and the “trampoline effect” of high-tech bats. Insight:
- Composite Bats. At the height of the “power race” among the metal bat producers, composite bats surfaced. With these, gone was the “ping” sound known for metal bats, replaced with a dull thud sound. This did not impact its connection with the ball; balls flew off composite bats, which is why they were banned after only a few years. Composite bats are made not with aluminum but a mix of carbon, glass and Kevlar fibers, wrapped in plastic. These types of bats actually get stronger with repeated use, and were easily tampered with. (BBCOR bats are said to maintain the same effectiveness over the years, and also are harder to “customize” than composite bats).
- Trampoline Effect. Newfangled bats were designed to bounce balls off their surfaces harder than when they arrive, in effect propelling them forward faster. This resulted in crazy-fast “exit speeds” off bats, and under public pressure, regulators and manufacturers came up with formulas to cap metal bat measurements to reduce trampolining.
Question: Can high school or youth ball players use wooden bats?
Answer: Yes. Wood bats do not require the BBCOR certification. However, performance-wise, metal bats are more effective, and are much harder to damage. Something to note about metal bats is their “sweet spot,” or the area of bats most likely to result in base hits, is larger than on wood bats. Metal bats respond to inside pitches better, sometimes resulting in hits where wood bats might crack (or even really hurt the hands). It’s a reason some MLB scouts are suspicious of high school or college batting average stats. Hitters are always watched carefully their first year or two in the minors to see whether they can hit with wood.
Q.: Are the safety concerns real?
A.: Enough so that after the 2011 incidents, some high school managers required returning former players to use wood bats in alumni games against current varsity players (who continued to use metal bats, by the way). Sometimes the returning players were minor leaguers or college players very skilled in hitting, and high school officials were wary of the then-explosiveness of the high-tech metal bats.
Q.: What really is the exit-speed difference between the old high-tech bats and those now BBCOR-rated?
A.: Almost 6 mph, or the difference between 100.8 and 106.5 mph, according to an early study. New metal bat regulations seem to try to keep that number around 100 mph, which apparently is the fastest a ball can travel off a bat and still allow pitchers time to react. Anyone who has tried to hit a 90 mph pitch compared with a 94 mph pitch can appreciate the difference; just a 4-mph difference in pitch speeds is notable for major league scouts.