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Forestry Products Laboratory

Bat manufacturers align both the concentric rings and the tangential grains to ensure bat durability.

Taking a swing at bat safety

by Jacob Peklo
Oct 06, 2010

Today marks the beginning of the home stretch of the Major League Baseball season, as teams begin their march to the World Series.  As baseballs begin flying deep into the autumn night, the league has expressed hope that baseball’s shattering bat epidemic of 2008 will continue to fall in postseason play.  

Researchers have found that the number of shattered bats has decreased by nearly half since its high point in 2008. From July to September 2008, 2,232 bats were broken in Major League games.  Over one-third of those bats broke into multiple fragments. 

The issue made its way back into the spotlight Sept. 19 when Chicago Cubs rookie outfielder Tyler Colvin was speared by a shard of teammate Wellington Castillo’s bat, and admitted to a Miami hospital.  Colvin is now out of the hospital, but the incident ended his season.  

Pat Courtney, senior vice president of public relations for New York City-based MLB, said the league feels awful about Colvin’s injury. “We need to make sure that this never happens to anybody,” he said. “We’ll do everything we can do to ensure safety.” 

He said that in July 2008 the league brought in a team of experts from such areas as wood science, industrial wood product certification, statistical analysis and laboratory and field testing of bats. The team’s goal was to reduce the number of multiple-fragment breaks.   

The experts have continued their studies throughout the last two seasons to reduce the number of in-game incidents.       

David E. Kretschmann, a research general engineer at the Forestry Products Laboratory in Madison, Wis., and member of MLB’s research team, said a number of different factors contribute to shattering. 

Two woods, ash and maple, are primarily used to produce bats for MLB. Kretschmann said that the maple bats, popularized by power hitters such as former San Francisco Giant Barry Bonds, were shattering at a much higher than anticipated rate.  

 Bat manufacturers need to pay close attention to how the wood is taken from the log, when the bats are carved out, Kretschmann said. They need to cut along the diagonal slope of the wood. When the grains are aligned properly, the product ends up being strenghtened. 

Players today have changed their expectations for bat specifications, Kretschmann said. Many expect to have a thicker barrel and a thinner handle. In order to meet the weight standards for these bats, the companies have to use lighter wood. That lighter wood, he said, means weaker wood.  

“Every bat now has a serial number and production date attached to it,” Kretschmann said. The move raises accountability all along the production process, and identifies mistakes much more quickly.  

The Baseball Research Center at the  University of Massachusetts-Lowell ran a series of tests on a product called Bat Glove, a thicker plastic wrap, which envelops the handle of the bat and allows it to withstand a high level of strain.  

They conducted  trials with stationary bats and a pitching machine throwing baseballs at speeds from 125 mph to nearly 190 mph. The goal of the project was to determine if bats would not shatter, even with an impact that caused a break.  

“We’ve made changes the last several years, but the process is ongoing,” Courtney said, referring to how pitch movement and velocity may affect shattering. “Lowell’s going to continue to look at all of those things.” 

He said an innovation like Bat Glove could be helpful, but is not necessarily the only answer to slow the wave of shattering bats. MLB officials want to see if the bats will not tether—or fly backward—when they break.  The new tests at Lowell will try to “simulate game conditions,” he said. The previous tests used stationary bats absorbing the impact of high velocity pitches.  

“You’re dealing with the safety of the players involved in the play,” he said. “We need to know that the fielders will not witness the bat coming out of the sleeve and causing other damage” primarily to the umpires or catcher.  

Rob Sitz, president for the Florida Collegiate Summer League, a wooden bat summer league for college players, was introduced to a similar product by MadDog Sports Apparel right around the time of Colvin’s injury.  

“There’s a need, especially after (Colvin) got stabbed with the bat,” Sitz said about using the product. “It seems like it had no effect on the usability of the bat. Splintering is still an issue that’s got to be reduced or eliminated.” 

He said most of the bats he has seen shatter have landed in fair territory on the playing field. “I’d definitely say the pitcher is the most in danger,” he said. “The concern with these new products is for the catcher and the umpire. 

As baseball continues its research off the field, the eight playoff teams will work to ensure that the players, not flying objects, will grab the spotlight this October.