Late December last year, the Little League banned composite bats. For Jake Schutter, though, it came seven months too late.
On the evening of May 5, 11-year-old Jake had been pitching for his local team in Mokena in Will County when he got hit on the right side of his head with a ball that came too fast off the batter’s composite bat.
Baseball bat makers can’t get enough speed, but that evening, all Jake’s mother Cheryl Schutter wanted was for time to slow down. During the hours of uncertainty after his accident, Jake was diagnosed with a skull fracture and hearing loss, initially thought to be a result of the internal bleeding.
“After a month on convalescence, it was determined that he had suffered nerve damage,” Schutter said. Jake can’t hear from his right ear anymore. Schutter said she and her husband Robert were “stunned” by the speed of the ball once it came off the composite bat – in this case made of the alloy scandium. “Our son is an exceptional athlete and we were stunned that he couldn’t get away in time,” she said.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association banned composite bats in 2009, a rule that still stands and one that the NCAA hopes to make more stringent. Then late last month, Williamsport, Pa.-based Little League Baseball put a moratorium on the use of these bats, in a decision based on performance issues according to Lance Van Auken, the league’s vice president of communications. Composite bats are banned in the 2011 season unless they receive individual league clearance.
“Similar action was taken by the NCAA and the National Federation of State High School Associations in July 2010,” he noted.
Van Auken said the league administration felt that the big-barreled composite bat exceeded the required Bat Performance Factor and commissioned the Baseball Research Center at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell to research relative performances. Bat Performance Factor, or BPF, is a numeric measure of how a ball bounces off of a bat relative to how it jumps off a standard surface, such as a wall.
The Little League had determined a standard for all 2 ¼-inch barreled non-wood bats to have a BPF of 1.15, which essentially means a 15 percent faster rebound. Non-wood bats of that size are required to remain at or below that BPF of 1.15, he said.
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign physicist Alan Nathan, who has a special interest in the physics of baseball, said the problem with composite bats is that of ethics.
He said composite bats give the best performance because of their high trampoline effect. The trampoline effect, simply, is that the ball comes off faster because of the material used in the bat. When a pitched ball comes into contact with the bat, it gets compressed before taking off, and in the process, loses energy. In a metal or composite bat, the wall of the bat gets compressed on contact, letting the ball retain most of its energy and so exit at a higher speed.
However, because of their material, composite bats have the additional characteristic of getting better with use as their carbon fiber material becomes more flexible with each hit. Their ability to compress goes up, making the ball bounce off even faster.
“Players know about this, so they deliberately ‘roll’ their bat and when that happens, it becomes very difficult to regulate. This is the reason the NCAA and now the Little League have decided to put the moratorium,” Nathan says. Rolling is the process of putting the barrel into rollers, which artificially makes the bat more flexible and boosts performance.
Then there is the issue of player safety. Experts agree that increased performance of a bat is often directly proportional to the possibility of the pitcher of in-field players getting hurt.
Martin Monero, safety officer for the Horner Park North-West Little League at West Montrose Avenue in Chicago, said the decision to ban is a positive one for the Little League. “If an 11-year-old is playing against a 9-year-old who maybe doesn’t play so much, the younger kid will get hurt,” he said.