Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


What Major League Baseball Is Doing To Keep Bats Inside the Diamond

• October 24, 2012 • 8:43 AM

Experts say a seven-game World Series will see three-and-a-half broken bats.

“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.”

Got that?

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.”

John Greenya
John Greenya, a Washington, D.C.-based writer, is the author or co-author of 18 books. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The New Republic, among other publications.

More From John Greenya

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.