Game Changers: Making maple bats safer

Game Changers: Making maple bats safer

It wound up being a relatively minor cut on the right hand of one of the top young left-handed pitchers in the game, but it could have been worse. And many fear the next incident involving a broken maple bat could be.

When a shard from the maple bat of Boston's Adrian Beltre went flying toward the face of Rays pitcher David Price in a Grapefruit League game this spring, everybody on the field held their collective breath. Price fended off the projectile with his glove hand, going down to the ground but escaping serious injury.

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Price's manager, Joe Maddon, was clearly upset by the scene, and he pointed the finger at one culprit.

"The maple bat is turning into the Claymore mine of baseball," Maddon said. "I don't like it. ... Something needs to be done."

Strong words from a manager known for his gregarious and sometimes whimsical nature, and a true student of the game. To liken a piece of equipment -- and an incredibly popular one in recent years, at that -- to a lethal device that sprays shrapnel with reckless abandon is severe criticism.

Indeed, when it comes to bats, there always is concern -- after all, it's a potentially dangerous weapon ballplayers use so artfully, or at least try to on every single pitch.

From pine tar to cork, there has been no shortage of controversy surrounding bats over the years. But with their use as opposed to the traditional ash bats growing exponentially over the last decade, maple bats have taken over as the focal point -- largely because of incidents like the one that drew Maddon's disdain.

With that in mind, Major League Baseball has put forth a concerted effort to make maple bats safer and determine what specifications should be set for the bats that have become so popular yet can be so dangerous.

"This is really a safety issue," said Dan Halem, vice president for labor relations for MLB. "We don't want to see bats breaking into multiple pieces and flying all over the place."

* * *

When it comes to what kind of bat can be used in the Major Leagues, the concept seems quite simple, as stated at the end of Rule 1.10 (a) of the Official Rules of Baseball: "The bat shall be one piece of solid wood."

Though it specifies dimensions, the rule does not state what type of wood must be used, although any type of bat used must be approved by the Official Playing Rules Committee. Starting in the late 1990s, maple bats were included, starting largely with Sam Bats, a Canadian manufacturer of maple bats.

Only a decade later, maple bats had become as much the staple for Major League hitters as ash. Maple soared in popularity after Barry Bonds used it in setting records for home runs in a single season (73 in 2001) and career (762), but Joe Carter is credited for first using the Sam Bats maple bats that Bonds took to new heights.

Giants clubhouse manager Mike Murphy, who has been with the club since it arrived in San Francisco in 1958, has seen the rapid rise of maple bats firsthand. He remembers the day when such players as Willie Mays and Willie McCovey would "bone" their ash bats -- that is, rub a bone on them to help make them harder -- and kept the same bats for long periods of time. But he doesn't see that happening these days, and part of the reason is there is so much maple around, and it's already hard.

"It's a big product now -- everybody uses maple bats," Murphy said. "Before it was just ash bats. Barry was using ash and then he switched over to maple, and then it's like all of a sudden, everybody caught on to maple."

By 2008, more than 30 companies began manufacturing maple bats, and a New York Times story that year estimated that about 60 percent of Major Leaguers were using maple bats, and that number could become significantly higher as more players emerge who have come up while maple bats have been more of a staple.

With safety becoming a concern, MLB and the MLB Players' Association have been studying the issue of broken maple bats since 2008, after numerous incidents of bats breaking and flying dangerously into the air. Maple bats, which are known for their big barrels and thin handles, are considered more prone to breaking into multiple pieces, with potentially dangerous results.

Using consultants such as industrial wood-testing firm Teco and expert David Kretschmann of the USDA Forest Service, MLB has examined thousands of bats the past two seasons. More than 2,200 bats broken during the final 2 1/2 months of the 2008 season as well as every cracked bat in the big leagues in 2009 have been studied and cataloged statistically by STATS, LLC and on video by MLB Advanced Media. That study continues in 2010.

The main finding thus far has been that maple bats in particular need an appropriate slope of grain, or comparison between the grain of the wood and a straight line up the bat. More slope creates a breaking point along which a large and sharply edged shard can emerge from a broken maple bat, whereas most ash bats suffer "rupture" breaks.

According to Halem, efforts to examine trends, inspect bats and educate players has helped reduce the number of broken bats from 2008 to 2009 by approximately 30 percent.

"Our goal is to continue to see a decrease from year to year in the number of bats breaking into multiple pieces," Halem said.

This spring, MLB put into place new, more stringent regulations that banned several types of maple bats in the Minor Leagues. As part of the new rules, restrictions have been placed on the density of sugar maple that can be used to manufacture Minor League bats. In addition, bats made out of several types of maple will be completely eliminated by the companies approved to make bats, meaning the bat makers must use North American sugar maple.

Those regulations apply only to Minor Leaguers not currently on 40-man rosters and without any Major League experience. Thus the rule does not require the approval of the Major League Baseball Players' Association.

What has been negotiated between MLB and the union and approved for the Majors is the inspection of maple bats, none of which can be painted all black so that the grain can be more easily inspected; bats with a lower density than .0219 pounds per square inch are not allowed, and any new players to the Majors as well as all Minor Leaguers cannot use bats lower than .024 pounds per inch; the barrel of all bats was reduced from 2.75 to 2.61 inches in diameter; any player who breaks 10 bats in a season must meet with a panel of experts to discuss possible reasons; and red and silver maple have been eliminated as materials used to make bats.

No doubt, maple bats will be a point of discussion during collective bargaining, and are part of the agenda for Commissioner Bud Selig's 14-member special committee investigating ways to improve the game of baseball.

* * *

In some ways, nothing's more simple to baseball than the bat. Yet it remains a complex subject.

Generally over the years, the wood in MLB bats has been ash, a hardwood that's flexible, strong and resilient. Certainly, they've been prone to break as well, and a broken ash bat is a dangerous projectile. In one such incident, Dodgers catcher Steve Yeager was standing in the on-deck circle when he was struck in the throat by a shard from teammate Bill Russell's bat in a 1976 game. Yeager's esophagus was pierced and he underwent emergency surgery, eventually fully recovering to play later that season.

Though their multiple-piece breaks can be dangerous, maple bats generally hold up longer and stay more true to the original manufacturing.

"If you can dent a maple bat you have an excellent start to a future in the game," as the Sam Bat website states.

Those who are presently in the game have one thing in mind when it comes to bats: Use what works.

In a corner of the Nationals' clubhouse, Washington's cornerstones of power -- first baseman Adam Dunn and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman -- use different types of bats to craft their run production. Zimmerman, who was drafted in 2005 and quickly rose to All-Star status, uses only maple bats; Dunn came into pro ball a little earlier, and goes with ash -- but he also has maple bats, which he mainly uses in batting practice.

"It doesn't matter that much, bats are bats," Dunn says with a shrug.

Of course, that's easy to say for a slugger like Dunn, who can probably go yard with a rake handle made of balsa.

"This one was such a good one," he says, pulling a bat out of his bat bag, "but it broke on a home run."

An even closer look at Dunn's ash bats shows chips and dents from balls fair and foul that add up over time. And that's at the crux of the issue -- ash bats ding, and maple bats are much harder to dent.

"I like ash, but it's so hard to keep an ash bat going for a while, because it doesn't last like it should," Dunn said.

Zimmerman, meanwhile, has tried some ash bats from time to time but prefers the solid feel of maple bats.

"Maple's harder," Zimmerman said. "The ash has more of a 'trampoline' effect and has more vibration, things like that. I've just always used maple. I like the feel of it. You can miss balls a little bit and still hit the ball a little better."

Of course, if -- or when -- a maple bat does break, it could be said that hardness makes it that much more dangerous a flying object. And as has been seen numerous times, a bad break on a maple bat can have a serious point to it.

Infielder Nick Green, then with the Red Sox, had a memorable encounter with one in June 2009, when part of a maple bat hurtled in the air toward him as he tried to field the ball at shortstop, grazing his forearm before sticking in the outfield grass like a javelin.

Zimmerman, whose position is called the hot corner for good reason, says avoiding flying objects while focusing on the ball is part of the job, whether it's maple or ash bats.

"I think it's part of the game," he said. "Bats have broken forever. I've had bats fly down there, had bats thrown down there. If you're going to the game, things might be flying in the stands. Those things will happen, and bats will break -- unless we used metal bats or something, and that's not going to happen.

"It's something that no matter what rules they put in place, it's a wood bat and it's going to break sometimes."

Indeed, wood bats always will break. It's just how they do it and how much control can be placed upon what damage there might be when they do.

As efforts continue to ensure that bats are made that have less likelihood to break into multiple pieces, trying to ensure no one gets hurt is at the top of the agenda.

"You'll never prevent bats from breaking into two pieces," Halem said. "The key is to minimize them."

John Schlegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.