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Broken Bats Start in the Forest


Anybody who ever played baseball years ago knows the term "label up."  It was usually the second instruction given to youngsters just behind, "eye on the ball."    The phrase isn’t as common today because few, if any, young ball players use wooden bats.   Batting with the label up, in theory, reduced the chances the bat would be broken on a solid swing.  

Today, major league baseball still uses wooden bats and during 2008 saw an abnormally high number of bats coming apart in ball parks across the country.   The shattered bat pieces pose great risk to players in the field and fans in the stands near the plate.  The incidents of broken bats so concerned Major League Baseball, they asked the U.S. Forest Service to study the matter.

MLB enlisted researcher Dave Kretschmann of the USDA’s Forest Products Lab in Madison, Wisconsin.   Kretschmann formed a technical team which included professors from M.I.T. and U-Mass-Lowell, and the TICO Wood Quality Inspection Service.    Every bat broken during a Major League Baseball Game from July 1 to September 7, 2008 was delivered to the Wisconsin lab for comparative analysis.

"We laid them all out and looked at them.  We looked at how they failed and what were some patterns and trends and the failure rate," said Kretschmann. "How did the bats come apart?  How frequently did they come apart? What species was involved?"

Most baseball bats are made from white ash.  Ash has been the preferred material almost from the creation of the Grand Ole Game.   Ash is strong enough and dense enough to meet the specifications for length and weight required for Major League bats.  Red maple became a popular material when Barry Bonds used it in pursuit of Babe Ruth’s record.  Hickory, red oak, and some Japanese imported woods are occasionally selected to produce bats for specific purposes.

"The primary thing that you could see was that the (broken) bats had slope of grain in their handles, which was causing them to separate into two pieces," said Kretschmann. "The more the wood fibers of the grain tips away from going up and down the handle, the weaker the wood is."

Kretschmann says the barrels of the bats typically have a very tight grain and manufacturers were very careful in creating the right cut to produce the wood strength in the club end. The branding of each bat is done 90-degrees away from the edge of the grain.  Hence batting with the label up insures you’ll hit the ball directly on the edge of the grain–rather than the face–where it’s much stronger and more durable.

However, for all the selection and care put into the barrel, nobody considered similar attention to the handle.  Grains in the handle had never been much of a consideration—until now.

Kretschmann’s team determined better selection of the raw logs destined for the baseball bat mill along with improved inspection of the grain slopes throughout the length of the bat would improve bat strength.    The test of those fibers is done with a spot of stain placed onto the bat handle–a test spot Kretschmann says you might be able to detect if you have a high-definition TV and look closely at a major league bat handle today during a close-up shot of the hitter.

Kretschmann’s team issued its report to MLB and baseball changed its specifications and rules to reflect the research.

"The change happened in the 2009 season.  All major league bats that were certified had to meet a regulation there had to be less then three-degrees slope of grain in the handle," said Kretschman."

Certainly, it’s still a piece of wood and there are other factors that could cause it to fail as it smashes against the cork and rawhide sphere travelling 98-miles an hour.   However, the researchers believe the change reduced the chances of broken bats by eliminating what was often a common cause.


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