Machine Design
Should Wooden Bats be Banned from Major League Baseball?

Should Wooden Bats be Banned from Major League Baseball?

On June 5th this year at Boston’s Fenway Park, a fan watching the game was struck in the face by pieces of a broken baseball bat and received injuries initially described as “life threatening.” Fortunately, her prognosis now appears to be for a full recovery.

Undoubtedly, there will be lawsuits, and lots of finger-pointing. Players, for example, are suggesting this injury could have been prevented by stretching netting down both sidelines. This approach has come up repeatedly and was rejected by MLB owners in 2007 and again in 2012 because they believed premium seat holders would not like their views obstructed.

Broken bats are nothing new in the sport. The numbers have been down in recent years since a high of about one per game in 2008 following the increased use of maple bats stemming from Barry Bonds’ successful use of that wood in lieu of ash.

Important new rules changes were the impetus for that reduction, but Major League Baseball still requires manufactures supplying bats to professional baseball to pay a $10,000 fee to help defray the costs of special testing. The companies also have to carry a $10 million liability insurance policy reflecting their true concerns about the risks to players and fans.

Returning to the players’ position advocating the use of netting, is that really the answer? What about the very real danger to players? (A video compilation of a number of incidents where players, especially the pitcher, are at grave risk is available here.

Perhaps it’s finally time to ban wooden bats from MLB, just as they have been banned from every other segment of the sport, either officially or unofficially.

Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard the arguments: Aluminum or composite bats could make every baseball stadium in the world obsolete overnight and so dramatically change the sport as to make it almost unrecognizable. I’ve also been involved in the business of making high-performance composite bats for almost 20 years and seen the advantage they give batters.

At the top levels of senior slow-pitch softball, for example, it is not uncommon for top players to rack up over 200 homers per season. In fact, in some leagues, homeruns are declared to be “outs” after a certain number of runs have been scored. Can you imagine teams scoring 30 or more runs per game – each? It happens. And then there’s the less tangible argument about “tradition.” I won’t even go there.

The fact remains, however, hollow bats—aluminum and composite—can be re-engineered to meet a wide range of performance standards.

The drive for ever “hotter” bats during the 1990s and early part of the next decade, for example, brought about thinner and thinner walls, leading to the development of exotic, high-performance alloys and the use of aerospace materials like carbon fiber. For a while, even titanium was widely used, and then banned because it was simply too good.

Durability suffered, and the number of injuries from balls traveling too fast to dodge steadily climbed. Eventually, various baseball associations found a need to limit performance and develop realistic tests to ensure lab trials adequately reflected real-world field conditions.

Hollow bats gain their advantage over solid wooden bats by exploiting the “trampoline effect.” This phenomenon results from hollow bats flexing in the hoop or circumferential direction. If this flexing is coordinated with the period of time the ball is in actual contact with the bat, something on the order of a millisecond, the energy stored when the bat deforms can be constructively returned to the ball.

Thinner barrel walls make for softer hoop stiffness and greater deflection of the bat with less deformation of the ball itself (which tends to absorb more energy than the highly elastic bat material). Thus, more of the impact force is recovered and the ball comes off the bat with much more speed.

In a former company I helped found, we put this principle to good effect in a bat we designed that won the 2003 Bat Wars competition hosted by Softball Magazine. It was marketed under the Louisville Slugger trademark as the “Genesis SB34” and became immensely popular.

The same physics used to increase the speed of balls when hit can be put to work making composite or aluminum bats that perform like solid wood bats. For example, designers could use thicker walls, limit barrel deflection, and add energy-absorbing fillers, all so that the bat returns less energy to the ball and forces the ball itself to deform more. And if that’s not enough, the ball can also be redesigned to have a much lower coefficient of restitution.

In other words, we should be able to replace wooden bats with aluminum or composite bats engineered to perform at the same level as wooden bats, yet be durable enough that they don’t break. Maybe the netting is still a good idea to protect fans from foul balls, but the danger from wooden shards could be eliminated almost overnight. It may not be what the purists want to hear, but I’ll bet that Fenway fan would like the idea.

Douglas Hoon is the founder and president of ComGraf, LLC, an ongoing design and development firm focused on sporting goods and consumer products. Since 2008, Mr. Hoon has also been a member of the leadership team for GEN3 Partners, an early-stage product, process and packaging innovation firm, headquartered in Boston and serving an international clientele of Fortune 1000 companies.

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