Maple, Ash Baseball Bats May Strike Out The talk turns to baseball bats — including whether maple bats should be benched, and how a tiny bug may throw the bat-making industry a curve ball.
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Maple, Ash Baseball Bats May Strike Out

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Maple, Ash Baseball Bats May Strike Out

Maple, Ash Baseball Bats May Strike Out

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This is Talk of the Nation: Science Friday. I am Ira Flatow. Hope you're enjoying your 4th of July this year. Fourth of July is synonymous with baseball. Maybe you're listening to us at your favorite softball game that happens on the 4th of July each year. And if you've watched a Major League Baseball game lately, you have probably seen bats breaking. And I'm not talking about bats breaking like in the old days, when they would merely crack and sort of fall apart. Today, it's like an explosion. You have shards flying, pointed spears, dangerous projectiles that draw blood from players and wound fans in the stands.

Many baseball players and observers lay the blame on the growing popularity of bats made from maple. They all used to be made from ash. Major League Baseball says it is looking into the problem. Its safety and health advisory committee met last week to talk about whether maple bats should be benched. We'll be talking this hour about how wooden bats are made. Why do maple bats splinter? What's the difference between maple and ash? How do things like tree rings and grain direction affect the bat's performance at the plate?

And if you'd like to talk about baseball bats, the science of baseball bats, our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. And of course, if you're in Second Life, you can go to our Science Friday Island and join some avatars there and ask questions from Second Life. Let me introduce my guests. Brian Boltz is the general manager of Larimer & Norton, Incorporated. That's the timber division of Hillerich & Bradsby, the maker of Louisville Slugger bats. He joins us by phone from Warren County, Pennsylvania. Welcome to Science Friday on the 4th. Thank you for being with us today.

Mr. BRIAN BOLTZ (General Manager, Larimer & Norton, Inc.): Yes, thank you for having me.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Lloyd Smith is a professor of mechanical and materials engineering at Washington State University. He joins us from Moscow, Idaho. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.

Dr. LLOYD SMITH (Mechanical and Materials Engineering, Washington State University): Happy to be on your show.

FLATOW: Let's talk about the history, Lloyd, about the history of maple bats. How - when did they first start entering the world of baseball?

Dr. SMITH: Maple came in at around the late '90s, '97, I think, is probably when they first started becoming dominant. At the time, there really was just, I guess, not much interest in maple. Ash seemed to be working well as a wood, but there were some people experimenting with different types of wood. And the one that, I guess, took off the best was made by a company, Sam Bat, Sam Holman. Once his bat got into the Major Leagues, and Barry Bonds began using his bat and got the homerun record that year, the maple bats really took off.

FLATOW: Mm-hm. Brian Boltz, is that the major number - most bats that you make at Louisville Slugger are maple now?

Mr. BOLTZ: For the Major Leagues, we are now - over 50 percent of our production is maple. In the other areas, amateur ranks, it's still not near - it may be only about 15 to 20 percent.

FLATOW: What is the difference in the wood, between maple and the old ash? Let me ask you, Brian, first. What's the advantage there?

Mr. BOLTZ: Well, maple, the surface of maple, is a little bit harder. Our research shows that you really can't hit the ball any farther with a maple bat than you can with an ash bat, but I think what players like about the maple bat is that they can take that out in the batting practice and they can put a hundred swings on that, and then the surface of the wood will stay nice and hard, and they can then use that in the game. Where, with ash, maybe over 100, 200 hits in batting practice, you might see the surface start to flake a little bit and the growth between the grains start to sheer off a little bit. So, players, a lot of players, like that feature with the maple bat as opposed to ash.

FLATOW: Because, I guess, we were all under the impression that you can hit the ball farther with maple, and you're saying that's not true.

Mr. BOLTZ: There is no scientific evidence that shows that the maple bat hits it farther, no.

FLATOW: Lloyd, do you agree?

Dr. SMITH: That's true. The - when you look at the performance of bats, and everything being equal, and all you're doing is changing the wood species itself, there's really no difference in performance at all. There could be one slight performance advantage with maple, and it's somewhat counterintuitive, but maple tends to be a little heavier than ash, which not all people like. But it turns out that when you're trying to determine how far a ball can be hit, having a heavier bat can be a slight advantage. But that's going to be fairly small and there's also a disadvantage, if you're just trying to make contact with the ball. So, while it could allow you to hit the ball a little further, it may also make it more difficult for you to be able to hit the ball at all.

FLATOW: Mm-hm. Why do maple bats splinter and ash just crack?

Dr. SMITH: There's a variety of reasons, and I don't know that there's just one. First of all, because maple is slightly heavier. When you make a maple bat, you're looking for a wood that's going to be lighter weight, and the strength of the wood is proportional to its weight. So, when you select a lighter wood, then you also get a wood of lower strength. Then, people will also do things to the geometry of the wood. If you can make your - the handle or the taper region of the bat slightly smaller in diameter, you can save weight to there as well. That also weakens the bat. Another thing people will do is they will dry the wood out, and some of these aggressive drying processes can actually result in a permanent weight loss in the bat, but that tends to make the bat more brittle or lower its toughness.

FLATOW: Brian, your reason?

Brian, are you there?

Mr. BOLTZ: Yes.

FLATOW: Why do you - why do we think - Lloyd said, possibly, that we have thinner handles on the bats and then there's different moisture content in the maple that causes - there's two reasons why they splinter more than ash.

Mr. BOLTZ: And it's the structure of the grains, too. It's a closed grain wood as opposed to open grain wood. You can see the grains on an ash bat a lot clearer when you're grading that piece of wood than you can on a maple bat. But I agree with what he said about the moisture content, and we've always attempted to keep our moisture not anywhere below eight percent or something like that. We've also tried to keep our drying process, where we - we have a longer drying process. There's a lower temperature to try not to pull the moisture out of the wood really quickly. So, we've done some things to try to help with the strength of the wood for maple.

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Dr. SMITH: Grain orientation is important. And the thing that makes maple a good wood for durability, as far as the flaking of the barrel region is concerned, also makes it problematic for the strength of the bat in bending, because you - it's difficult to identify the grain direction in maple, at least in comparison to ash. It's also difficult to show that those grains are aligned with the length of the bat which increases its strength.

FLATOW: Because we have - speaking about that, we have heard people comment on this, saying that an ash bat will bend a little bit more when it's stressed - when it hits the ball, whereas an ash bat doesn't so it has to break. Is there any truth to that? I mean, a maple bat will - a maple bat will resist the bending.

Dr. SMITH: Right. There - I guess the - from my perspective, the primary truth to that would be in the grain orientation, that if you have - and what we're - we have to recognize we're talking about natural materials, so you can't always guarantee that every bat is going to have the same type of grain or grain orientation. But to the extent that maple is more difficult to identify grain orientation, you're more likely to have a bat with poorly oriented grain, and when that grain is not oriented parallel to the length of the bat, it's more likely to break in a brittle fashion.

FLATOW: Mm-hm. We talked to a scientist who was on a former Major League baseball committee a few years ago when they first started looking into this problem. And he said that the recommendation from that committee was to make the handles thicker and that would solve the problem. We had thicker handles. We know the Major League players coming up to the ranks want thinner and thinner handles. If we make them thicker, would that solve it, Brian?

Mr. BOLTZ: That would go some of the way, yes. I think you would see less of it. I don't think it would eliminate it completely. But the handle in baseball these days are - I think they're all under an inch in diameter. The other thing you could do would be to, I mean, not have the barrel be as large as some of these are, to limit it to maybe two and a half inches in diameter rather than two and five-eighths. That would help as well. And I think - but I think the moisture content, keeping it - not letting that moisture go below eight percent would also be a factor in helping out the - get that from breaking as often as it does. But there's really nothing you can do to keep it eliminated completely. I mean, you're still going to have that breakage in maple and, you know, in ash, just the way, you know, - just because it's a piece of wood.

Dr. SMITH: Well, keep in mind that this problem is perhaps more significant with the introduction of maple bats, but injuries of this type did occur when ash bats dominated the market. So when you talk about doing things like increasing moisture content or increasing your handle diameter, that may contribute to diminishing the injury rate, but it's not as if you're making it safe or unsafe.

FLATOW: I guess. But when we see these bats breaking like spears, some of the times they're pointing into the turf. You know, they're stuck in the - I don't remember ever seeing those in the old ash bat days. They look much more dangerous when they're flying through the air.

Dr. SMITH: Well, part of that is because with the introduction of the maple bat, you've got a greater proportion of bats failing. So you have a larger sample to select from or to observe.

FLATOW: You hear that, Brian?

Mr. BOLTON: I would agree with that, yes. I mean, when you're - when you have as much maple as in the Major League baseball right now, you're going to see a lot more than what it was even three and four years ago, when maple was maybe only 20 or 25 percent.

FLATOW: So, I remember there was a - I remember in spring training, there was a baseball player standing on third base who got 18 stitches from a bat that hit him in the arm. And I don't remember ever seeing that. And only - I've been watching baseball 50 years. So I haven't seen everything.

Dr. SMITH: Well, again, keep in mind that you've got many, many things coming together. It's not just that maple is brittle, but you've got the grain orientation, you've got the weight issue. There's a number of things that are coming together to cause the problem and produce this greater number of bat failures that we're having than we've seen in the past.

FLATOW: Now, Major League baseball is looking into this. We're going to go to the break, but I want to come back and talk later on a little bit about what you think the recommendations might be to Major League baseball as they study this, what to do about this breakage rate and the problem with maple bats. So stay with us. We're going to take a break. We'll come back with Brian Bolton, Lloyd Smith, after this break, take your questions. 1-800-989-8255. We'll be right back. I'm Ira Flatow and this is Talk of the Nation: Science Friday from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to Talk of the Nation: Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about the Major League Baseball and baseball bats, the physics of baseball bats, this hour. And while Major League Baseball is debating the future of maple bats, a tiny bug, the emerald ash borer, is threatening the future of ash bats. Now, this beetle kills ash trees, and it's invading Pennsylvania. And that's important because that's where most of the ash for our baseball bats come from.

Here to talk us - talk to us about what we can do about the insect invasion is Sven-Erik Spichiger. He's an entomologist for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, and he is tracking the emerald ash borer's movement in Pennsylvania. He joins us by phone from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. And if you want to see a little bit of the problem, you can go to iTunes and download the Science Friday podcast, video podcast, about this problem. Welcome to Science Friday.

Dr. SVEN-ERIK SPICHIGER (Entomologist, Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture): Hi, nice to talk with you.

FLATOW: How big a problem is this borer?

Dr. SPICHIGER: Well, in other states where it has already been for a few years, it's been a devastating problem, wiping out close to 30 million trees already.

FLATOW: Wow. And when did it first arrive in the U.S.?

Dr. SPICHIGER: Well, it was first discovered in 2002, but doing some tree-ring analysis, they are fairly certain it was here in the mid-'90s.

FLATOW: Mid-'90s. And how do you get rid of it?

Dr. SPICHIGER: Unfortunately, right now we don't have a way to get rid of it, as you say. The National Program, which is set it up by the USDA, right now is targeting release of parasitoids, but we're many years away from that right now.

FLATOW: And Mr. Spichiger, how dangerous is this? Give us an idea of what kind of damage this could do to a forest once the beetle gets there.

Dr. SPICHIGER: Well, to put it in perspective, you could compare this to American chestnut blight. And for those who are familiar with that, we used to have quite a few chestnut trees in our woods, and there are now almost none. And those that do grow die within a few years. And that's pretty much what we're looking at right now.

FLATOW: Wow. They're all - that wiped out lots of trees.

Dr. SPICHIGER: Yeah. In Pennsylvania, we have approximately three to five percent ash component in our woodlands. And in the areas where we have our baseball-bat factories, the percentage is a little higher, and the quality of the timber is a lot better now. Unfortunately, we've recently detected the beetle in Mercer County, which is in western Pennsylvania along Interstate 80. And that's getting just a little too close for comfort, unfortunately.

FLATOW: It was - it's actually right on the highway.

Dr. SPICHIGER: That is right on the highway, yes.

FLATOW: And that's not a good thing.

Dr. SPICHIGER: No, that's not a good thing. Unfortunately, we believe this beetle other than spreading by just flying naturally can be moved around a lot faster when people transport firewood or nursery stock or basically improperly processed timber. And basically, we attribute man-assisted movements to its spreading a lot faster than it needed to in the Michigan, Ohio and other states, and parts of southern Canada as well.

FLATOW: Dr, Spichiger, is there a best-case scenario here?

Dr. SPICHIGER: Best-case scenario is basically we continue to do programs like we're doing today. We get the word out. People curtail their activities such as taking firewood camping, and buy it when they get there, and we can slow the movement in time for perhaps a natural parasite or predator to take hold and help keep this in check. Unfortunately for Pennsylvania, in our bat-factory areas, it doesn't look like we're going to be able to catch up in time, unfortunately.

FLATOW: So it's going to get to the bat forests?

Dr. SPICHIGER: I think it is.

FLATOW: Wow. And then that will be the ash bats?

Dr. SPICHIGER: That's pretty much it. Now, of course, we can get ash from other sources, but in Pennsylvania, we prefer to have them from here, of course.

FLATOW: Thank you for taking time to be with us, Dr. Spichiger. And have a happy 4th of July.

Dr. SPICHIGER: Oh, you, too.

LATOW: Sven-Erik Spichiger talking to us about this bat - the bat-forest problems, concerning to a forest problem, because that's where the beetle is headed toward the bats. Joining us now to talk more about is are folks who is still with us - Brian Boltz of the Hillerich & Bradsby, maker of Louisville Slugger bats, and Lloyd Smith of Washington State University. Brian, are your bat folks worried about this beetle?

Mr. BOLTZ: Yes, we've been concentrating on this for two to three years now, even before it was even in the state of Pennsylvania, and have been in contact with the USDA and state agencies and just trying to track it and understand what we need to do when it does get into our area because, well, you know, we will be quarantined, and so that we are prepared to be able to, you know, get our wood down to our Louisville factory when it's needed.

FLATOW: Brian Boltz, what makes Pennsylvania ash so special for the bats?

Mr. BOLTZ: Well, you can get ash from, you know, in New England states, you can get it down south, but the Pennsylvania ash just has that right mixture of flexibility, hardness, density that makes it a good bat. Our company purchased the sawmills in Pennsylvania back in the mid-'50s and has really brought in all of their ash from that area ever since, and it just turns out to be the best type of ash for baseball bats.

FLATOW: What is there a bat where the trees grow, the tree's home that affects the composition of the wood?

Mr. BOLTZ: I think it's just the mixture of the soil and the terrain. We are in a very mountainous area here in northern Pennsylvania and southern New York that allows for better growing. You get bigger trees, and obviously, you need a lot of good growth, wide growth, because the player wants to see the growth rings and they want to see them to be evenly grown - even growth and they want width between the growth rings. And we just found that this area of the country is the best for that.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Talking about the physics of baseball bats this Fourth of July. Let's go to Anne in Minneapolis. Hi, Anne.

ANNE (Caller): Hey guys. I was wondering, I'm on my way to my baseball game right now. When I get the game-used bat, both maple and ash, they're shaved down, the maple more so than the ash, so that the barrel is huge, but it snaps right at the handle.

FLATOW: And so, you're wondering whether the shaving does something extra to make it...

ANNE: Yeah. Because they don't shave the ash in the same way they shave the maples.

FLATOW: Interesting. Brian, Lloyd, any comment?

Dr. SMITH: They're doing that to save weight on the bat. So, you're doing that to have a lighter bat so it's easier to swing but the cost is going to be that the bat's going to tend to break easier when you hit it with the ball.

Mr. BOLTZ: I would just comment that, you know, if it's being shaved down it must be being shaved down by the player because if a player orders a specific model and, you know, and that calls for the diameter of the handle to be, you know, 15-16th and that's what the bat will go out as. If there's the same model on the bat and the handle of the maple looks smaller, it would be shaved down by the player itself.

FLATOW: Anne, how come you're not using metal bats?

ANNE: Well, you don't use metal bats because that's not baseball. That's like college ball.

FLATOW: And you're playing softball?

ANNE: No. Baseball.

FLATOW: You're playing baseball. I thought everybody was using metal bats these days and even in - anywhere but the Major Leagues.

ANNE: No. A lot of teams are using the maple and the ash bats now because they have a better feel when you're playing the game and they don't vibrate in your hands the way that the metal bats do.

FLATOW: What team are you on?

ANNE: Well, I'm not going to broadcast that.

FLATOW: You don't want to shout out to your team? OK.

ANNE: No, because they don't know that I'm a Minnesota Public Radio listener.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Thank you, Anne. Have a good holiday and good luck with your game.

ANNE: Thanks so much. Bye-bye.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Michael in Lennox, Kansas. Hi, Michael. Or is it Lenexa?

MICHAEL (Caller): It's Lenexa. How are you doing?

FLATOW: Hi. How are you? Happy 4th.

MICHAEL: Thank you. I had a question for you. The settlers used to make their wagon-wheel hubs out of elm because elm doesn't split.

FLATOW: Why not make a baseball bat out of elm?

MICHAEL: I imagine you can't get much elm, but if you could, would that work, have we tried it?

FLATOW: Brian and Lloyd?

Mr. BOLTZ: There is not much elm in this area of the country. We don't see it hardly at all in the forest up here. So we haven't really tried it - there's really not enough supply of it to, you know, for all the baseball bats that we need to be made.

Dr. SMITH: I'm just scanning over the properties of elm. Elm turns out to be a fairly lightweight wood, but the strength is not quite that of your ash. So, you may find that you have a failure problem for the impact that a bat has.

FLATOW: What are cricket bats made out of?

Dr. SMITH: Cricket bats are made out of willow, an English willow.

FLATOW: Would that be something we'd look into?

Dr. SMITH: Well, there you have a very different mechanism. Cricket bats, it is a very lightweight wood, but the structure of the bat is very different and because of its geometry it's allowed to hold up . Now, there's also something else about the cricket bat. The handle is made of cane. So the blade and the handle are two different materials. And that's something that Major League Baseball has never allowed. It's always had to be a one solid-wood bat.

FLATOW: What do you think the recommendations of the committee that's meeting now might be? What - are they going to come back with making - possibly making thicker handles? That seemed to be the easiest thing to suggest, would it not?

Dr. SMITH: Well - so, an increase in the handle diameter would be one thing. Now, that's a very dramatic suggestion, because so far, geometry has been the one thing that players could work with. But I would say there's other things that Major League Baseball could do that they haven't done that would - so the concern is, is that if you mess around with the design of the bat that you're somehow going to be changing the performance of the bat.

And we've been able to show that if your bat is solid wood, the performance really is not going to change much by your species. So, you could do different things. You could laminate your bat, kind of like the way plywood is made, and that could increase the strength. You could reinforce the bat. You could put a composite on the outside of the bat. In fact, some people sell bats like that to a minor league teams, and they significantly increase the durability of the bat. And then, when the bat does break, it's even safer than an ash bat, because that reinforcement is able to keep the bat together after it cracks.

FLATOW: Aren't you going to have the statistics problem then? You know, baseball lives by statistics? Won't you have to put an asterisk of the era of the new baseball bat or something?

Dr. SMITH: Well, that would - that's certainly the concern of why they haven't gone to other kinds of bats. But we've been able to test these bats in the laboratory under very strict conditions, and shown that there really is no difference in performance. The issue is what's going on in the barrel of the bat. And as long as that barrel is solid wood, whether that is laminated or reinforced in the handle, or thick or a skinny handle, those things really don't affect the performance of the bat.

FLATOW: Brian, you want to check in on this?

Mr. BOLTZ: I really would highly doubt that Major League Baseball would get into something of a laminate or a composite. They're really into the history of the game, and it's always been a one solid piece of wood. And I would think, if they're going to stay with the maple bat - and again, this is not only a management issue. It's a union issue. This has to be bargained to change any of the - either the specifications of the bat or the species of the wood. I would think they're going to go to some kind of a change in the specification so to - and just to limit - more limit the amount of times that these bats break, you know, but as opposed to banning the species altogether.

Dr. SMITH: There could be one other thing that the Major League Baseball could do. I think that the most realistic thing would be increasing the handle diameter. But they could require that particular wood species or wood profiles be approved, and that they be given some type of testing protocol to show how they would break, and then determine whether that mode of failure would be safe in play.

FLATOW: We're talking about the physics of baseball bats this hour in Talk of the Nation: Science Friday from NPR News. So, when you say, statistics, does that include - mean the diameter of the bat handle? When used - the specifications, I mean, was that what you're getting at?

Dr. SMITH: That would be one thing. But even so, you might take - or if you were to put this to a testing protocol, you - one thing would be the geometry, what is the diameter of the handle or the shape of the taper. But you might have some actual physical test. It might be players in the field. It might be put in a machine. We have performance machines that measure the performance of bats. And there are similar machines that look at the durability of bats.


Dr. SMITH: So that they're impacted in a controlled environment.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. SMITH: So if they break, people aren't hurt. And you could then study the way they break, and whether that's safe in a game.

FLATOW: Well, as we - we've run out of time. But I want to just have the take home - one of the take-home messages that I've learned today is that maple does not work. I mean, there's no better a wood in a baseball bat than ash for hitting a baseball. It's all about, if I hear you correctly, the durability of the bat.

Dr. SMITH: That's right.

Mr. BOLTZ: Yes, correct.

FLATOW: Wow. So much, and baseball players are so superstitious, you'll never convince them of anything else but that. Gentlemen, I want to thank you for taking time to be with us today on the 4th of July.

Dr. SMITH: My pleasure.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Brian Boltz is the general manager of Larimer & Norton, Incorporated. That is the timber division of Hillerich & Bradsby, the maker of Louisville Sluggers bats. Lloyd Smith is professor of mechanical and materials engineering at Washington State University.

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