The Great Baseball Bat Debate

METAL VS. WOOD

Every season there is a renewal of the debate regarding metal vs. wood bats: Which performs better on the field, which is safer for youth play, which is best to train with, etc. It is a subject for which there are many different opinions and answers depending on the specific topic.

Generally the discussion on metal vs. wood bats focuses on which is “safer” for youth play. Indeed, currently there are several pending lawsuits against both manufacturers and baseball organizations concerning some rare traumatic injuries sustained by players (especially pitchers) which are attributed to the use of metal bats. The basic contention is that the baseball comes off metal bats faster than wooden ones, giving players less time to react and protect themselves against screaming line drives.

The news coverage of these rare injuries and the lawsuits that have followed has developed a groundswell of parental concern about safety, resulting in many youth leagues opting to mandate only the use of wood bats in games in order to avoid potential liability. The fact that these same worried parents are equally likely to sue for injuries sustained from the use of wood bats (including flying bat fragments) appears to be entirely beside the point.

The actual physics involved in this discussion is best understood by rocket scientists. What I aim to do here is simply point out in layman’s terms the characteristics of metal vs. wood bats and some other facts from the larger debate.

VIDEO: BALL-SPEED ISN’T ALWAYS ALL THAT

As the video at the top of this post illustrates, many experienced hitters (especially older players) find no significant difference in the baseball “exit” speed off a metal vs. wood bat. Rather, the primary difference is in the balance point of the bat itself, the resulting speed of the swing and the size of the “sweet spot” that enables metal bats to be more “hitter-friendly” than wood ones of the same length and weight.

FINDINGS AND FACTS

Those who are in favor of banning metal & composite bats from youth play often cite a 2002 Brown University study that showed the speed of a ball off metal bats was higher than off wood ones. However, in the same year the National Consumer Product Safety Commission found no evidence that metal bats were a greater risk to players than wood.

In fact, since 2003 metal bats have been required by the NCAA & National Federation of State High School Associations to comply with a “Bat Exit Speed Ratio” that limits the maximum velocity a ball can be propelled by a metal bat to be comparable to the best wood bats given the same pitch and bat speeds. Likewise, bats used at the Little League level are governed by an additional “Bat Performance Factor” standard that requires the rebound effect of a batted ball off non-wood bats to not exceed that from wooden bats.

In 2007 another study conducted by Illinois State University on the subject of non-wood vs. wood bats also determined there was no statistically significant evidence that using non-wood bats increases the risk or incidence of severe injury to players.

The REAL difference in metal or composite bats vs. wood bats lies in the fact that non-wood bats can be physically swung faster by players of equal strength and ability. They are also more “forgiving” of off-center hits.

NON-WOOD BATS: THE UPSIDE

Metal bats have been in popular use since their inception in the 1970’s. In recent years sports equipment technology has utilized space-age materials in the construction of composite bats which have become ever-lighter and more flexible than their all-aluminum counterparts. It is a hugely profitable business driven by a market of competitive players willing to spend often ridiculous sums in pursuit of better performance, forgetting that it is player training and development more than the equipment itself that ultimately makes the difference. Having said that, following are a few characteristics of metal & composite bats that DO give the hitter a definite advantage:

  1. Greater bat speed. Metal & composite bats have hollow barrels which makes the distribution of the bat’s weight along its length very different than that of solid wood bats. In particular the bat’s balance point (center of mass) is closer to the handle which makes it easier to swing regardless of its actual weight. Wood bats inevitably have their weight concentrated in the end of the barrel which makes them seem heavier to swing.
  2. The “trampoline” effect. Because the barrel of a wood bat is solid, the baseball compresses when struck by it. In this process the baseball can lose at least half of its kinetic energy, requiring greater applied strength from the batter to propel it forward into the field. By contrast, the hollow construction of metal & composite bats permits their surface to flex. This not only preserves more of the ball’s initial energy, it also reapplies the energy back to the ball that was originally absorbed by the bat. The result is that the ball “springs” away from the surface of a metal or composite bat while it must be “pushed” away with a wood bat.
  3. The larger “sweet spot.” Essentially this is the area on the striking surface which yields both optimal contact and efficient transfer of energy to make the ball go as far as possible. Due to their flexible surface, metal & composite bats have a functionally larger area to work with than do wood bats.

NON-WOOD BATS: THE DOWNSIDE

All of this is to say that metal & composite bats enable poor and mediocre hitters to have more success than they might otherwise deserve. Metal & composite bats do some of the work for them, both in terms of hitting balls farther and also in terms of getting cheap base hits that would not have happened using wood bats. This false sense of performance often leads to a rude awakening later when players accustomed to metal & composite bats advance to a higher level that requires wood instead. This is a classic issue for high school & college draft picks when they start playing professional ball in the Minors. For this very reason, college and pro scouts prefer to evaluate a player’s true hitting abilities by observing them using wood bats rather than those of other materials.

WHAT I LIKE

If you ask me which type of bat I prefer;

  • From a Baseball Dad’s competitive point of view I prefer metal for the improved hitting results.
  • From a coach’s point of view I prefer wood for the improved mechanics and hitting skill it demands. (In my view you can immediately tell whether a hitting coach or instructor is worth your time and money based on whether they work only with wood in training.)
  • From a purist’s point of view I prefer wood for both the aesthetics of the sound it makes and the classic “small ball” strategy game it cultivates.

I do not favor bans because I believe the “risks” of non-wood bats are over-stated and based on anecdotes rather than compelling evidence. But I do favor playing with wood as much as possible because it makes for better baseball players and a better quality game.

What do you think?

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