While I certainly am glad Brian O’Nora is alright after making a baseball game looking like a scene from Macbeth, I’m going to have to call bullshit on the anti-maple bat parade. It may not seem like it at first, but this is a disguised attack from the same baseball purists who don’t want instant replay and somehow believe the D.H. is the bubonic plague.
While maple bats had been around since the 90s, when Joe Carter was the first to use one, the traditional ash bats were by far the most dominant at the major league level. The trend towards maple bats started to begin in 2001, which may or may not have had to do with Barry Bonds hitting 73 home runs using maple bats that year. This combines two of sports columnists’ biggest punching bags: Barry Bonds, and developments in Major League Baseball since Mickey Mantle retired.
Maple bats had traditionally been deemed too heavy to make a bat, until new technologies allowed enough moisture for a bat to be made. While there are no recorded numbers to back up the rise in broken bats (more on that later), it’s obvious to anyone who watches the game that the number of broken bats have increased in recent years.
For many baseball purists, broken bats, and particularly shattered bats, are a new virus in baseball, risking tragedies that everyone knows could occur but have so far yet to happen. There’s certainly a correlation between the rise of maple bats and the rise of broken bats. But most purists have been confusing correlation with causality, when in fact most physicists will attribute the problem to another cause.
Once upon a time, the baseball bat’s diameter would decrease proportionally until you got to the handle. Now, you’re seeing bat handles that are extremely thin and completely out of whack with the thickness of the bat. A baseball bat is more likely to break the further away you go from the sweet spot. In The Physics of Baseball, Yale physics professor Robert Adair noted that bats with thicker handles have larger sweet spots and tend to break less. The thinner handles, increasingly preferred by Major Leaguers who want higher bat speed, results in bats breaking more. Combine the lighter bat craze with batters who have much stronger hands and put more tension in their grips, and you’re going to see more broken bats (and more shattered bats too). The material used to make the bat has little to do with it, and the difference between two types of wooden bats are even less.
So once again, baseball columnists’ purist bias combines with circumstantial evidence to make a case to eliminate a new trend in baseball, a case that has the luxury of a conveniently timed bloody umpire. But if safety was the main concern, why did some columnists slam the MLB for overreacting with the base coach helmet mandate? Someone did actually die from that, after all. If it’s a matter of ecological friendliness, how do you justify the very notion of a baseball game, which is inherently wasteful in ways much worse than what a few bats will change? It’s the hitters, not their tools, that are causing bats to break, and the chances from someone dying or becoming seriously injured from a shattered bat are already a statistical anomaly. The odds become essential zero when you account for the difference in that chance between maple and ash bats.
More players breaking their tools [USA Today]