When Bats Break, He Gets the Call

01/11/2009
By From the Lowell Sun

By Barry Scanlon

For as long as baseball has been played, wooden bats have been broken by the impact of bats colliding with speeding balls.

It's an accepted part of the game, like brushback pitches, diving catches, rundowns and double plays.

But in 2008, bats during Major League Baseball games weren't just breaking or cracking -- they were shattering in many pieces and traveling great distances.

In April, during a game in Los Angeles, Pirates outfielder Nate McClouth, swinging at an inside pitch, saw his bat shatter. A shard of wood flew across into the first base dugout, striking Pirates hitting coach Don Long in the face.

The wood struck Long just below his left eye, opening a gash which required 10 stitches to close.

Later that month, again in Los Angeles, the bat of Rockies first baseman Todd Helton shattered. This time, the barrel of the bat flew into the stands and broke the jaw of a female fan.

In June, an umpire, Brian O'Nora, was injured during a Rockies-Royals game. When Royals catcher Miguel Olivio's bat shattered, a stray piece hit O'Nora in the head. The game was stopped and O'Nora was taken to the hospital.

In all three instances, the bats which shattered were made of maple.

Major League Baseball had a problem. Who to call?

One of the first calls was to a man working in the basement of Kitson Hall at UMass Lowell -- Dr. James Sherwood, the director of the Baseball Research Center a professor of mechanical engineering, and someone who has worked with MLB since 1997 and tested bats for the NCAA since 1999.
"I was wondering when someone was going to call," said Sherwood, who served on the Safety and Health Advisory Committee along with a professor of statistics at Harvard University, an employee of the Forest Products Laboratory, two employees of Timberco Inc., a wood panel certification company in Wisconsin, and Patrick Dane, UML's assistant director of the Baseball Research Center.

Their assignment was to find out whether maple bats -- used by an estimated 65 percent of Major League players -- were less structurally sound than ash bats, the second-most popular bats of MLB athletes. (A small percentage of players use bats made of yellow birch.)

"It was a good experience. I had worked with MLB before. But this was definitely much more high profile," Drane said. "This was the best group of people to work with."

Some were calling for the abolishment of maple bats, which gained in popularity in the late 1990s among major leaguers since maple is light and allows for great bat speed. Manny Ramirez, Dustin Pedroia, Jason Giambi and Prince Fielder are among the notable players who use maple bats.

Working with MLB and the MLB Players Association, the Safety and Health Advisory Committee -- after months of intensive meetings and conference calls -- made nine recommendations in reducing the frequency of multiple-piece broken bats.

Last month, the league and Players Association announced they will adopt the recommendations.

From July-September 2008, a total of 2,232 bats broken during Major League games -- 756 of them broke into multiple pieces -- were collected and submitted for analysis.

The committee found that, among the 756 multi-piece bats, maple bats were three times more likely than ash bats to break into two or more pieces and four times more likely to have broken due to poor "slope of grain" than ash bats failing the same way.

"The role of the Baseball Research Center at UMass Lowell was to duplicate in the laboratory the same types of conditions that we observed on the field to break bats," Sherwood said. "Under controlled conditions we impacted different locations along the bats with different pitch speeds and with that we quantified the durability of these bats."

The experts found that maple wasn't less durable than ash.

"But one problem was in the sorting of the maple bats. It's more difficult to see the angle of the grain on a maple bat compared to an ash bat. What was proposed is that there would be a dot of ink put on the bat. And with this it makes it easier to see the direction of the grain on the maple bat as compared to just looking at the maple bat without this dot of ink on it," Sherwood said.

"Now with the black dot of grain it's going to be easier to grade. With this we're hoping to see a significant reduction in the number of bats that are breaking due to a slope of grain failure."

Another recommendation was to stipulate that the hitting surface on maple bats be rotated 90 degrees, forcing manufacturers to rotate their logos they place on bats by 90 degrees.

Sherwood is taking a year's sabbatical from teaching; he jokes he'll still be around campus but just won't be grading any papers. He freed his schedule in order to work more closely with MLB.