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The Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners too.

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March 16, 2009 11:44 AM

The skinny on maple bats

Posted by Larry Stone

bats 002.jpg

While chatting with Mike Morse yesterday, I noticed a black ink spot on the handle of all his bats, which were leaning against his locker. It turns out it's part of some significant alterations to maple and birch bats, designed to alleviate the alarming instances of severed bats.

Maple bats, in particular, have become extremely popular among players in recent years, but they have a nasty habit of breaking in two, with the severed end often turning into a jagged missile that endangers fans, coaches and players. Baseball formed a Safety and Health Advisory Committe to tackle the problem, consulting with various experts -- wood science engineers, mechanical engineeers, and statisticians. They analyzed more than 2,200 broken bats and video of more than 300 shattered-bat incidents.

The experts concluded that the problem centered on the poor quaility of the slope of the grain, and proposed several changes that are now mandated for this season. They don't affect bats made from any wood besides maple and birch, and there are no changes in the ratio of the size of the handle to the size of the barrel. According to a memo sent to players, the experts believe that "as the straightness of grain decreases, the likelihood that the bat will break apart into multiple pieces increases.''

All maple and birch bats must now have a natural or clear finish in order to see the black dot that must appear on bats made of those woods. According to the memo, the ink dots, which are roughly 1/4 inch in diameter, "are necessary for inspectors to be able to confirm that the bat's slope of grain is within the proper range.'' You can see the ink dot on the bat pictured above.

The upshot is, the all-black bats that so many players covet are now pretty much gone. Most new bats you see this year are two-toned, with a light-colored (natural) handle and a black barrel. Ken Griffey Jr., who has long favored black bats, blanched at his shipment of multi-colored maple bats and immediately put in an order for all-black ash bats. Ichiro, who uses Mizuno-produced black bats made from a Japanese wood called blue tamo, will be able to keep using the same bats, as will Kenji Johjima, who also uses blue tamo. Apparently, players will be able to keep using their old black bats, provided their slope of grain passes inspection, and they are sanded down enough for the black dot to be visible.

All new bats ordered this year are supposed to have passed inspection and come with the tell-tale dot. On March 26th, the MLB's bat inspector, Scott Drake, will be in Mariners' camp in Arizona to inspect pre-2009 bats, while an inspector will be at Safeco Field on the day of the home opener, April 14, to check out old bats that weren't brought to camp.

Here's the biggest bat change, however, and the one that players are rebelling against most. The manufacturer's logo on maple and birch bats produced this season have been rotated 90 degrees, and players are advised to hit with the logo facing them. The experts concluded that this is the best way to hit the ball on the strongest surface. However, what that means in practical terms is that players are being asked to hit the ball against the grain, after being taught their whole lives to hit the ball with the grain.

Of course, they can still hit with the grain using ash bats, which is one reason why some players are switching back to ash, or thinking about it. Among the Mariners' players who use ash, besides Griffey, are Russ Branyan, Jamie Burke and Endy Chavez.

I've been a big advocate of fixing the maple-bat problem, because if left unchecked, I'm convinced it would have only been a matter of time before someone was killed. A woman at Dodger Stadium already had her jaw broken by a flying bat, and Pirates coach Don Long got a gash in his cheek. It was really getting scary.

Anecdotal evidence so far is that even with the new grain regulations, bat fragments are still flying. But I'm willing to wait and see if this works.

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