Q&A: Why do baseball players break so many bats?

Why are they breaking so many baseball bats in the major leagues and why don't they use the kind of wood they used to?

- Roland St. Louis of Groton

Actually, the Major League players are breaking less bats (although statistics for 2010 won't be released until after the season).

Dan Halem, vice president of labor relations for Major League baseball, told John Schlegel of MLB.com earlier this year that efforts to examine trends, inspect bats and educate players has helped reduce the number of broken bats from 2008 to 2009 by approximately 30 percent.

"Our goal is to continue to see a decrease from year to year in the number of bats breaking into multiple pieces," Halem said.

Halem was speaking specifically about the increased use of maple bats, which were popularized in 2001 when slugger Barry Bonds used maple bats, not the standard bat of white ash, when he hit a record 73 home runs.

Since then, however, maple bats have come under more scrutiny because they seem to shatter - not just break - sending projectiles in all directions.

MLB, as a result of those safety concerns, has worked in conjunction with the MLB Players' Association to study these maple bats, which is continuing this season.

But there have already been significant findings from this study, Schlegel reported, including "maple bats in particular need an appropriate slope of grain, or comparison between the grain of the wood and a straight line up the bat. More slope creates a breaking point along which a large and sharply edged shard can emerge from a broken maple bat, whereas most ash bats suffer "rupture" breaks."

Other changes, as negotiated between MLB and the union and approved for inspection of maple bats, were:

• None can be painted black so the grain can be more easily inspected.

• Bats with lower density than .0219 pounds per square inch are not allowed, and any new players to MLB (as well as the minor leagues) cannot use bats lower than .024 pounds per inch.

• Barrels of all bats have been reduced from 2.75 to 2.61 inches in diameter.

• Any player who breaks 10 bats in two during this season must meet with a panel of experts to discuss possible reasons (a two-piece break is categorized as one where the barrel completely separates from the handle).

• Red and silver maple materials have been eliminated.

Schlegel also reported MLB put "new, more stringent regulations that banned several types of maple bats in the Minor Leagues. As part of the new rules, restrictions have been placed on the density of sugar maple that can be used to manufacture Minor League bats. In addition, bats made out of several types of maple will be completely eliminated by the companies approved to make bats, meaning bat makers must use North American sugar maple."

In answer to part two of Mr. St. Louis' question: "Why don't they use the kind of wood they used to?" They still do. "The Louisville Slugger" - which was originated as a "white ash" bat in 1884, still owns approximately 60 percent of the professional bat market, according to USA Today.

Gone, however, are the old "hickory" bats made famous by Babe Ruth because they simply weigh too much. Back in the day, Ruth reportedly used a hickory bat that weighed 47 ounces. Now most players go with lighter bats in the 27-33 ounce range.

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