Beyond The Hype: A Maple-Flavored Story

By Diane M. Grassi
Updated: September 4, 2008

NEVADA — Major League Baseball (MLB) and its lords that preside over it can never be accused of implementing new policy or regulatory changes, in the best interests of baseball, at a rate other than that of a snail’s pace.

But when push comes to shove, primarily in the past few years, MLB has been known to go into reactionary or defensive mode to make up for lost time and to account for its head-in-the-sand approach to management.

And such has usually come as the result of scolding by the U.S. Congress or chiding from the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), about issues of importance.

But ultimately it is MLB’s fear of declining revenues that moves it to finally take matters into its own hands. And then it seems that such new proposals are crafted virtually overnight which might justify how misguided or incomprehensive such proposals might be.

That brings us to the case of maple bat-breaking-hysteria. But rather than get hysterical, it is important to understand a little about the history of baseball bats, woods, bat-making, physics, some forestry and MLB’s rules and regulations pertaining to bats, which are rarely enforced.

Most importantly, for the purposes of this report, is the hypothesis that with the advent of testing for performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) by MLB, and formally realized beginning with the 2004 season, is the decline in home run production in the past three seasons.

And also important to note is the correlation that primarily since 2003, when MLB initiated its survey drug testing, which later led to full-blown testing in 2004, that bats have been breaking at a rapid pace, and more and more each season.

Statistics have already revealed that since 2006 through a pro-rated 2008 season, there could essentially be a drop off of over 800 home runs hit. That is the least amount of home run production since 1993.

And the last time there was such a decline in home run production in MLB for three consecutive seasons, was during World War II when many of its great players were deployed overseas.

MLB bats historically and primarily in modern times were manufactured with white ash wood going back over 100 years. Compared to ash wood, the swift rise in the production of maple bats really materialized post-2001 after Barry Bonds broke Mark McGuire’s home run record by hitting 73 that year.

The first maple bat was introduced to MLB by Sam Holman, an Ottawa, Canada carpenter, of the Original Maple Bat Corp. fame, when he gave one to Toronto Blue Jay, Joe Carter, to try out during the 1997 season.

And in 1998 when Carter became a San Francisco Giant, he encouraged Bonds to try one and soon thereafter became a Holman customer. In the following year, Louisville Slugger began maple bat manufacturing in its Hillerich & Bradsby plant.

Yet, it still took a while for maple to become the bat of choice for most MLB players which today estimate about 60% of the league. And more realistically it was not until the 2003 season that a good number of players were using maple bats as they only gained wide-spread popularity after the 2001 season and the required lead time for bat manufacturers is about a year.

Out of the 32 MLB approved bat manufacturers for 2008, 50% of them supply players with maple bats. Still, Louisville Slugger maintains the lion’s share of both types of wood bats, of ash and maple, with both supplied to MLB players but 60% of its supply being maple.

Most players who now use maple prefer its denseness as it is a heavier wood than ash, and has less flex. Many players believe that maple gives them an edge, and perhaps once satisfied by PEDs.

To wit, Jason Giambi is a maple man.

In addition, maple lasts longer than ash. But over the last several years, as bat barrels have become larger and lengths of bats have become longer, bat handles have become narrower.

In order to compensate for maple’s weight and density and given their thin handles, and the now quicker and more violent swings of the players or torque, it makes for a potential projectile with no direction known.

However, ash bats break as well and perhaps just as often.

But lax oversight of bat manufacturing and regulation on behalf of MLB has allowed players to influence the bat-making process. And the tremendous increase in maple wood manufacturing over a few short years is not only notable but remarkable that MLB has not enforced a standard it is required to uphold, in the best interests of the game; again, reminiscent of a MLB head-in-the-sand mentality about steroids or PEDs.

In fact, it is widely known throughout baseball that players further shave down bat handles post-manufacture without repercussions or penalty, perhaps because they have not been advised by their teams that they are in violation of baseball rules.

Once again, sadly it is not surprising.

Although the barrel of a MLB bat is not to exceed 2 ¾ inches in diameter and it is not to be lengthier than 42 inches, there is no limit with regard to skinny handles.

The only other regulation is that the bat’s maximum difference between inches and ounces must be less than 3 ½ ounces. Therefore, a 34- inch bat must weigh at least 30 ½ ounces.

These regulations are not monitored on any kind of regular basis by MLB and it has relied upon its manufacturers to honor these 100 year old rules, with no oversight.

Additionally, the ratio of water content in various wood types during the drying process is imperative to prevent breakage. Sam Holman believes that the rise in the number of maple bats breaking, which explode more and travel further than broken ash bat shards, has to do with mass marketing of inferior quality maple wood as well as a lack of manufacturers monitoring the drying process of maple.

He claims his bats’ moisture content ranges between 5%-8% because the more the moisture, the more stress on the wood. He also contends that he has received no complaints about his bats exploding.

Furthermore, due to maple’s density, a player most of the time cannot detect a broken bat because fractures usually occur inside of it. With ash bats a player can visibly see the crack through the grain.

But as to whether maple bats break more frequently than ash, has not been proven, as maple bats last longer than ash bats. The difference is only in the way they break and that still goes back to its physics, manufacture and after-manufacture care, storage or handle shaving.

Not to be minimized is the bat’s “sweet spot” which most of the time is the part branded with the company logo. It becomes important, as old-school players were always trained to align the logo with the spot the ball is expected to impact with the hope of getting the best hit.

But there is an even more pragmatic reason for it and that is to align the logo in order to have that point in the grain absorb the shock of the ball so it does not break or shatter. Such instruction to young players coming up today is almost non-existent according to coaches around the league.

It has also been noted by coaches in MLB that the bat’s logo is often skewed and not on the sweet spot, leaving a greater likelihood that the bat will crack upon impact.

So, there is no one answer that MLB so desperately wants, so that it can mitigate any damage to its image, not necessarily damage from its bats to players, coaches or umpires on the field or fans in harm’s way. It is but the perception that it is doing something that MLB craves rather than real results.

For MLB gave the perception that it cared about performance enhancing drugs long before it started a drug policy, and then years after its failed drug policy was found out by Congress it only then made it more stringent and added amphetamines to its list of banned substances.

This go ’round, however, concerning naughty bats, for the first time in MLB history, Commissioner Bud Selig has installed a Health and Safety Committee as of June 24, 2008.

Comprised of eight members of MLB executives and eight players in the MLBPA, the Committee will work with MLB authenticators initially, or those MLB employees previously reserved for validating MLB memorabilia.

The authenticators have been given the task of collecting all broken bats from all 30 teams. Such collection began on July 2, 2008.

From there the bats will be logged into a database system that identifies the player of the broken bat, the type of wood, the manufacturer and model and the type of breakage, catalogued with relevant video tape of the incident. And also for the first time, will be a tally of the number of broken bats to be formally documented.

In addition, MLB contracted with the Forest Products Laboratory, an institute of the University of Wisconsin and established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture almost a century ago.

Add that to Dr. Carl Morris, a statistician expert at Harvard University, hired by MLB to compile the data that MLB retrieves, to try to make sense of it all.

And also for the first time, bat manufacturers have finally been given a required survey by MLB which was due on 8/08/08. It asks them to answer questions about handle and barrel diameters, the weight to length ratios, the type of wood used, its moisture content, the bat’s color and those players for whom they make their various models.

Given the fact that each MLB team purchases the bats on behalf of its players from the manufacturers they desire, at a cost of roughly $70.00 for each maple bat and $50.00 for ash, it would be common sense for MLB to have requested this data all along, instead of starting from scratch, after 115 years of baseball.

But once again, MLB is passing the buck starting with its legal counsel, Rob Manfred, claiming recently that the MLBPA was approached by MLB about its bat problems during the collective bargaining process in 2006.

Whether any specifics were ever offered by MLB in addressing the problem, we will never know. But again, the perception that MLB has been all over this issue for years is the goal.

But banning maple, as has been suggested from different camps, is not the solution for any numbers of reasons as noted above. And now more importantly, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently confirmed that the forests in which ash trees grow covering seven states and parts of Canada have been exposed to a fatal infestation of an Asian beetle known as the emerald ash borer.

This bug hails from Russia and China and the source of its arrival on U.S. shores can be traced back to China’s shipping containers between 2006 and 2007. But China import goods to the U.S. daily so there is no solution in that regard in sight.

There presently is no remedy to rid the beetle in the U.S. either, so all agricultural experts can do is to hope that it does not spread too rapidly in the destruction of ash trees as answers are sought. If the ash forests are lost and maple wood bats are banned in MLB, then MLB will go dark.

Meanwhile, other remedies to exploding bats, while MLB gets the skinny on its weak handles, could include netting temporarily used, much like that used behind home plate, draped along the third base and first base lines to protect fans.

But Commissioner Selig has already nixed that idea as he has publicly stated that it would take away from the enjoyment of the game’s experience and block the view of the fans.

In other words, Selig’s fear is that it may impact revenue from those high priced seats. He is not overly concerned about flying objects or about those fans in the other sections of ballparks where the view is almost always obstructed.

But the lack of a regulated bat-making process is but again another issue on Bud Selig’s watch. Let us hope this time it will not take another threat from Congress to remind him to do his job and to mind his $8 billion a year Popsicle stand.