The bat choice: Would switching from aluminum to wood bats keep players safer?
Sixty feet, six inches.
It’s not much room to get out of the way when a baseball jumps off a bat at, say 92 miles an hour.
According to ball exit-speed studies, that’s how fast a ball travels off a bat when a pitcher throws it 75 miles an hour and the bat speed is clocked at 70 mph.
The harder a pitcher throws, the harder a batter swings, the faster a ball hit back up the box will reach a pitcher.
A ball pitched at 95 mph takes roughly four-tenths of a second to reach home plate. It’s not much time for a batter to react, let alone a pitcher who is following through on his delivery to get into position to field the ball — or even deflect it with his glove.
It seems to be an annual debate over the safety of aluminum vs. wood bats, not only in high school, but college baseball. This spring, a serious injury to a high school player in California started the argument all over again.
Gunnar Sanderson was pitching in a practice game March 11 when he was hit just above the left ear by a batted ball estimated to be traveling 100 mph off an aluminum bat.
He was rushed to a hospital with a fractured skull. He was put into a medically induced coma after surgery. Instead of being in the coma three days as expected, he didn’t regain consciousness until April 1. He’s slowly improving, according to newspaper accounts, and his high school’s league immediately banned aluminum bats.
The San Francisco Giants and Louisville Slugger donated wood bats to the league.
Would using a wood bat have lessened Sanderson’s injury?
There’s no way to know, but proponents of wood bats point to a smaller “sweet spot” that reduces the hitting area on the bat and slower exit speeds as reasons to swing lumber instead of pipe.
Others cite the rarity of a ball hit right back at the pitcher, the risk factor of shattered wood bats striking players and the cost of replacing wood bats as reasons to stay with aluminum.
No governing body at the high school or college level has ordered the use of wood bats, although the NCAA is calling for non-wood bats to be retooled by next season to make exit speeds more in line with their wood counterparts.
Perry Keith has seen a lot in 23 years of coaching.
The NJCAA Hall of Fame coach from Connors State (Okla.) College has seen Region 2 go from the use of aluminium bats to wood bats for a few years and back to aluminium three years ago.
“I wish everyone went to (wood). We’re the only region around here that used them,” Keith said.
The region returned to aluminium bats because teams had to abandon wood bats for non-region games and the playoffs.
Keith, though, would like to see every college hit wood bats.
“(Aluminium bats are) dangerous,” he said. “It’s a better game with wood bats.
“I really wish we could’ve gotten all the regions on board and use wood bats. I would be all for it.”
Keith cited an incident with one of his former pitchers.
“We had a kid five years ago in an intrasquad game get hit by a line drive,” he said. “We were using wood bats. He had to have brain surgery.
“He’s fine now. He finished his career, but I often wonder what would’ve happened if we used aluminum bats.”
Mesa State coach Chris Hanks has seen a handful of close calls.
“I think over my years coaching I could narrow it down to probably five or six, not with our team, but teams we were playing, where a kid barely got his glove up,” Hanks said.
“You think, ‘that might have killed him if he hadn’t gotten his glove up.’ It hasn’t happened very often, but with every pitch there’s a possibility, because the ball comes off so fast.
“There’s not enough reaction time from 60 feet, less than that with the follow-through, to respond.”
David Elder, the NJCAA baseball representative, is aware of the danger issues, especially with the advent of the composite aluminium bat, but said the NJCAA will follow the NCAA protocol. The NCAA outlawed the composite aluminum bat this season.
“You look at kids nowadays and they are bigger, stronger and faster,” Elder said. “From an administration standpoint, you hope nothing happens.
“We’ll work with Easton and all the other companies on limiting the speed the ball comes off the bat. The issue is how do you control that? With price, it’s sort of a catch-22 issue right now.”
A few Mesa State players used composite bats last season, and Hanks noticed a change as the season progressed.
“Out of the wrapper they were no different, but when you hit them, they got hotter,” he said. “The fibers shatter and there’s more of a trampoline effect. What some teams did was put these bats through a roller-type thing, like a pipe roller, and breaking those fibers, and they were immediately hotter.”
Hanks agreed with the NCAA’s ban of the composite bat and has no problem with lowering exit speeds.
“I’m OK with the way bats are now,” he said. “It wouldn’t hurt me if they got toned down a little more. I don’t care as long as everybody does the same thing.”
One of the biggest hurdles for teams to move to wood bats is the expense. With high school freshman, junior varsity and varsity teams, replacing several broken bats each season could be a daunting expense.
“You are talking about a cost with a product you have to be constantly replacing, it’s almost like athletic tape,” Palisade Athletic Director Mike Krueger said. “You have all three levels, so that’s 30-40 kids who will be going through bats frequently.”
Not everyone sees the expense as an obstacle. Fruita Monument baseball coach Ray McLennan said players will spend nearly $400 for an aluminum bat.
“(Metal) bats don’t last all that long, either,” McLennan said. “We try to get at least two seasons out of bats, and at $400, that’s a hefty price to shell out. How many wooden bats can you get for $400?”
Cost is a contributing factor in most junior college and four-year schools eschewing wood bats.
“That’s generally the argument between wood bat and aluminum bat is the cost issue,” Elder said. “An aluminium bat costs $300 and you can use it for the whole season. Eight wood bats would cost $320 and you can easily break a wood bat. Somebody can break two in one ballgame.
“That’s a big thing. A lot of schools have a limited budget.”
QUALITY OF PLAY
Make no mistake, the game changes depending on what the batter has in his hands.
“Completely different game,” said Hanks, who compares wood vs. aluminum bats to the difference between hitting a tennis ball with Bjorn Borg’s wooden racket vs. Andy Roddick’s graphite racket.
“Hugely different. The bunting game becomes a larger part of what you do. The power game is less a factor.”
Batted balls that might be a slow infield grounder with a wooden bat make their way to the outfield with metal.
High school coaches in District 51 would opt to play with wood bats because it helps players improve.
“I think it’s a better game because you have to get the good part of the wood on it,” Palisade coach Steve Moore said. “With an aluminum bat you can hit something off the end of the bat and it’ll loop into right field. If you do that with wood, it’s a little dribbler.”
McLennan said playing with wood bats improves his players’ approach at the plate.
“The one thing I notice when we go from wood to aluminum is they are swinging it better,” McLennan said. “Wood teaches you how to swing it correctly and be more skillful. With wood you can’t swing as hard as you can and hope for the best.”
Grand Junction coach Kyle Rush said moving to wood bats in high school would force teams to get back to the basics.
“If I could play 60 wood bat games in a summer, I’d do it in a heartbeat, and if they moved to wood full-time in high school, I’d be fine,” Rush said. “It would be better baseball. They would have to do more things offensively than just take a hack at it.”
Tyler Stanford, a senior pitcher at Grand Junction High School, played in three wood bat tournaments last summer.
“You feel more comfortable pitching against a wood bat, and can come inside more,” Stanford said. “It’s baseball the way it’s supposed to be, and I like pitching against a wood bat.”
Stanford said if he was an incoming freshman, he would be fine if high schools switched.
“If you are going to make it to the higher level of baseball you are going to use a wood bat anyway,” Stanford said. “You might as well start off at a young age. Games wouldn’t be as high scoring, but it would be a good direction to move.”
Chris Shea, a starting pitcher for Mesa State, plays for the Yuba-Sutter Gold Sox in Marysville, Calif., in the summer.
“The wood itself is fragile and the inside pitches aren’t hits anymore,” he said. “Metal bats you can hit off the fist and you can get it over the infield easily.
“There is a drawback. Sometimes you get complacent with it, you know it’s a wood bat and you try to throw it over the heart of the plate.”
Shea went 3-2 with a 3.83 ERA last summer, pitching mainly in relief. He had 16 appearances and pitched 33 innings.
A starter for the Mavericks, Shea entered Saturday’s game against Metro State 6-2 with a 4.07 ERA in 482⁄3 innings this spring.
“We played against good hitters, so you’ve got to hit your spots. You think, ‘I can throw it down the middle’ and that didn’t work out, and I started to get in trouble,” Shea said. “It helps a lot more when you come back to metal, because now you really have to focus in, and that’s part of the fun of it.”
What’s the answer?
In any sport, there’s inherent risk. Base runners can be struck by a batted ball just as easily as a pitcher, probably more often. Coaches now wear batting helmets in every level after a minor league coach was killed by a foul ball two years ago.
There’s no way to prevent all injuries, but coaches, parents and governing bodies want to limit risk.
Fans who like offense prefer aluminum and seeing the ball fly out of the park. Wood bats lower scores, but speed up the game.
“I love baseball,” Hanks said, “but I’m not interested in being on a field for more than 3 hours.
“What I’d like is a true middle ground between wood and what we have now. Let’s find the middle.”
— Patti Arnold, Allen Gemaehlich and Patrick Bahr contributed to this story.