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Branding the Bat

By Bill Nye | Published: March 23, 2010 – 3:45 pm

With Baseball’s opening day just weeks away, I could hear the crack of another broken bat– even over the radio static. During a recent Dodger Ranger preseason game, the announcers spent a minute or two discussing the trouble with broken bat shrapnel heading toward the heads of infielders.

I’ve looked into this; we could keep bats from breaking with a new straight-forward rule. If your bat breaks, and pieces go into the infield, yer’ (you’re) out!  Infielders would then be able to dodge the flying shards of wood first and recover the ball at their leisure, or at least, a moment or two later, after the sawdust had settled. Base runners would then be, in rulebook parlance, at risk to be put out in the same way they are with any pop up or line drive.

When bats break, it’s not magic; it’s science. It’s not uncontrollable or especially random.   We could make players take responsibility– step up, and be batsmen.

Watching the World Series last October, I muttered out loud, “Jeter’s going to break his bat.” And sure enough, he did– on the very next pitch. Look these pictures over, and you might see why.

During this at-bat, Jeter did not “brand” his bat. He was not holding his bat so that its grains were oriented edge-on to the flight of the ball. Pick up a stack of papers (maybe a stack of emails that shouldn’t have been printed).  Now, flap the papers like you’re fanning a fire or a cooling your cheeks. The stack of papers bends with every wave of your hand. If you, on the other hand (pun intended) hack, or karate chop, the pages edge-on, they’re stiff. They can take a larger load without giving in.

Modern bats in the Major Leagues break often, more often than they ever used to. Oh yes, perhaps pitchers are throwing a little harder than they did when starting pitchers, expected to go all nine, paced themselves a bit more. Modern bats made from second-growth trees might be a little wimpier than centuries-old trees. But, it’s the batters who make the bats break.

Since Og the Cave Man was whacking pebbles with thick sticks, we have understood that when we use a material like wood to do a job, we take into account its weight, its toughness, and most especially, its shape.

Next time you’re hefting or playing with a wooden bat, “brand” it. Rotate the bat so that, when you hold it horizontally, straight in front of you– its brand is facing up, toward the sky. When you swing, the brand will pass through the strike zone with its wooden layers oriented the strong way.

Like so many things, it starts with momentum. The faster a player can get a baseball bat going, the harder and farther a bat can drive a ball. To this end, modern players have asked manufacturers to shape bats so that the bat’s mass is concentrated out on the end, or barrel. When that massive barrel hits a ball, its motion bends that thin handle.

Despite its strength, wood is a little bit brittle. When you bend a material like wood enough, it layers are stretched apart, and it breaks. The Kentucky craftsmen who shape bats pick each bat up and carefully examine its grains. They burn or print the company’s brand  so that if the brand is facing up, like the diamonds on an Ace of cards, the bat’s grains will encounter the ball with their maximum strength.

Players today come of age playing with aluminum bats. They don’t have to deal with remarkable properties of wood… until they get to the Bigs. Apparently, many or most of them don’t ever get around to dealing with it. Modern batters routinely hold and swing their wooden bats the same way they would use aluminum one. The wooden bats break, because they’re being struck so that they bend too much.

Bending is not a bad thing. If a batter could use something like a super-strong tennis racquet, who’s strings and shaft could bend like a trampoline, baseballs would be so outta’ here. That sort of compliance or bend-ability would allow the ball to be in contact with the bat for much longer than the wooden bat’s 1/1000th of a second. Compare the distance a modern golf driver sends a golf ball compared to those of the 1930’s. Storing energy in a flexing shaft is one thing; bending wood so that it’s natural layered rings peel completely apart is another.

Just think if a Major Leaguer could get another, say, four clean hits a month. He’d want that wouldn’t he?  After all, millions of dollars are at stake. This no-broken-bat rule could help make that happen.

Another small, but not insignificant effect is held in the palms of their hands. Modern players almost universally wear batting gloves. So, they specify bats with slightly thinner handles to allow for the small, but not insignificant thickness of the gloves. What makes it matter is the remarkable nature of round objects subjected to bending. Their strength follows the square of the square of their diameter or thickness. If a bat handle goes from an inch and an eighth to 1 1/16th of an inch. Its ability to take the hard whip of a Major League swinger becomes (1  1/8th)4/(1 1/16th)4:  just 80% of what it once was. That’s a fifth less; that fraction becomes a big factor at Major League speeds.

Maple bats have been controversial. They break more often than ash bats. But, this may be due almost entirely to the machining of the billet or cylinder of wood that bat makers begin with. In maple, it’s easy to get the grain “sloped,” or not well aligned with the long axis of the bat. Angled grains get chipped apart more easily than straight grains. Ash may just be more flexible between the layers. It’s a subtle set-up. But one cannot help but wonder what would happen if the bats were just plain thicker, not so willowy.

You might think this added rule is unnecessary or is just an odd or misguided idea. The players’ union will probably fight it at first–until the argument is couched as “skilled infielder” versus “lazy slugger.”  The slugger might say bats break, when they break; we have no control. But, the infielder will say, “O, but we do.” Not only could players brand their bats and orient the grain in the strong direction. Players could also specify and play with the bats with thicker handles and thicker portions between the handle and the barrel– between the thin and thick parts. They might stop playing with gloves, toughening their hands instead. Would that be so bad?

Look at one of Babe Ruth’s bats; you’ll see them in the Hall of Fame. Or, look at bats of even 30 years ago. Those bats were thick and strong, probably because they weren’t cheap. Players literally could not afford to have them break. How ‘bout if we bring that style of equipment back?

Infielders would be safer; batters would probably end up with more hits. There’s a chance they’d hit fewer long balls– but, that’s a maybe. It’s not just a return to some sort of good old day, it’s playing by the rules… the rules of nature. Let’s see some batsmen beef up the bat and Play Ball!

19 Responses to “Branding the Bat”

  1. Tony says:

    I’m with you Bill. And what’s with the refreshment prices at the ballpark? 5 dollars for a lemonade? Get outta here.

  2. Andy says:

    I think that failing to brand the bat should be against the rule as a safety measure, which could be solved by holding out the bat so the ump can see it before the pitch, on account of the fact that some bats will break under stress rather than under intentional abuse. I’m no big leaguer, but I’ve busted a bat I branded before, it happens sometimes.

  3. D.Bentley says:

    @Andy: I don’t know what kind of bat you were using, but I do know a lot of the cheap (eg. Walmart quality) bats are branded randomly, rather than taking the grain into consideration. I saw it on one of those how it’s made style TV shows, mass producing bats, the brand just got stamped on whatever orientation the bat happened to be in. Quality brands of course are much more heavily scrutinized.

  4. A6M4 says:

    I can’t say that branding the bat would be all that useful, assuming the observation made in the picture of Jeter. I have a bat with my right here, and when I “brand the bat” my improvised brand faces the pitcher. But the thing about maple and ash, ash cracks, maple shatters (explodes even). Also, there is no real advantage to one over the other (minus the shattering of course). Maple just sounds better at contact. So, psychologically maple is better, but physically ash is stronger.

  5. A6M4 says:

    Wait wait, maybe my righty stance just allows my improvised brand face the pitcher. Just tried it out lefty and my brand points to first base.

  6. [...] With the Red Sox first game against the Yankees just days away, I thought you might enjoy reading this Bill Nye article about how to predict when a batter may break his [...]

  7. This is really informative. Thanks, Bill!

  8. Dave says:

    With the rotation the bat will make before contact this photo of Jeter is not incorrect . Try it :). Go through your swing and stop whre contact would be made , now rotate the bat so the ball is hitting the graines….now reverse back to your stance. The brand will be facing the pitcher . And as far as getting a few extra hits …. many hits have resulted BECAUSE a bat broke…..turing a easy flyout to a bloop single just over the heads of and infielder . But I mostly agree with the rest , wood bats do last a lot longer when used correctly .

  9. Not Bill Nye says:

    As much as I love the amount of scientific information you provided for my younger years, your bat breaking prediction was by sheer coincidence. Many teams, even at the high school and college level, require their players to swing wood bats. It is common knowledge in the baseball world to hit the ball on the visible grain sides of the bad. Not only does this help “reduce” the possibility of a shattered bat, but it also creates for a harder surface, which in return, allows the ball to travel further. The branded sides of most bats do give you the visual reference of knowing where the grains are located (“sides” of the label), however, just because the label is facing the pitching does not undoubtedly conclude the ball will not strike the grained side.

    During the stride, the batter’s front shoulder will slightly drop down towards the plate (the reason you see Jeter’s #2) and his hands will go back (the load). This causes the label to have the possibility of being seen by the pitcher. The knob of the bat will then travel towards his front foot creating a chopping motion, thus creating backspin at contact, which creates the lift of the ball. The “level swing” taught by most youth coaches is an incorrect terminology—the swing should be a down angle to the ball and level out at contact, then the bat comes back up to finish shoulder high (if both hands stay on the bat). This would almost create a blurred “U” if you standing in front, perpendicular to the batters waists when he enters the box. It is still possible to hit the grain side of the bat depending on the rotation of the batter’s hands. The batter’s hands should not rotate until after contact (top palm up, bottom palm down). If the grains are missed, you are correct in that there is an “exceeded” chance of a broken bat, but that is not always the case.

    With the earlier statements about the use of wooden bats at an early age, I feel it is important in relaying that young players do have knowledge about wooden bats. Most younger players know to use the grain side of the bat as the contact focus point for the ball. They understand this in part because; they do not want the increased possibility of a broken bat (loss of money) and it is also common knowledge in baseball that the harder surface will allow the ball to travel further—in the aspect of wooden bats. Composite and metal bats can be scientifically broken down by a scientist, which I am not. I just felt it was important to stress the fact that a visible label to the pitcher, will not always mean the bat will break. I can even assure you that most all baseball players who use wooden bats, collectively as a team, will have passed down knowledge from other players about not hitting with the branded logo side (or the opposite side).

    I do appreciate your exciting shows during middle school. I just felt a great sense of joy to have a “slight bit” more knowledge on a subject than “The Bill Nye”. Enjoy the upcoming baseball season!

  10. Not Bill Nye says:

    1st word 4th line should be “bat” and not bad. 7th line of 1st paragraph should be “pitcher” not pitching. 6th line 2nd paragraph should be “you were”.There was not a spell/grammer check button for the comment box. Maybee their shoold bee? Lol.

  11. Aimee says:

    The article was really cool, even though I don’t like baseball that much

  12. i discovered your weblog looking out a few different matter on yahoo, weird …… in any case, i spent some minutes reading this and another entries and gonna come back usually, i preferred it :)

  13. I was very delighted to find this site.I wanted to thank you for this brilliant read!! I definitely enjoyed every little bit of it and I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post.

  14. John says:

    While some of what you say is true there are a few other factors. Try as they will, the wood doesn’t come from old growth forest,which much denser. A second thought is Louisville Slugger has a process to reinforce the wood making them almost indestructible with all of the pure wood characteristics, league won’t take them. Still, not a bad idea.

  15. don’t give a rat’s ass about baseball or bats breaking or Derek Jeter, but Bill Nye is my hero!

  16. Vince says:

    There is a web site (www.woodbat.org) that has a great explanation of the shattered bat phenomenon. Yes, maple shatters much more frequently than ash. And yes, the slope of grain in maple bats is a contributing factor to the probability a bat will shatter. As far as branding, when you stand in the batter’s box you need to face the label (which for ash is and always has been on the face of the wood) towards the pitcher or catcher. As you bring your bottom hand forward into the hitting zone, the bottom hand will rotate (clockwise for RHB, counterclockwise for LHB) so that by the time contact is made with a pitch the grain facing the pitcher. This is the best approach for ash/hickory, but (recently discovered) bad for maple. As batters were facing their maple bats like the ash bats, the combination of hitting with the grain and a slope of grain beyond a certain degree contributed to the increase of shattered bats. Now I hear that maple bats are checked for slope of grain before being allowed for MLB use, and manufacturers are now branding maple bats along the grain, so that batters can orient the bat’s label the same way for any bat (simplicity or dumbing down, take your pick).

  17. Autar Kaw says:

    “Their strength follows the square of the square of their diameter or thickness” – I think it is the cube of the diameter for strength. The square of the square of the diameter is for deflection. Why, because the stress under bending (normal stress=M*(d/2)/(pi*d^4/64)) for a circular rod is proportional to the bending moment (M) and diameter (d), but inversely proportional to the square of the square of the diameter (d). So the stress under bending is inversely proportional to the cube of the diameter.

  18. Dave A says:

    I liked the explanation of why the bat should be held “so that its grains are oriented edge-on to the flight of the ball.” I feel smarter now. :-)

  19. baseball forever says:

    Long article, A lot of info, but not all factual. Yes, the ball should be hit with the grain with ash and against with maple. How it gets there is a different story. With new brands in place, holding the bat directly in front of your nose, the brand should be facing the pitcher or catcher. As you swing correctly at a pitch, (hips open, hands driving at ball) when you get to contact position the brand faces the sky or home plate. There are bigger rules issues (HGH,steroids,etc)in baseball than broken bats to warrent changes. Lucky call with Jeter, should of gone to Vegas instead of waisting time writing this.

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