Shattered bats in MLB reach low behind Madison lab's research

POSTED Thursday, July 11, 2013 - 11:00 p.m.
Reporter: Phil Levin

The fewest baseball bats are shattering in the big leagues in five years thanks in part to a research lab in Madison.

In 2008, Major League Baseball hitters broke about 5,000 bats. Almost half of them broke into more than one piece, often helicoptering towards players on the field or fans. Identifying the safety scare, the MLB commissioned Forest Products Laboratory near the UW-Madison campus, part of the USDA, to find out why the bats were breaking into so many pieces.

The lab team found part of the problem was a rise in lighter bats made from maple, as opposed to more traditional trees like ash. Maple is less dense making it less strong. It also has lighter rings, making it harder for manufactures to line the slope of the wood grain parallel to the bat.

"They weren't as familiar with maple as they were with manufacturing out of ash," said Forest Products Laboratory Engineer David Kretschmann. "There's very distinctive rings, but if you look at the maple, it's not nearly as clear what the wood fibers are."

At one point, the MLB collected every bat breaking into more than one piece and shipped it to Madison for analysis. The research led to new league regulations on bat density and the slope of the wood grain, and results since validate the recommendations.

In 2009, only about 32 percent of broken MLB bats split apart. Through the end of June this season, less than 23 percent are shattering. During the same period, sales data indicates more than 10 percent more players are choosing maple bats.

"There's no stigma to that, it all goes by feel and what the player likes," said Milwaukee Brewers Second Baseman Rickie Weeks, who has used maple since he was in the minor leagues.

The lab still gets shipments of the bats from the MLB a few times each season. Nightly videos from the league show each broken bat, which the lab analyzes and categorizes.

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