Metal bat injuries triggers call for switch back to wood
Tribune News Service
Nearly 40 years ago, metal replaced wood as the bat of choice in youth and high school baseball.
Wood bats were prone to break. It was easier and cheaper to buy aluminum bats, knowing they would hold up better over the season. Plus, the metal bats had more power. Balls jumped off the bat faster and travelled farther.
But in the last 10 years, as the players have gotten bigger and better, and equipment has gotten better, safety has become a concern. Metal bats, or more accurately the balls rocketing off them, are causing serious accidents, and in some instances deaths, to pitchers hit in the head with a batted ball.
The argument for a return to wood bats heated up again in March after 16-year-old high school player Gunnar Sandberg of Kentfield, Calif., was struck in the face by a line drive during a scrimmage. Sandberg was put in an induced coma, and just returned home last month from a rehab center.
A handful of pitchers have been seriously injured in the last 10 years.
• Jason Carter of Montclair Prep in Southern California was hit with a line drive in 2009, suffering two fractures and bleeding in the brain, and was hospitalized nearly a week.
• In early May, Brady Frazier, a Vermont eighth-grader, died after being struck in the head by a line drive while pitching against a high school varsity team.
• A year ago in Ohio, a line drive struck 14-year-old Cole Schlesner in the top of the head so hard that the ball ended up in the first-base dugout. A chunk of his skull was removed to allow his brain to swell. It was the same procedure that Sandberg went through. Schlesner was hospitalized for two months.
• San Diego State pitcher Bryan Crabb was hit in the head in a game against BYU last month. He suffered a cracked skull and bruising of the brain.
• Matt Hiserman, a pitcher at the University of San Francisco, has been struck twice by line drives, once in high school and once at USF. In high school, a line drive damaged his sinus cavities. At USF, he suffered a fractured skull which caused his brain to bleed.
• North Dakota banned aluminum bats in 2003 after American Legion pitcher Brandon Patch was killed in Montana after being hit with a line drive. Patch’s family sued bat manufacturer Hillerich & Bradsby and was awarded more than $700,000.
Not long after the Sandberg incident, California Assemblyman Jared Huffman called for a two-year moratorium on metal bats in California high schools. The bill is currently in the state Senate. North Dakota and New York City already are using wood bats in high schools.
“It’s time to seriously consider the safety of allowing kids to use performance-enhancing metal bats,” Huffman said in a press release. “If using metal bats creates an additional risk of injury or death, as the evidence suggests, then we shouldn’t hesitate to err on the side of safety and require our high school athletes to use traditional wood bats – the same bats used by Major League players so many of them admire and aspire to be.”
Obviously bat manufacturers think it isn’t a problem.
“We don’t see where the bill is necessary,” Easton Sports Mike Zlaket told the Contra Costa Times in early May. The executive went on to say that high school baseball authorities plan to get tougher regarding bat regulations in 2012.
Could Nevada be the next state to go that route? Several Northern Nevada 4A baseball coaches would like to bring back wood bats.
“They (metal bats) are pretty lethal,” said Ron McNutt, Galena head coach. “The ball just jumps off the bat. It (wood) would be a little safer.
“I’d love to see high schools go back to a wood bat. … It might become a pitcher’s game until all the kids get adjusted to using wood.”
McNutt said players would learn to become better hitters using wood bats.
Bishop Manogue coach Charles Oppio also said he would like to see wood bats brought back – for safety – but also because the game would be played differently.
“It would speed the game up a lot,” Oppio said earlier this year after a win over Carson. “It would also put the small ball back in the game. You would see a lot more low-scoring games. Pitching and defense win championships, and would be even more important if wood bats were brought back.”
Dayton head coach Jay Merrell agreed that pitching would play a bigger role in a wood bat league.
“Pitchers wouldn’t be afraid to pitch inside as much,” Merrell said. “With metal bats, stronger guys can still get the ball into the outfield. With wood bats, they are going to get sawed off. It will reward the pitcher for making a good pitch.”
The inside part of the plate would again belong to the pitcher, which would actually open both sides of the plate because a batter would be less likely to crowd the plate if using a wood bat.
Jay Beesemyer, assistant director of the NIAA, said that Nevada would only change if metal bats are outlawed by the national federation. He said the NIAA wouldn’t initiate any action on its own.
Elliot Hopkins, National Federation of State High School Associations director of educational services and liaison to the Baseball Rules Committee, is keeping a close eye on the situation in California.
Hopkins, in a telephone interview, said the Sandberg injury was the lone incident reported this season, but he isn’t surprised it’s fueled talk about going back to wood bats again – a discussion he said comes up every year.
“Everybody always wants to do something (after an incident),” he said. “It’s human nature.”
The trampoline effect
Balls hit off metal bats are subject to a trampoline effect. When a ball comes off wood, it compresses at the instant of impact and loses much of its energy. With a metal bat, the barrel is compressed by the ball, then springs back like a trampoline, driving the ball with more energy.
In addition to that danger, composite bats also can break in cold weather – a common condition in Nevada during spring baseball season.
Right now, manufacturers have to adhere to a Ball Exit Speed Ratio. When you’re buying a bat, a BESR sticker on it shows it’s been cleared for high school play.
Hopkins said the maximum exit speed is 97 mph, and the bat barrel can’t be bigger than 2 5/8 inches in diameter. There has to be a minus-3 differential between the length and weight of the bat. For instance, a 34-inch bat can’t weigh less than 31 ounces.
Hopkins said that will change in 2012 when the high schools will abandon the BESR for the Batted Ball Coefficient of Restitution theory. Thicker walls on the new bats will mean the ball won’t be as lively coming off the bat. Instead of 96 or 97 mph, Hopkins said, ball speed would drop to anywhere from the mid-80s to the low 90s.
Stew Colton, who runs Kelley Baseball in Reno, admitted it will be tough to get rid of metal bats and expects that the new bill in California will get strenuous opposition from the bat manufacturers. Colton’s company sells all three types of bats – metal, composite and wood.
Metal bats run anywhere from $150 to $350. Wood bats range from $50 to $80 depending on the type of wood.
Colton, a former pitcher in the Kansas City Royals’ chain, offered a solution: “Maybe they need to create a high school ball that is a little softer (inside) so the ball doesn’t come off the bat so fast.”