Rate of shattered baseball bats remains low thanks to teamwork from FPL and Major League Baseball.

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FPL wood experts examined thousands of shattered Major League bats. Photo credit: TECO, used by permission.

As the 2013 Major League Baseball (MLB) season slides into the All-Star break, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack discussed some MLB-funded research via the Forest Products Laboratory resulting in significantly fewer shattered baseball bats.

“This innovative research by the U.S. Forest Service will make baseball games safer for players and fans across the nation,” said Secretary Vilsack. “The U.S. Forest Products Laboratory has once again demonstrated that we can improve uses for wood products across our nation in practical ways – making advancements that can improve quality of life and grow our economy.”

“Since 2008, the U.S. Forest Service has worked with Major League Baseball to help make America’s pastime safer,” said U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. “I’m proud that our collective wood ‘grain trust’ has made recommendations resulting in a significant drop in shattered bats, making the game safer for players as well as for fans.”

By testing and analyzing thousands of shattered Major League bats, Forest Service researchers at the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) have implemented changes in bat manufacturing that have led to significantly fewer shattered bats, especially maple bats. Even though maple bats are now more popular than ever among players, the rate of shattered maple bats is less than half it was five years ago.

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Percentage of bats sold to Major League Baseball players, by type of wood, 2008-2012.

“These results would not have been possible without the outstanding work of the Forest Products Laboratory and the tireless efforts of its project coordinator, David Kretschmann,” says Daniel Halem, MLB’s Senior Vice President of Labor Relations. “Major League Baseball greatly appreciates the invaluable contributions of the Forest Products Laboratory and Mr. Kretschmann on this important issue.”

In 2008, the joint Safety and Health Advisory Committee of Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association began working to address the frequency of bats breaking into multiple pieces. FPL research engineer Kretschmann and a team of wood experts looked at every broken Major League bat from July to September during the 2008 season. They found that inconsistency of wood quality, primarily the manufacturing detail “slope of grain,” for all species of wood used in Major League bat manufacture was the main cause of broken bats. Also, low-density maple bats were found to not only crack but shatter into multiple pieces more often than ash bats or higher-density maple bats. Called multiple-piece failure, shattered bats can pose a danger on the field and even in the stands.

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The average number of broken bats per Major League game has remained relatively stable while the average number of shattered bats (multiple-piece failures) has dropped significantly since 2008.

Slope of grain refers to the straightness of the wood grain along the length of a bat. Straighter grain lengthwise means less likelihood for breakage.

slope-of-grainAbout 60,000 baseball bats are sold to Major League players every season. The vast majority of those bats, 64 and 33 percent respectively, are maple or ash. The overall rate of maple bats sold to Major League players fell by nearly 10 percent between 2008 and 2010, a time when the popularity of ash bats rose by about the same amount. Orders for maple began to rise during the 2011 season and are now at an even higher percentage of sales than in 2008.

With the help of TECO, a third-party wood inspection service, the manufacturing changes the Kretschmann-led team established have proven remarkably successful over time. Limits to bat geometry dimensions, wood density restrictions, and wood drying recommendations have all contributed to the dramatic decrease in multiple-piece failures, even as maple’s popularity is on the upswing.

The Forest Service research team has been watching video and recording details of every bat breakage since 2009. The team will continue monitoring daily video and studying broken bats collected during two two-week periods of the 2013 season, working to further reduce the use of low-density maple bats and the overall number of multiple-piece failures.

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