Little League has wrapped up and the Major League Baseball Playoffs start this week. Because of the prominence this sport has in our lives this time of year we thought it would be fun to speak about the different wood species that are used for baseball bats. Typically, baseball bat wood species are either birch, ash or maple. American Major League Baseball bats are made from a single piece of solid wood. However, amateur baseball permits the use of metal bats, generally composed of aluminum or composite materials. Each type of bat has advantages, and each one poses concerns.
Several “wooden bat leagues” have emerged in recent years amid safety concerns about the trampoline effect of metal bats. The force of a hit can be strong enough to fatally injure a pitcher. Many state and local governments have enacted laws to prohibit metal bats in high schools and youth leagues. According to one court ruling, wood bats allow kids to enjoy a “better, purer and safer brand of baseball.”
On the other hand, there is a growing concern with the high rate of broken wood bats in baseball games. Broken bats are dangerous to the players, coaches, umpires and fans. Their failure is often associated with the type of wood used to make them.
Most bats are made from ash. Birch, maple, bamboo and hickory are also common choices. Hickory is less favorable today because its heavy weight slows down bat speed. Maple is prone to shatter because it lacks “give.” Major League Baseball has approved three types of wood bats. Here is a little more on each species, including their pros and cons.
Ash was the preferred wood for more than a century, and it continues to be a staple in bat racks today. It is a lighter than maple or birch, and its speed can better fend off fastballs. Ash is naturally porous, and its flexibility makes it more forgiving than other species.
The popularity of ash bats spans decades. Ironically, negative aspects are associated with this longevity. Because ash is softer than other wood, ash bats tend to break at the handle. Moreover, ash trees are quickly dying off with the spread of an insect called the Emerald Ash Borer.
Joe Carter was the first professional slugger to use maple as his bat preference. In fact, he used it illegally in 1997 before Major League Baseball approved its use. After Barry Bonds set a home run record using maple bats during the 2001 season, hundreds of athletes switched from ash to maple.
Maple bats are “performance enhancers.” Their strength makes them ideal for long distance hits. Maple bats are smooth, the wood structure is tight and the grain is less visible. Their trophy shine makes them popular as engraved keepsakes.
While maple is a hard wood, it has less give than other wood. This can cause maple bats to break. Broken pieces can damage players or fly into the stands and injure fans.
As a new generation emerges, more baseball players are swinging wood bats for the first time. As they transition from metal to wood, they need a flexible and forgiving bat. Birch can meet this need.
The density of birch falls in between ash and maple. This creates a bat that is close in strength to a maple bat but flexible like an ash bat. While this is a good option for novice athletes, it cannot deliver the benefits of ash or maple. For this reason, professional baseball players prefer ash or maple bats.