Sports
5:04 pm
Sat August 3, 2013

How Major League Baseball Alleviated Its Broken Bat Problem

Originally published on Sat August 3, 2013 6:29 pm

Back in 2008, Major League Baseball had a problem with broken bats. That season, bats were breaking into multiple pieces at a higher rate than ever before: around once per game.

The problem coincided with a surge in the popularity of maple bats over the traditional ash.

A bat that simply cracks isn't too big a deal. But in 2008, maple bats kept breaking apart. Often, they'd break along the handle, sending the heavier upper barrel of the bat flying.

Bat shards struck players and coaches all season. A fan named Susan Rhodes was struck by a bat during a Los Angeles Dodgers game in April. Near the end of June, Brian O'Nora, a home plate umpire, was sent to the hospital after a bat left a gash on the back of his head.

That very day in June 2008, MLB's Safety and Health Advisory Committee had met to discuss the issue. The committee announced that it would consult with bat experts and conduct research with bats and their manufacturers.

One of the first phone calls went to the U.S. Forest Service, which operates a wood laboratory in Madison, Wis., where researchers study things like construction lumber, or ways to use underutilized woods, like the trees killed by pine beetles. The league called up Dave Kretschmann, a research engineer there.

"I have a sense of how wood breaks," he says. "I've broken a lot of wood over the years. So I certainly thought I'd be able to help them out."

Over the following months, MLB sent Kretschmann and his collaborators more than 2,200 broken bats, along with video footage of every break during the season. Other researchers visited bat companies to examine manufacturing techniques.

There was one main pattern to the bat breaks — they weren't splintering apart. Instead, the maple bats tended to break cleanly.

"If you looked at the handle, and the players still held onto the knob in his hand, and you looked at where it broke, there was an oval shape." Kretschmann explains.

That, he says, indicates a break along the grain of the wood. Wood doesn't hold up well to pressure applied perpendicular to the grain. Maple bats tended to have a "slope of grain" issue, where the grain sloped at an angle through the cylinder of the bat — and the pressure of hitting a fastball at just the right angle was enough to split the bat in two.

Kretschmann and the other researchers made initial recommendations in time for the 2009 season, and the rate of bat breaks have continued to drop since then. This season, it's down by half.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

If you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

And after the show, what better to do with your sunny August evening than visit the old ballpark.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASEBALL GAME)

LYDEN: Now if you go to a game today, there's something you're not too likely to see: a splintered bat. As recently as five years ago, though, bats were shattering all over the place. Why the drop? Well, bats made of maple were all the rage.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASEBALL GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Three balls and two strikes.

LYDEN: In 2007, Barry Bonds used maple...

(SOUNDBITE OF BASEBALL GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And Bonds hits one hard. Hits a deep. It is out of here.

LYDEN: ...to do a little thing called breaking the all-time home run record. When the next season started, more than half the league was using bats made out of maple, but they seemed to break a lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASEBALL GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And he probably hits one with a busted bat.

LYDEN: That season, a bat broke into pieces an average of once every game. Like in this one, on April 25, 2008.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASEBALL GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And part of the bat wound up in the stands.

LYDEN: Facing the L.A. Dodgers, the Colorado Rockies' first baseman Todd Helton knocked a routine single into shallow center. His bat split at the handle, leaving just the bottom in his hands while the larger, heavier, upper half flew into the stands. It struck a fan in the face, knocking her out and breaking her jaw.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASEBALL GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I'll tell you what, the bats they are making today apparently are awful.

LYDEN: A little later in the season, the Rockies were in Kansas City, playing the Royals.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASEBALL GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Miguel Olivo breaks his bat.

LYDEN: The Royals' catcher Miguel Olivo knocked a bouncing grounder toward second base. His bat split at the handle and went spinning right into the head of Brian O'Nora, the home plate umpire, sending him to the hospital too.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASEBALL GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: And it looks like he suffered a pretty serious gash.

LYDEN: That very day, the MLB's Safety and Health Advisory Committee had met to discuss the epidemic of broken bats and decided something needed to be done. And that's where Dave Kretschmann comes in.

DAVE KRETSCHMANN: I'm a research engineering at the USDA Forest Service Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin.

LYDEN: The MLB called Kretschmann because Dave is an expert on wood.

KRETSCHMANN: And you have a lot of choices when you grow trees. You can grow them fast, you can fertilize them, you can space them differently.

LYDEN: At the Forest Service's laboratory, Dave and his coworkers research things like construction lumber or what to do with the wood from trees killed by pine beetles. And they take phone calls from the public with tough, wood-related questions. When the league asked for Dave Kretschmann's help, he said sure.

KRETSCHMANN: Because I have a sense of how wood breaks. I've broken a lot of wood over the years. And so, I was, yeah, I certainly thought I'd be able to help them out.

LYDEN: There was one main pattern. Bats weren't splintering apart. They were breaking cleanly. Dave Kretschmann calls that a slope of grain issue. Wood doesn't hold up well when you put pressure perpendicular to the grain. So when the grain slopes at an angle through the cylinder of the bat, the pressure of hitting a fast ball at just the right angle can split the bat in two.

KRETSCHMANN: If you looked at the handle and you - the player still held onto the knob in his hand and you looked at where it broke and there was an oval shape.

LYDEN: Now, maple bats had this issue more than any other wood. Dave Kretschmann and his team figured enough to give recommendations in time for the 2009 season and things have steadily improved since then. Now, the incidents of bats breaking are down by half. And Dave Kretschmann has changed too.

KRETSCHMANN: When I watch a game now, I pay attention to what bat's being used and what species it is and what happens as opposed to kind of paying attention to the game.

I'm sure Major League Baseball takes comfort in that. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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