Understanding why wood baseball bats break is crucial for players and enthusiasts alike, highlighting the interplay between material properties, hitting technique, and the physics of impact that can lead to these dramatic moments on the field.
- Wood baseball bats are made from maple, ash, or birch trees and must go through a strict process before being used by professional players.
- Bats break because of the impact of a high-velocity fastball, age, quality, or poor care/maintenance.
- To prevent wood baseball bats from breaking, store them in a cool, dry place and inspect them after every hitting session.
The different types of wood used in baseball bats
Wood from the maple tree is the most common and most popular for manufacturing baseball bats. Current estimates are that 75–80% of all bats used at the professional level come from maple trees. This is because maple is a very dense wood, making it harder and more durable than other woods.
Wood from the ash tree is more flexible than other woods like maple and is also much lighter. While this kind of wood makes for a lighter bat that can be swung faster, it is also a very hard wood that offers flexibility and forgiveness.
Birch wood is similar to ash in that it is lightweight, flexible, and forgiving. It is not as hard as maple, but it is much lighter, which allows hitters to swing the bat faster. Birch also has a unique characteristic in the grain of the wood that makes it durable enough to sustain repeated contact with a ball.
The process of making a wooden baseball bat
So, what is the process from a tree in the forest to the bat you see your favorite players using on television?
- Most baseball bat manufacturers have their own forests, and some outsource their wood from lumber companies, but regardless of what kind of wood it is or where it comes from, once the trees are harvested, they are processed into a “billet.”
- A billet is a block of wood that is 37 inches long, processed in the lumber yards before it gets shipped to the bat manufacturers.
- Once the billets have been dried to the correct moisture level, they get graded and separated by quality. They are then sent to the factory to be processed into a dowel that is 3 inches in diameter and 37 inches long.
- The next step is the secret sauce. Each bat manufacturer has a machine lathe controlled by advanced software that tells the machine the exact specifications of each individual bat. Each team or player that submits an order for bats will have their own specifications regarding the weight, length, and size of the barrel and handle.
- Once the computerized lathe finishes creating the bat, a craftsman will remove it, check to make sure it is compliant with all rules and regulations, and then make customizations and alterations to the bat, such as a finishing spray, a decal, or a foil logo. Some bats will even get the famous burn brand logo that so many people recognize.
- Next is testing. The bats go through a test known as a “Slope of Grain” test to make sure each bat has a low wood grain angle. This is important because the higher the wood grain angle, the more likely the bat will break, regardless of what kind of wood it is. The way the test works is that a craftsman will place a small drop of ink on the bat’s handle to measure the grain. If the grain is straight, the bat passes the test and moves down the production line.
- The next step is sanding the bat. Bat manufacturers have automated sanding machines that allow them to place a bat inside and have it cycle through six different grades of sandpaper to get it ready for gameplay.
- The final step to prepare the bats involves dipping them in a filler solution and hanging them up to dry. With the filler inside the porous wood, the bat then goes into a “bone-rubbing machine.” This unique machine applies over 500 lbs of pressure around the barrel to make the wood harder. Once this step is done, the bat is technically ready for use, but there is an additional fun step: customization.
- When bats get ordered, many will go through additional branding steps, such as a team logo or player’s name on the bat. Also, for appearance, some players prefer the natural wood look, which is created by a process called flame tempering. They also have the option to choose a finishing color on the bat, such as black, brown, or others.
Factors that cause wood baseball bats to break
It is a statistical fact that a baseball thrown at high velocity can injure people and damage equipment, including baseball bats. There are a lot of factors in a game that can affect a bat and its durability.
Still, if a fastball is thrown with high velocity and a hitter swings hard but does not make clean contact with the ball on the barrel of the bat, there is a high probability that the bat will break. This is especially true for harder woods that are not as flexible, like maple.
Most equipment experts say it takes 150–200 hits on a bat to break it in. After that, a professional bat is expected to last several hundred or possibly a few thousand contacts with a ball, but most players will stop using it after they feel its performance declines.
Not all bats are created equal, and not all bats come off the production line with zero flaws. Sometimes, bats leave the factory with a wood grain that is slightly off or with other blemishes that affect their durability. Also, with a lower-quality bat, the structure of the wood begins to break down at a faster rate, which can lead to bats breaking on the handle or splintering and flaking near the top of the barrel.
4. Poor care and maintenance
Like any other sporting equipment, a baseball bat needs proper care and maintenance. If your wooden bats are in damp areas or are exposed to extreme temperatures, that will shorten their lifespan. It’s also essential to keep the bat clean, free from dents, and stored upright where it cannot be knocked over.
How to prevent wood baseball bats from breaking
So, now that you’ve spent a good amount of money on a new wood baseball bat, how do you keep it from breaking? In the factory, manufacturers drill a “cup” at the end of the barrel to prevent breakage and maintain its hardness. After it leaves the factory, the care is now on you.
Proper storage is the primary key. Like most consumer products, they are best stored in a cool, dry place and should be inspected after every hitting session to ensure there are no dents, splinters, or cracks.
While wood bats are one of the most important parts of the game, they are a delicate piece of equipment that is put through extreme situations. Routinely hitting 90+ mph pitches can damage a bat over time, so care and maintenance are just as critical as working on your swing.
Understanding the equipment and having mastery over it is what makes pro players so great. Also, understanding the properties, strengths, and weaknesses of the different types of bats will make you a more dangerous player.
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