Summer Ping: Aluminum Bats

Use your ← → (arrow) keys to browse more stories
Summer Ping: Aluminum Bats

The story of aluminum bats' surge into the amateur ranks, their production, and one young player's tragedy.

 

Brandon Patch was dealing on that Montana summer night. The 18-year-old Miles City Mavericks pitcher had held Helena, two-time state champions, to just one earned run through four innings. The score was tied at three.

Under those late July lights, the season was drawing to a close. Brandon, a tall, husky southpaw, was making his final start for his American Legion baseball team. The black and red numeral—11—swayed against his grey road jersey as his hands remained still until they separated.

Then his left leg finished bent high above a stiff right leg, as he’d done since he was a kid. “Ping!” the bat sounded another grounder or lazy fly, and another Helena Senator was put out. One down, bottom of the fifth.

Quinn LeSage dropped his warm-up bats in the on-deck circle and carried his aluminum weapon to the plate. The 6’5” first baseman was garnering looks from Division I colleges. He dug in, and Brandon fired a ball and a strike in succession.

Brandon may have thought a bit more about his 1-1 pitch, the statistically most influential of any at-bat. Helena’s best player against Miles City’s leader in a tie ballgame. He may not have—maybe the pitcher knew all along he wanted to throw the fastball here. Challenge the big boy. Sit him down with power.

Brandon rolled the fastball off his left fingertips. LeSage met it with uncontrollable force.

“Ping!”

Hitters talk about the sweet spot of the bat, on the fat part of the barrel. When you hit it there, so purely, you feel no resistance. The helpless ball puts up no fight. That’s where LeSage hit it.

The ball rocketed off his aluminum bat and simultaneously, it seemed, smacked Brandon square in the head before he could react, sending him toward second base. The Miles City first baseman followed the ball as it hurdled some 50 feet into the night sky and caught it for the second out.

The hitter trudged back to his home dugout. “I hit that ball so hard,” LeSage said to himself. Any slugger would think: Sometimes this game just isn’t fair.

He gazed at the mound, where Brandon lay quietly on the small hill.

———

There is no “Ping!” at Fenway Park or Wrigley Field. In the major leagues the crisp crack of wood against leather and cork reflects tradition and an almost Roman Catholic aversion to change, where the bishops spit tobacco and the Cardinals play in St. Louis.

LeSage had walked to the plate with an aluminum bat, illegal in professional baseball but perfectly expected in an amateur game. Ninety-five percent of all baseball bats in amateur leagues, such as Brandon’s American Legion one, are made of aluminum.

Almost every player who can use them does. For a while scientific studies struggled to prove what all hitters knew: aluminum bats outperform wood ones. Crusty purists are not the only reasons that the most prominent aluminum at professional ballparks is wrapped around hotdogs.

While wood bats are solid ash or maple, or a host of other types of wood, aluminum bats are hollow. Only a thin shell of metal surrounds an empty—sometimes pressurized—core. Manufacturers make certain their products weigh on average the same as wood bats of the same length, anywhere from 29 to 32 ounces in highly competitive amateur leagues.

But the weight distribution of a hollow bat is different from that of a solid wood one, whose extra baggage toward the bat’s fat end—the sweet spot, where every hitter hopes to connect with the ball, where LeSage did—gives it more weight there than at the same spot on an aluminum bat.

That places the aluminum bat’s center of mass, where you could balance the bat on your finger, closer to a player’s hands, making it easier to swing and to control it.

Imagine swinging an axe, first with the handle in your hands. The heavy end makes it tough to control it. Then put some heavy gloves on and try it the other way around, grabbing the sharp metal end. You can control the light handle end much more easily. What’s more, you can swing it faster.

Faster swings in general create higher batted ball speeds, and, thus, farther hits. Less weight also means faster swings—aluminum bats were much lighter than wooden counterparts in the early 1980s, before weight regulations were imposed. Anyone will swing 29 ounces faster than 32 ounces with the same weight distribution.

But less mass doesn’t necessarily translate into harder hit balls because, physicists know, the energy imparted to the ball is dependent upon many things, including both the speed and the mass of the bat.

A 32-ounce bat swung at the same speed as a 29-ounce bat will impart more energy to the ball, the same way a heavier bowling ball is more destructive than a junior ball. However, especially at the amateur level, fewer players can control a heavier bat. And the lighter weight (less energy) and faster swing (more energy) cancel each other out.

———

In the early 1900s, William Shroyer, like many baseball players and fans today, had tired of the splitting, the splintering, the cracking, the shattering. Wooden bats broke.

Hit it in the wrong place, make it poorly, use weak wood, whatever. They break. Shroyer dreamed of the unbreakable bat. Economy was at stake. How many bats, how much needless spending, could a player go through during just one season?

Safety was at stake, too. Sharp shards of splintered wood flew at fielders, who focused only on the ball, from broken bats at the plate.

So the former player went to work in Dayton, OH, the birthplace of flight, on designs for a bat made of metal. In 1924 he received a patent. But his idea never caught on, and his invention was never mass-produced. No doubt, baseball men scoffed. You want us to hit with that? Your lightning rod?

By 1970 there would be quite a jolt. Originally, major aluminum businesses like Reynolds and the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) oversaw production of the newfangled rods. Worth Sports, which had been producing baseballs since 1920, became the first sporting goods manufacturer to make aluminum bats.

Today patented processes churn out upwards of 2,000,000 bats per year at a given plant. Bats such as the Omaha XS or the Connexion start as simple aluminum tubes ranging from two to three inches in diameter (official adult width is 2 5/8”) and from 24 to 35 inches in length.

Hydraulic pressure forces the tubes through a tapered mandrel that reduces the thickness of the inner walls while keeping the outer tube diameter constant. The outer diameter is then fixed into normal bat dimensions—thin at the handle, expanding to full barrel size at the middle—by a process called swaging.

Dies, or automated and customized shaping tools, spin around the barrel and make impacts on the outer shell. Now the bats have their distinct longneck shape.

The bats are then heat-treated in two ways to be hardened. First, they are soaked in a molten salt bath at 900 degrees for 20 minutes. Second, they are heated in a furnace at 300 degrees for a much longer period, anywhere from 12 to 36 hours. The heating processes remove some chemicals and dissolve others into the bat’s aluminum, and the furnace hardens them into grains that strengthen the bat.

With the tube still open, almost all aluminum bats today are capped with plastic at the barrel end, and knobs at the other end are welded by machine in argon gas. After being screen-printed with the manufacturer’s logos, all are wrapped with grip at the handle. It’s come a long way since Worth made the first one-piece metal bats.

Others followed Worth shortly. Easton and even Louisville Slugger, which manufactures the famous wood bats and bought Alcoa’s sports facility in 1978, were in the business by the late 1970s.

Easton introduced a stronger grade of metal. In the mid-1990s the companies turned to titanium, with still greater advantages over wood, for some of their bats. They held a virtual oligopoly on youth fields, which in more ways than one were now clear-cut forests. All the wood was removed.

But like spoiled monarchs, the bats eventually became too powerful.

———

Soon the mound was surrounded like a medieval city, Brandon the besieged king trying to hold himself together. He gathered the courage to sit up, to joke with his teammates. “Should’ve kept it down,” he said of his last pitch.

There were his coaches, and there were his mother and father, Debbie and Spud, whom he told something about a headache. But he seemed okay. His parents thanked God they had somehow sidestepped disaster.

Then it began. It started with the crimson flowing from Brandon’s ear. He lay back down on the rocky mound. His vision blurred until he lost consciousness. Vomit. More blood. His body went into convulsions. His mother screamed. His father prayed.

From the dugout LeSage watched. Without a thought, he had tossed his aluminum bat to the dirt beside the on-deck circle, or propped it upside-down against a chain-link fence, or placed it in a tidy rack after the play.

Then he watched Brandon convulse and twitch and quiver until the ambulance came and he ran to the bullpen with all the other players—both teams—to clear a path onto the field for it. Its screeching sirens sounded eerily like the high-pitched “Ping!” echoing incessantly as it carried Brandon off.

Even a player of LeSage’s caliber returns his own bat often, at least six times out of 10. Sometimes in anger, other times in disappointment, this time in disbelief. Always without a thought. It’s a reflex—you’re out, you run off the field, you put your bat back.

Before the night was over he’d no doubt take a harder look at that hollow stick. The Division I prospect used to like thinking of it as his weapon.

———

By far the most prodigious difference between wood and aluminum bats lies in what is called the trampoline effect.

Mystery shrouds the moment of collision between bat and ball. Ted Williams, one of the game’s greatest hitters, claimed he could actually see a pitch hit the bat. If indeed he could, he’d have seen the ball compress upon impact with a solid wood bat to about half its diameter of 2.86 inches.

Physicists say this compression accounts for a loss of up to 75 percent of the ball’s energy to friction, reducing its potential flight distance and speed.

The hollowness of an aluminum bat, though, allows the outer wall that strikes the ball to give slightly, like the surface of a trampoline. Therefore the ball compresses less, loses less energy, and can be propelled farther, faster.

Just as importantly, the very thing William Shroyer set out to fix changed the complexion of competitive balance in amateur leagues. College teams save loads of money by buying only a handful of expensive aluminum bats rather than dozens of breakable twigs. But the fact that metal bats don’t break gives hitters much more than a financial advantage.

Wood bats tend to break when struck toward the handle. Most times it occurs when a hitter makes a mistake and is jammed by a good inside pitch. Wood bats are also unforgiving—contact on a spot other than the sweet spot isn’t likely to propel the ball very far.

Meanwhile, swings that produce broken-bat outs with wood can manage to find the outfield with aluminum. Weak dribblers become seeing-eye singles. Soft flies become base-hits. One scientific study proved that, for impacts outside the sweet spot, aluminum bats have much higher average batted ball speeds. Mistakes are not paid for as often.

Pitchers have taken note, and fewer hurlers bust hitters inside at the amateur level. Nowhere had the balance of power shifted so far against pitchers than at the collegiate level, where Brandon was headed only weeks after he was struck by the line drive.

———

The 21-14 score in the 1998 national championship game between Southern Cal and Arizona State would hardly warrant a second glance in football circles. But it was the USC’s baseball team that won the national title by that absurd score. The bats had become too powerful.

Technological advances such as titanium bats allowed offenses to score at will and mashers to launch batted balls at dangerous speeds unimaginable with wood bats. Respected pundits such as Peter Gammons decried the offensive changes and safety problems caused by aluminum bats as the “end of an era.”

Some worried that fielders could be seriously injured, or killed.

College baseball officials approved the use of aluminum bats in 1974, and the NCAA has imposed only two major regulations since then. In 1986 the governing body mandated that a bat weigh no less than five units less than its length in inches to stifle disproportionate batting averages and home run totals.

Thirty-two-inch bats had to be at least 27 ounces. Offensive numbers fell only to skyrocket again, peaking in 1998 for the USC-Arizona State series. The NCAA stepped in a second time in 1999.

This time the NCAA increased the bat weights again, but it added a new standard of measurement as well. The Ball Exit Speed Ratio (BESR), or the ratio of batted ball speed to that of the bat and that of the pitch, must now be kept closer to the ratio a wood bat of the same weight and length would have.

Prior to 1999, aluminum bats were allowed to be made to retain as much energy in the ball-bat collision as possible. The BESR standard limits the energy to that of a wood bat. Titanium was out, its characteristics too explosive.

Batting averages and home run totals have steadily decreased back to normal levels since 1999, from a height of .306 down to .290 in seven years.

Also, collegiate summer leagues that returned to wood bats noticed a marked decrease in offensive production. The premier league in Cape Cod saw home runs per game plummet and batting averages drop from .282 to .250 in 1985, the year it switched back to wood.

BESR-certified bats today are made to be as wood-like as possible, but due to the trampoline effect and the other advantages aluminum bats offer hitters, they still hit balls an average of five mph faster than comparable wood bats. What kind of problem does that pose for the most vulnerable fielder, the pitcher?

The pitcher’s rubber on the mound sits 60 feet, six inches from the plate, and by the time the pitcher releases the ball, having stepped toward the plate, he’s a mere 54 feet from the batter.

On a sharp line drive hit directly back to him—a comebacker, in baseball parlance—the pitcher normally has less than four tenths of a second to react and defend himself. The differences between batted ball speeds off wood and aluminum bats play dangerously with precious hundredths of seconds of reaction time.

Wood or aluminum, many believe. Life or death.

———

In Helena, the doctors performed a CT scan of Brandon’s brain and realized he needed a neurologist. Immediately. His severely concussed brain was swelling rapidly.

His teammates prayed at a Helena motel as Brandon was airlifted to Great Falls, 90 miles north. Debbie and Spud followed by car, arriving with Brandon already in surgery.

At 12:43 AM Brandon should have been sleeping on the long bus ride back to Miles City. He’d be going over that very pitch, that 1-1 selection, in his mind, even if he’d fanned LeSage. He’d be dreaming of Lacey, the love of his young life.

Instead a surgeon, head bowed, approached Debbie Patch. “No,” said his mother. “You go back in there and fix him.”

———

His parents know the cause. The bat. Debbie and Spud have taken up their crusade to ban aluminum bats from baseball to spare any more children of their son’s tragedy. New York City’s high schools have already espoused their effort. To them it’s simple—Brandon would be alive if the boys used wood bats. The aluminum bats are just too dangerous.

It’s as simple as aluminum or wood, and yet it’s not. Swap them. LeSage might have taken the strike, or he may have fouled it off with a wood bat, harder to swing. Brandon might have busted him inside, hoping to snap his stick.

With wood bats both of them might have struggled too much in Little League and taken up golf instead. And wood bats are capable of hitting a ball just as hard as aluminum bats.

The count, the score, the rosters—all would have been different. Brandon, a ballplayer, knew that. He’d relived mistakes and triumphs after games but realized he couldn’t change a tiny detail without altering everyone’s response to it.

One degree hotter outside, one more bead of sweat forms on your hand, and you lose the grip on your curve and miss the plate by an inch. It could be that small.

If, somehow, everything else were constant—swing speed, pitch speed, thought processes, collision properties—you could expect the wood bat to hit the ball just 5 mph slower. That corresponds to a hundredth of a second more time for a pitcher to react, roughly a tenth of the time it takes to blink an eye, says one expert.

Yet parents will take any difference. They’d have prayed for a hurricane to swamp central Montana if it would’ve changed the 1-1 pitch’s outcome.

Anything not to have returned home and laid Brandon to rest underneath the pitcher’s mound in Miles City, in a coffin of wood. If only everyone used it, so they wouldn’t have to.

Load More Stories

Follow B/R on Facebook