MLB: Maple Bats = Big Problem?

Derek CoffeltSenior Analyst IMay 9, 2008

There is a growing concern with the recent transition to maple bats from ash in Major League Baseball. 

During an Apr. 15 game of this year between the Pirates and Dodgers, Nate McLouth hammered a late-inning pitch down the right field line. Don Long, the Pirates hitting coach, was in the dugout when shards of the bat came flying at him without warning.

“Didn’t see it at all,” Long said. “It just hit me. I backed up. I saw the blood coming out on the card I keep and on my shoes.”

The shattered bat had sliced through the muscle in his cheek, resulting in nerve damage and was only inches away from putting his life in jeopardy.

Maple bats had hardly seen the light of day back in the early 2000s when Barry Bonds used one to hit his now controversial 73 home run season in 2001. 

Now, nearly 50 percent of players use maple bats. Why?

According to the players that use them, it results in better performance. However, according to a 2005 Baseball Research Center testing at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, the difference between the performance of maple and ash bats was negligible. 

Jim Sherwood headed up the MLB-funded research project.

“We found that the batted-ball speeds were essentially the same for the two woods,” Sherwood said. “Maple has no advantage in getting a longer hit over an ash bat.”

The research also showed that while ash bats crack, maple bats snap. This results in many more bats shattering and causing potential harm, as in the case of Don Long. 

I know what you're thinking.

Whenever a fan enters a ballpark they are notified that bats, balls, and other objects can come flying into the stands. However, there is a growing number of shattered maple bats since its numbers have increased. Not to mention that fans are breaking attendance records like never before. All of this equals more "targets" for these maple bats.

This is posing a danger to pitchers, middle infielders, coaches, and fans alike. However, players consider the maple bat to be a harder feeling bat than the ash. 

“I feel like they’re harder,” McLouth said. “Whether or not that’s scientifically true, I’m not sure. But psychologically, I feel like they are.”

There is also a financial motivation. Suppliers of maple bats that are licensed to Major League Baseball sell for $65, rather than $45 for ash bats. Hillerich & Bradsby, the parent company for Louisville Slugger, is just one of many companies filling this demand which is not diminishing. 

The issue was brought to the attention of the union during a 2006 collective-bargaining negotiations. However, the union was not receptive to a unilateral ban, and stonewalled the idea of imposing specifications to reduce the bats from snapping. 

With the Mitchell Report looming, both sides had to focus elsewhere. 

As everyone knows, MLB players guard their bats religiously. For position players and designated hitters, it is a huge part (if not all) of their identity and how they play the game. With the MLB pushing to make the bats thicker and heavier, players will most likely reject the idea creating another stalemate between negotiations.

There are some players willing to speak up about this potential deadly problem.

During Doug Mientkiewicz's stint with the Yankees last season, he was advised by catcher Jorge Posada to switch to ash bats.

“They blow up constantly,” said Mientkiewicz, a first baseman now with the Pirates. 

He later added that he was amazed that a maple bat hasn't struck or injured a player on the field.  

He is not alone.

Pirates manager John Russell and Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon have both called them dangerous.

Will this problem ever be solved? Will players be willing to change back to ash bats? Is it a financial issue? Are the union and Major League Baseball willing to put the lives of players, coaches, fans at risk?