Here’s a Choice You Have to Make, Which Bat Type to Hold at Home Plate

Paper or plastic? Coke or Pepsi? Boxers or briefs? The world is full of questions that equally divide people in terms of which answer that they feel is right.

I was on the front lines of one of those debates years ago when I worked as a cashier at a grocery store in college.  I was usually pretty good about guessing which bag type each person would prefer.  You had your tell tale plastic fans, the old school paper fans and the hybrid double paper stuffed in plastic fans.  Although reusable bags were not as popular then as they have become, there were a few reusable bag fans as well.  When the store happened to be out of someone’s favorite type of bag it was clear to see that some handled it better than others.

The world of baseball is no different than grocery shoppers when it comes to people having their personnel opinions on everything from whether the designated hitter is good or bad for the game or if it is ever good to intentionally walk in a runner.  Another area of debate among baseball fans is bats.  In particular, the two camps are divided over whether wood bats or metal bats are better.

Wood bats are a staple of professional baseball. Photo R. Anderson

Wood bats are a staple of professional baseball.
Photo R. Anderson

For baseball purists, it is wood bats or nothing. This stance is often backed up with phrases like, “the bats have always been wood,” or “the Bambino would roll over in his grave to think of metal bats being used.”

These fans also think lovingly of the Louisville Slugger plant that makes many of the wooden bats in the world and all the history associated with it.  They would argue that the same love is not associated with the plants that make metal bats. So the wood bat fans are fairly entrenched in their belief that wood is good.

While only wood bats are used in Major League Baseball teams from the college ranks down to the local Little League use metal bats.  Metal bats also tend to be the preferred bat of choice for most recreational softball leagues.  So who has the better bat?

The metal bat fans will bombard the issue with science and statistics showing that a ball hit with a metal bat travels further than the same ball hit with a wooden bat.  The wood bat fans will use the same statistics to say that balls hit with metal bats actually travel too fast and create a safety hazard for the infielders who have less time to react to a ball traveling in their direction.

College players like the ones pictured for the University of Houston have used metal bats for years. Photo R. Anderson

College players like the ones pictured for the University of Houston have used metal bats for years.
Photo R. Anderson

So what makes the balls travel at different speeds depending on the bat type? Well class it is time to enter Ry the Science Guy’s Lab of Science for the answer.  There have been studies done on bat types for years and each one includes many formulas and equations and other rationale for what makes each bat type tick.

One could spend hours debating all of the data and trends associated with bat speed and ball velocity upon impact. We are not going to spend hours on that however.

The simplest reason for the difference in ball speed after impact involves which element in the bat/ball equation is flexing.  With a metal bat, the bat flexes at impact with the ball and then springs forward creating extra force behind the hit.  The wood bat does not flex as much and the ball actually flexes and dissipates some of the energy leading to less energy being imparted onto the ball moving forward.

Washington Nationals sensation Bryce Harper, shown during spring training in Florida, has been known to crash a few Washington area softball games to get in some metal bat work. Photo R. Anderson

Washington Nationals sensation Bryce Harper, shown during spring training in Florida, has been known to crash a few Washington area softball games to get in some metal bat work.
Photo R. Anderson

So there you have it, metal bats make the ball go further due to a trampoline like effect on the ball and the wood bat absorbs more energy than it returns.  Given that simplest of reasons one would think that everyone would want to use a metal bat to get the most out of their hits. But, then again there is the whole issue of how fast is too fast.

In fact, a few years back New York City tried to ban metal bats at the high school level citing safety as a major reason.  After threats of lawsuits and the usual political process the ban was lifted and each league was left to regulate the type of bats used.

Which is not to say that wood bats are completely safe to use.  Anyone watching enough games will no doubt have seen shattered bats flying towards pitchers and infielders. In some rare cases the parts of the broken bats have injured the players on the receiving end.   While the risk to fans in the stands is mostly limited to getting hit with foul balls bats and bat pieces also find their way into the stands.  Given the choice I think I would rather have a wooden bat flying towards me than a metal one but I would prefer to not have to dodge either one.

Most ballparks have warnings such as this one to alert fans to the inherent dangers they face.  Aside from balls, bats and pieces of bats are also often hurled into the stands at high velocity. Photo R. Anderson

Most ballparks have warnings such as this one to alert fans to the inherent dangers they face. Aside from balls, bats and pieces of bats are also often hurled into the stands at high velocity.
Photo R. Anderson

I have often had my own questions regarding the metal versus wood equation. Primarily, I have always wondered why players would not use the wooden bats as early as possible in order to be accustomed to them in the event that they were fortunate enough to be drafted by a Major League club.

Instead, many players do not start using a wood bat until their first professional games and then there can be a learning curve as well as disappointment when the ball does not go as far as it did with the metal bat.

During my brief baseball playing career, which consisted of a season of T-ball and a couple of Pony League seasons, I used both wood and metal bats. I tended to prefer the wood bat over the metal one. I liked the sound that the ball made on the rare occasions that my bat made contact with it.  The ping of the metal bat just never sounded right to me.  I also disliked the metal bat for its tendency to give me stingers when it was held incorrectly.  Nothing like severe numbing pain shooting up the arms to make one not like a certain bat type.

So the wood versus metal debate will continue to rage on and most likely will never truly be settled.  I would be very surprised if a day ever came when metal bats would make their way to the Major League teams but one should never say never I suppose.

Now if you’ll excuse me all of this talk of bats has made me nostalgic for my old whiffle ball bat. It is bound to be around here somewhere and it never splintered or gave me stingers.

 Copyright 2013 R. Anderson