Picture this -- You’re at the batting cages with a wood baseball bat, and you’re taking some serious hacks. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, your bat breaks. The barrel ends up 60 feet in front of you while you’re stuck staring at the handle.
Before the early 1990s, most MLB players exclusively used ash wood bats. But that all changed in 2001 when Barry Bonds broke the single-season home run record using a maple bat. Due to copy cats and superstitions, a trend started. Soon, more than half of all players began using maple wood baseball bats. The problem? Maple wood bats are more prone to breaking than ash bats, so MLB saw an increase in broken bats. In a 2008 MLB study, over 250 wood bats broke over a span of three weeks, which averaged out to nearly one per game. This huge amount of broken bats was not only impractical, but it put the lives of spectators, players, umpires, and even coaches in harm's way.
Recently, there has been a steady decline in wood bats breaking at the MLB level (1,500 bats broke in 2009 and 500 in 2015), but it is still a relatively normal occurrence during a big-league game. And, of course, wood bats aren't just breaking at the pro level.
So, why are wood bats breaking and how can you prevent it from happening to your bat? While the engineering of baseball bats has come a long way, there is still the risk of the bat breaking regardless of the player's type, age, and strength. For any wood baseball bat to last longer, multiple factors come into play, such as the type of wood, how you’re hitting, quality of the wood, and even the weather.
Type of Wood:
Don’t believe for a second that some wood types will break while others will not. There is no exception when it comes to breaking wood bats. Whether you're using maple, ash, birch, bamboo, or even composite wood, your bat will eventually break with enough use. Here are the pros and cons of each type of wood when it comes to breaking:
- Maple wood: If you’re using a maple bat, while it is much harder and typically offers more pop than ash, it’s more likely to split in half. This is because of maple's inability to flex when hit off the end. No flex results in the shock traveling down the barrel and breaking out of the weakest part of the bat (the handle). This is why you see the barrel flying out into the infield during MLB games.
- Ash wood: Ash bats are on the opposite end of the spectrum as maple. While they do not give off as much pop as maple wood, they are very forgiving during hits. If you were to get jammed and hit in on the handle, there is still a great chance of breaking. Ash bats won't break in two like a maple bat but rather splinter or flake apart into a thousand little pieces (give or take a couple hundred). One way to prolong the life of your ash bat is to make sure you're not repeatedly hitting in the same spot over and over again.
- Birch wood: While birch offers the best of both worlds with maple-like pop and ash like flex, the popularity of this wood type has still not caught on. More and more pros, minor league players, and amateurs are starting to lean towards birch wood as an alternative to maple or ash. This is a great choice for those first starting out with wood baseball bats.
- Bamboo wood:: While bamboo isn't technically a wood (it's considered a grass), it is still used to create baseball bats. Bamboo is one of the strongest natural materials on the planet so these "wood bats" tend to offer the longest life. Their effectiveness may not be up to par in comparison to other wood types, but Bamboo baseball bats will usually come with an extended warranty, which is unheard of from wood bat companies (unless you're Marucci).
- Composite wood: Composite wood bats, such as the Baum Bat, tend to last much longer than other wood types. Typically, these composite wood bats have a wooden core with composite material protecting said core. The composite material is obviously going to withstand the test of time much longer than any wood, and because of that, these bats should last the longest. Baum claims that the Baum bat is "indestructible"; a theory that has since been tested by JustBats.
Type of Ball:
Nothing other than a normal baseball should ever be used when swinging a wooden bat. The only exception to this is if a baseball is left out in the rain. Do NOT use that ball. Waterlogged balls tend to be much heavier and much harder and will greatly increase the chances of breaking your bat. Keep in mind that rubber batting cage balls are just as bad, if not worse. Batting cages tend to purchase these balls because of their long-lasting nature in comparison to a real baseball, but they are ruthless when used with wood bats. JustBats recommends avoiding these rubber batting cage balls at all costs to prolong the life of your bat.
How You're Hitting:
Experience will increase the life of your wood bat, believe it or not. Hitting with a wood bat will drastically enhance your hitting mechanics and give you more confidence once you make the switch back to metal or composite. The number one tip we can give you is to make sure you're hitting the ball right in the sweet spot of the barrel. Wood bats do tend to have a smaller sweet spot in comparison to said aluminum or composite bats. If you miss that sweet spot, mishits can easily be the cause of a broken bat. Keep your contact with a baseball away from the end of a barrel and avoid hits toward the handle. Hits on the handle, or "getting jammed," will not only greatly increase the chances of your wood bat breaking, but it is going to sting your hands like never before. If a pitcher is trying to saw you off (pitch inside), choose your swings wisely. Have a good eye and wait for the right pitch. Hitting a 90+ mph fastball that is inside will likely break your wood bat, regardless of how new it is.
Have you heard the phrase, “Hit with the label up?” What is the science behind this saying? What does this even mean? Is there any truth to it or is it all superstition? It's great advice so make sure you're pointing that label to the sky and here's why. Most manufacturers will always place their logo on the “face grain," or the weakest part of a wood baseball bat. If you keep the logo up (or down), this ensures that a baseball will come into contact with the “edge grain” of your wood bat, or the strongest part of your bat. The best way to simplify this is to think of it as a deck of cards. If you hit a deck of cards on the face, it will flex, but if you hit a deck of cards on the edge, it will be rock solid. You want to make contact with the straight grains and avoid the ovals. So, next time you're up to bat or indulging in some batting practice, make sure you can see the logo of your bat before taking a swing. Sam Bat has a saying that goes, "Label Up! At the plate, look your Sam Bat in the eyes." Keep in mind that this procedure does not always work as some hitters tend to roll their wrists before making contact. If that is the case, keep an eye on where the ball marks are. You may need to rotate your bat slightly so that the ball marks are ending up on the edge grain.
The Quality of the Wood:
The slope of grain is a huge factor when determining the quality of a wood baseball bat. It will also have a huge impact on overall strength and durability. What is the slope of grain, you ask? Simply put, it is how straight, how parallel, and how spaced out the grains of a wood bat are. If your bat has a nearly perfect straight grain (0-degree angle) then it is more likely to last. If the wood is cut at any sort of angle, then it is more susceptible to breakage. To measure the slope of grain, the MLB uses what is called an Ink Dot Test. In short, the ink dot is required for maple and birch bats on the “face grain” for the MLB to ensure that the direction of the grain is straight. If the angle is anything over three degrees, then the ink will run, and the bat will not be approved for play because of the higher risk of breaking. So, if you want your wood bat to last longer, look for one with an ink dot on the handle. If you are using an ink dot certified wood baseball bat, make sure you are pointing that to the sky or the ground, rather than the label mentioned previously.
Another way to measure the quality of wood in baseball bats is to look at the end. Does your wood bat have a cupped end or is it rounded? Keep an eye out for those cupped ends. The advantage of having a cupped end on a wood bat is tremendous. It allows wood bat manufacturers, such as Louisville Slugger or Marucci, to use a more dense piece of wood during construction. If you have a more dense piece of wood, there is less risk of breaking, cracking, or splintering. Dense wood also results in enhanced structural integrity and an overall durability improvement. Again, keep an eye out for a wood bat with an Ink Dot and a cupped end. If you can find one with both, you've got yourself a high-quality, insanely durable piece of wood.
The third identifier of high quality, durable wood is whether or not it comes bone rubbed. This is when a wood bat company or an individual takes an animal bone (or a porcelain surface) and rubs it against a wood bat with as much pressure as possible in an attempt to smooth and harden the barrel surface. You may have seen a bone in an MLB dugout or heard one of your favorite players talk about boning their bat. Boning wood bats have been around for a long time and for a good reason. As previously stated, boning helps harden the barrel, smooth it out, and compresses it for a more dense piece of wood. A denser piece of wood is more likely to withstand the test of time while improving performance and ball flight.
Wood bats are typically categorized by their turn model. Turn models can be thought of as a sort of blueprint for different characteristics that make up a wood bat. These characteristics affect both swing weight, overall feel, and durability. A turn model that includes a big barrel with a thin handle is more likely to break in comparison to a turn model with a thick handle. Here are the four main turn models and their specifications to help differentiate:
- 110 Turn: With a 2 1/2 inch barrel diameter and a long taper down to a thick 1.00-inch handle, the 110 turn model is one of the best regarding breakage. The thick handle will add tremendously to the bat's durability, and a balanced swing weight helps keep the excess weight away from the end of the barrel. This is by and large the most popular turn model for players who are new to wood bats.
- 271 Turn: The 271 turn model is very similar to that of a 110. The handle thickness will be slightly smaller at 15/16 inches, but the barrel diameter remains the same. The difference in handle thickness leads to a slightly end loaded swing weight that is perfect for both contact and power hitters. But, that thinner handle also means it is more susceptible to breakage in comparison to a 110 turn model.
- I-13 Turn: Used by some of the games best players, the I-13 turn model is extremely popular. The big difference between an I-13 and the previous two is that the taper of the bat is more extreme. With a medium taper comes an end loaded swing weight. An end loaded swing weight is awesome for power hitters, but it also comes at a price.
- 243 Turn: With the largest barrel of the four at 2 5/8 inches, a 243 turn model will feature the most end loaded swing weight of the bunch. Not only will a 243 turn model come with a huge barrel but the handle is smaller than all other turn models at 29/32 inches. This combination of a large barrel with an extra thin handle makes it a great choice for power hitters, but it is also a recipe for possible breakage.
Weather has a serious impact on the life of your wood baseball bat. Moisture and extreme cold do not mix well with wood bats if you didn't already know that. At JustBats, we recommend not using any bat in temperatures below 60 degrees Fahrenheit and avoid using it in the rain (hopefully, your game gets rain-delayed before that happens). Furthermore, do not store it in your vehicle's trunk if it is outside and don't store it in a garage that is not climate controlled. Take your bat indoors and avoid those environments at all costs. Always follow the JustBats bat care tips to help you keep your bat in the best condition possible for the longest time possible.
Do you have any tips, tricks, or tidbits to help increase the life of a wood bat and keep it from breaking? Please share in the comments section below! Or, if you have any baseball bat or softball bat related questions, please give our friendly customer service staff a call at 866-321-BATS (2287). They are available via phone, email (email@example.com), or live chat. Remember, we're with you from click to hit!