Imagine An Enormous Bat Barrel
Is this the solution to the strikeout scourge?
We all want more contact yadda yadda. Why doesn't anybody propose making wider bats? I would love to see some lefty slap hitter trying to use a big old wide bat to dink some balls into short left field.
SM: Love this question.
There’s a very simple answer, which is true but (as we’ll see) also basically wrong. That answer is: “Because it’s against the rules.” Before the 2010 season, MLB amended Rule 3.02 (The Bat) to say that “the bat shall be a smooth, round stick not more than 2.61 inches in diameter at the thickest part.” That reduced the max diameter, which dated back to 1895, of 2.75 inches.
I own a game-used Jesús Sánchez Zinger X Series bat. I keep it by my desk, and I carry it around the house with me when I need to limber up for some ball writing. This bat is from the early 2000s, which means it could legally be up to 2.75 inches at the thickest part. I measured it, though, and I came up with 2.49 inches.
I got that bat as a gift from Baseball Prospectus’ old lawyer, Stephen Reichert, who is a bat guy. He owns several dozen game-used bats or exact models of pros’ bats, and he keeps a spreadsheet with the measurements (he owns calipers and everything) for each one. Virtually all of his bats in his spreadsheet fall between 2.44 and 2.56 inches at their widest spots. The exception: A Rob Deer bat (from around 1990) is 2.63.
That’s why I say the very simple answer is basically wrong. When MLB set the 2.61 limit in 2010, nobody in the game was using a bat that was wider than that, and today there are probably no players approaching that limit. “We have 3,000 bat models in our computer,” says Scott Hanish, CEO/Owner of Zinger Bats, a bat manufacturer popular with big leaguers. “I don’t know that a single one has a 2.6 barrel.” The rule, in that sense, is pretty much irrelevant. So it really comes down to weight, and a different rule altogether.
A bat is not a complex device. You start with a billet with a roughly 2.8-inch diameter. It weighs about 88 oz. and looks like this:
You take away some of that wood until it’s a bat.
So if you usually swing a 34-inch, 31 oz., bat and you decide you want it to have a wider barrel—more hitting area—you can do that, but you have to make a choice. You can simply leave more wood on the barrel, but now your 34-inch bat weighs, say, 34 oz., which has some drawbacks when it comes to hitting fast pitches. You could offset that by taking weight out of the handle, except that the handle is already about as narrow as can be; hitters figured out the handle-narrowing trick a long, long time ago. (Also, MLB sets minimums for handle narrowness, to prevent bat breakages.) Alternately, you could offset the weight by having a shorter barrel—basically, the barrel starts a bit thicker but tapers down to the handle sooner. Some players do that, but that’s a tradeoff: You have a wider barrel but a shorter one.
Or you could use less dense wood. Make the bat bigger, but with lighter material. That’s what corking is, in an extreme, irregular way: You remove some of the dense wood from the center of the bat, replace it with light cork, and the bat is—in aggregate—less dense, with more hitting area but lighter. That’s cheating.
Alternately, though, there was lightweight maple.
Maple bats were introduced to the majors in 1997, and quickly became the game’s most popular lumber, especially after Barry Bonds hit 73 homers with a maple bat in 2001. Maple is naturally harder than ash, as Stephen Nesbitt and C. Trent Rosecrans wrote: “The cell structure of maple is naturally compressed, with tiny cells crammed together.”
Maple is also heavier than ash, generally. But it depends on where the trees grew. At higher latitudes with colder climates, like Canada, maple grows slowly and produces dense, heavy wood. At lower latitudes, it grows faster and is lighter. The current sweet spot for big league bats is in Pennsylvania and New York, where bat mills bid against furniture makers for gold-standard billets.
In the 2000s, players generally preferred a lighter maple. That was part of maple’s allure. As the New York Times wrote about Barry Bonds’ final bat order, in 2008:
Barry Bonds was prepared to play baseball this season, so he asked Sam Holman to have a dozen bats ready for him. Holman, the founder of the Original Maple Bat Corporation, has made Bonds’s bats since 1997. Holman set aside 12 pieces of the lightest-density wood he had, stored them in his factory in Gatineau, Quebec, and waited to see if Bonds got a job.
But those light maple bats of the 2000s were fragile, and maple shards from too many broken bats were flying dangerously close to human beings. So, before the 2009 season, Major League Baseball set minimum standards for maple density. Anybody who was already active in the league had their low-density maple grandfathered in, but new players to the league had to use heavier maple. The league raised the density requirement again in 2013. Over time, as new players replaced old ones, the low-density maple would go extinct.
That process happened even faster than expected. As Zinger’s Scott Hanish explained, most veterans came to understand that the low-density wood wasn’t actually helping them, because less dense wood is softer and produces weaker contact. “‘Fluffy maple’ is a term that’s thrown out there,” he said. “Even the very few guys who are still grandfathered in have seen the error in their ways from the past.”
Several popular models had to be modified—to have narrower or shorter barrels—once the harder wood requirements came into play, because under their old dimensions they had become too heavy. Based on how many models needed to be modified, Hanish estimates—though he stresses that this is merely a guess—that 20 to 40 percent of players before 2009 were using wood that would no longer be allowed.
“In today’s game, 2.5 to 2.53 inches would be considered a really big barrel,” he says. “Some are even smaller, like 2.45. But 2.53 is about the max that we go on barrels. Under the current (density) rules, to use the 2.61 you would have to swing like a 34-inch, 34 oz. bat. You have to start with a piece of wood that’s too heavy.”
Rob Deer’s 2.63, from circa 1990, was 35.5/34, and that was ash—lighter than maple. Nobody swings a bat that heavy today.
Like I said: A bat is a simple device, and that’s key to understanding the limitations here. You can move the weight around, or you can make the bat softer, but it all comes with tradeoffs. You can’t do much to cheat physics.
But what if you could? We live in the future. Anything is possible, or soon will be. It’s not hard (for me) to imagine, say, a genetically modified tree that produces a slightly lighter, sturdier wood. Maybe light enough that batters could really load all that mass into a bigger barrel. If a future MLB commissioner wanted to encourage contact by making these bigger barrels legal, would that work to cut down on swings and misses?