Critics say metal bats pose dangers to pitchers
The News & Observer
Babe Ruth used it like a weapon. Ted Williams swung it like a
wand. On the radio, its crack could make a nation leap.
But outside of professional baseball, the wooden bat has gone the
way of yesteryear's greats. Even the crack has been replaced, by
a metallic "ping."
From the college level on down, the bat has evolved from wood to
a clunky metal tube to a marvel of lightweight hitting power that
can cost $200 or more.
The evolution of the bat, especially versions introduced since
the mid-1990s, has alarmed baseball purists and others who see
the high-performance tool endangering pitchers and infielders
from Little Leaguers through the elite college ranks.
Last week, an NCAA research panel recommended a stronger testing
process for metal bats to ensure they do not exceed NCAA
performance standards. In May, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety
Commission agreed to formally review safety concerns about the
"You'll never see pro baseball with aluminum bats," said Bill
Thurston, baseball coach at Amherst [Mass.] College and editor
for the NCAA's baseball rules committee. "They'd need to put a
screen in front of pitchers, put the infielders in the outfield
and move the fans back."
In March of this year, Andrew Sanchez, a college pitcher for Cal
State Northridge, sued the maker of Louisville Slugger bats and
the NCAA after his skull was fractured by a line drive in an
April 1999 game against the University of Southern California.
The suit contends that the bat involved was "unsafe in both
design and manufacture because the ball speed off the bat was
significantly increased from the ball speed of wood or less
powerful aluminum bats that had been used in past years."
The hazard of aluminum bats, if any, is hard to measure. No one
has done a comprehensive survey of injuries to pitchers and
infielders since thin-walled, high performance bats first emerged
in the late 1980s. The bats took another step upward in the
mid-1990s with the introduction of aluminum alloys originally
developed for the aerospace industry.
NCAA researchers who have examined the "exit speed" of balls off
wood and aluminum bats find a wide variety depending on the grade
of aluminum bat, the speed of the pitch and the point of impact
on the bat. But they agree that aluminum bats hit the ball harder
more often. They've also found that aluminum bats become more
potent with use as the metal develops more spring.
"What you find is you are naive about what a bat is doing," said
Wally Renfro, an NCAA spokesman. "There is a whole lot more going
on than you thought."
Though the risk of aluminum bats has yet to be quantified, there
is anecdotal evidence that balls struck by high-performance bats
do hit more pitchers and cause greater damage.
Injuries cause concern
Two college pitchers were hit in the face in three days during
the NCAA regional playoffs last month in Minnesota. Both
pitchers, one from the University of Nebraska, the other from
Butler University, suffered broken jaws. The Nebraska' pitcher's
injury required the insertion of a titanium plate.
In Japan, seven high school players have died after being hit
with balls off aluminum bats since aluminum bats were introduced
in 1974. The most recent death occurred in April.
Last year, the Japanese Amateur Baseball Association imposed
limits on the bats' design. Next year, Japanese high school
pitchers will be required to wear specially designed helmets
In the U.S., several negligence lawsuits are pending against bat
manufacturers and leagues that allow the bats.
One injury involved Jeremy Brett, a high school pitcher in Enid,
Okla., who was hit in the face with a line drive. Doctors
repaired the damage with five metal plates, 75 staples and 12
screws. Brett, 18, has suffered continuing headaches and has some
blind spots in his vision.
His parents, David and Terry Brett, filed suit in federal court
against Hillerich & Bradsby, the maker of Louisville Slugger
bats, claiming their son's injury was caused by the bat's design.
The bat was Louisville Slugger's Air Attack 2. The bat's thin
walls create a "trampoline effect" when a ball hits it. To
prevent denting, the bat is filled with pressurized gas.
"What disturbed me the most is that we've been in the dark about
the equipment these kids are using," said Terry Brett. "This
should have been stopped long ago. The next kid may not live
Jack MacKay designed high-tech bats for Hillerich & Bradsby from
1986 to 1997, but said he resigned out of concern that the bats
had become too dangerous. "Every time someone gets hit by an
impact from an aluminum bat, they get a fractured skull, it seems
like," MacKay said from the Mount Pleasant, Texas, ranch where he
designed and tested the bats. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist
to see what we did was wrong."
Debate over restrictions
This year, the NCAA clamped restrictions on the large, but
lightweight bats. Bat barrels were limited to a maximum
circumference of 5 3/8 inches. The bat's length could not exceed
its weight by more than 3, thus a 35-inch bat must weigh at least
32 ounces. The exit speed of a ball off the bat should not exceed
97 mph when a batting machine hits a 67 mph pitch with a 67 mph
In North Carolina and most of the nation, high schools will
impose the size and weight limits in 2001, but they have not
settled on the exit speed limit. This year, the first season
under the new bat restrictions, the NCAA reports that home runs,
scoring and batting averages are all down from last year.
But Thurston and other critics say the bats still exceed the
level of risk associated with wood-bat baseball. They say the new
rules merely froze the bats at a point where the ball leaves the
bat much faster than wood. They suspect that the dip in college
offense this year mostly reflects the use of a new, less lively
ball by Rawlings in NCAA Division I.
But even at this year's lower numbers, the metal bats have
clearly changed the game. In mid-season 2000, the average number
of home runs per game and earned runs per game in Division I was
significantly higher than in 1973, the last year for wooden bats.
Thurston said the high performance bats hurt the game with too
much offense. But he is more worried about them hurting players.
He said, "For people to say there is still not a problem, just
think of this: If it's hit harder more often, isn't there a
greater risk of injury?"
Champion for change
MacKay, who holds 12 patents on various aluminum bats, is
applying the same energy to undoing his work. He testifies on
behalf of people suing the bat companies, lobbies the NCAA for
tougher limits and releases internal memos from the companies
indicating they disregarded safety concerns.
Jim Darby, a vice president with Easton Sporting Goods of Van
Nuys, Calif., called the worries about aluminum bats "a witch
hunt." "Anyone who insists there are more injuries than with wood
bats is wrong because there is no statistical data that would
show that," he said.
MacKay's latest action may clear up the murky safety issue. In
April he filed a petition with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety
Commission asking that aluminum bats that exceed wood standards
be recalled and their manufacturers be fined for ignoring safety
MacKay's petition, accompanied by more than 20 technical studies
and references to more than 200 exhibits, was accepted last month
for formal review by the commission. A decision by the agency
could be as much as a year away.
NCAA a key player
Bill Williams, a spokesman for Louisville Slugger, said MacKay's
complaints are misdirected. "He needs to talk with the NCAA,"
Williams said. "They're the ones who set the standards. We are
making a safe product, a legal product."
The NCAA has wrestled with the metal bats issue for more than a
decade, but concern peaked when hitters shattered records during
the 1998 College World Series. The 1998 championship game, in
which Southern California beat Arizona State 21-14, lasted four
hours as the teams combined for nine home runs and 39 hits.
Overall, the 14-game World Series produced a record 62 home runs.
The new NCAA rules say the ball's exit speed off the bat should
not exceed 97 mph, but MacKay, Thurston and others say the lab
test for aluminum bats underestimates the speeds attained when
the bat is swung by a hitter. In 1998, the NCAA did approve an
exit speed of 93 mph, but the limit brought protests from bat
manufacturers. One company, Easton Sporting Goods, sued the NCAA
seeking $267 million in damages. The NCAA conducted further
testing and revised the limit upward to 97 mph. Easton promptly
withdrew its suit.
Advocates of a wood standard say the NCAA caved in to the
manufacturers by allowing speeds higher than those reached with
wood. They also contend that the NCAA restrictions ignore the
larger sweet spot of aluminum bats, which creates a higher
percentage of hard hit balls per game, including more line dives
ripped at the pitcher.
Steve Baum, an inventor in Traverse City, Mich., thought he had
solved the controversy when he invented a wooden bat with a fiber
core. The bat restores the wooden crack to the game and it hits
balls at speeds equal to wood, but it does not break like wooden
Baum has sold his wood-like "Baumbat" to the minor leagues but
has been unsuccessful in selling it to leagues where high
performance bats are used. He filed suit in federal court
claiming that the bat manufacturers have conspired with the NCAA
to keep wood-like bats out of the college game.
"If that ball comes back one iota faster than wood, they are
breaking their own rules and they are doing it for only one
reason: to protect the profits of baseball bat manufacturers," he
The prospect of bats that enhance hitting has made metal the
overwhelming choice. College and high school players can still
use wood bats, but almost no one does. Ninety percent of the bats
made in America are metal. Last year, consumers spent $93 million
on 2.1 million metal bats, according to the National Sporting
An uncertain future
Baum and others who favor a return to the wood standard say bat
manufacturers have muzzled the college baseball establishment
through deals that provide free bats to teams and often direct
payments to coaches.
According to a report on aluminum bats prepared by Thurston, some
150 Division I coaches have team and personal contracts with
various bat manufacturers. The bat companies pay some coaches
stipends of $20,000 or more and a few make more than $50,000, the
report said. Bat manufacturers have estimated that their industry
contributes more than $2 million annually in free bats and direct
payments to colleges.
Elliott Avent, N.C. State's baseball coach, receives payments
from Louisville Slugger in return for using their bats, but he
said of the payments, "I don't think that keeps coaches from
Avent said line drives at pitchers are part of game. If the ball
is coming back faster, he said, it's because the players are
bigger and swinging harder. "I think it has more to do with who's
swinging the bat, than the bat itself," he said.
Thurston said comparisons of college players who use wood bats in
the summer Cape Cod League and aluminum bats during the college
season show the bat does make a difference.
Thurston tracked 90 college players in 1997. When the players
switched to wood, their batting averages dropped .107 points.
Their home run production dropped 67 percent.
Jeff Becker, a Duke third baseman and one of the team's leading
hitters, said he felt the difference when he played in the Cape
Cod League. "You go from being one of the better players in your
conference to going up there and hitting .200," Becker said after
losing to the University of South Carolina in a game that
featured 19 runs, 25 hits and five home runs. "It opens your eyes
to the difference between the aluminum and the wooden bats."