The 2008 baseball season has been strife with speculation. Will the (current) National League-leading Chicago Cubs actually end their 100-year drought and win the World Series? Will Manny Ramirez actually play like he’s paid, now that he’s in Los Angeles? Will the Detroit Tigers be put out of (everyone’s) misery now that the season is coming to an end?

But perhaps the biggest controversy to hit the sport involves wood and wood products: the proliferation of injuries due to broken bats and the debate over whether the growing popularity of maple over ash and hickory is responsible for the upswing.

Although maple bats have been in use for a number of years, it doesn’t appear to be until 2001 — the year that Barry Bonds won the single-season home run record with 73 — that the popularity of this species took off. Lighter than hickory, maple is a stronger wood than ash and less prone to flaking and cracking. However, the problem is that when maple does break, it oftentimes fractures, resulting in jagged projectiles.

The number of injuries due to broken bats has grown significantly this year. Some of the more publicized accounts include two incidents in April, one in which Pirates hitting coach Don Long received stitches after being hit below the eye with a piece of a shattered maple bat, and just over a week later, a female fan became concussed after being hit with the broken barrel of a bat as she sat four rows behind the visitor’s dugout at Dodger Stadium. Two months later, on June 24, Major League Baseball umpire Brian O’Nora received a gash on the head after a bat broke apart during the Royals-Rockies game.

Forest Products Lab Gets Involved in Bat Study

In July, Major League Baseball (MLB) began collecting from each team every bat that chipped, cracked or shattered during a game. Authenticators at each game then cataloged into a database the details of the incident: player, type of bat, its manufacturer, how the bat broke, the number of pieces and where they landed, and a video of the incident. More than 250 broken bats were collected, almost one per game.

According to various news reports, MLB has worked out an agreement with the Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, WI, to conduct research on the broken wood bats. The lab will look at not only the species used and the grade of the species (whether it is an inferior grade), but also the bat size and handle size. MLB also is consulting with Harvard statistician Dr. Carl Morris on the compiled data.

Earlier this month, MLB also sent out a questionnaire to more than 30 “approved” bat manufacturers as part of its investigation into the safety issue. Among the items under review are: the bat’s drop (length minus weight), handle thickness, barrel diameter, wood purchase information, moisture content, the drying process and color. MLB’s Safety and Health Advisory Committee, which is handling the investigation, has said it hopes to have a recommendation by November.

It is hoped that what will come of this will be stricter specifications and quality controls for making wood bats, particularly with regards to minimum handle thickness and species grade. Other quality control measures will need to be put into place in order to standardize the manufacture of all wood bats and keep the game safe — for players, coaches and the fans.

Major League Baseball hopes to have a recommendation in place by November to reduce the number of broken bats.

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