The reason for this discussion is because there has been a growing concern with the high rate of broken wood baseball bats in baseball games. Broken wood bats are dangerous to the players, the coaches, and even the fans.
It has been observed that a large percentage of these multiple-piece failures are maple wood bats.
For over 100 years, white ash has been the preferred species for making wood baseball bats.
In the early 1990s, wood bat companies started producing wood baseball bats with “Hard” Maple.
Hard Maple is the common term used for Sugar Maple, which grows throughout the Midwest and the Northeast United States. This is a commercially available species.
Figure 1. Growth region for Hard Maple.
According to the USDA Forest Products Laboratory Wood Handbook, Hard Maple is approximately a 5% to 10% stronger, stiffer, harder, and tougher wood than White Ash. This is based on properties of clear wood pieces (2”x2” cross section) that were tested nearly 70 years ago.
This 5% to 10% difference in various wood properties is most likely the reason it is often preferred by players for use in their baseball bats – players FEEL the stiffer, stronger, and harder wood.
So, what is the difference between White Ash and Hard Maple?
Hard maple vs. White ash
When you look at the end-grain of white ash and hard maple under a magnifying glass, you can see the difference in wood structure.
White ash is a ring-porous species, which means that in each year of growth, there are clear concentrations of large earlywood cells, and then an abrupt transition to smaller latewood cells. Other species that are ring porous include red oak, white oak, and elm.
Figure 2. End grain of White Ash – porous layer is earlywood, dark brown is latewood.
(note that there are about 5 growth rings in 0.6″ of distance – that’s about 8 rings per inch)
Sugar maple is a diffuse-porous species, which means that it has a more even density of similar-size wood cells across the growth ring. Other species that are diffuse porous include yellow birch and basswood.
Figure 3. End grain of Hard Maple – dark thin lines are earlywood, white is latewood.
(note that there are about 6 growth rings in 0.6″ of distance – that’s about 10 rings per inch)
How does anatomical structure affect how wood should be used in a baseball bat?
Over the past century, when White Ash was the most common wood used for baseball bats – two details became RULES OF THUMB when using White Ash Baseball Bats…
#1. LOGO UP RULE
#2. LOW RINGS PER INCH FOR STRONGER BATS
#1. The LOGO UP Rule of Thumb Explained:
Because of the ring-porous nature of white ash, bat manufacturers have labeled their bats with the logo on the flat-grain face of baseball bats for over 100 years, and have instructed players to hit with the LOGO UP.
This LOGO UP recommendation results in the baseball making contact with the edge-grain face of the baseball bat.
The common explanation for hitting on the edge-grain face of white ash is that this type of contact is like hitting on the edge of a “deck of cards”. Because edge-grain face contact is parallel to the dense latewood growth rings, and the impact forces are transferred solidly across the diameter of the bat barrel. Well, this is correct…
What happens if players hit on the flat-grain face of white ash?
When bat-ball contact is made repeatedly on the flat-grain face of ash bats, it is well known that ash bats will “flake”. This is technically called “annual ring separation”, and is the failure of the wood cells along the earlywood-latewood interface. This occurs primarily because the wood is a ring-porous species. Below is a photo of a bat that has failed by annual ring separation.
Figure 5. This is a White Ash bat that has failed by Annual Ring Separation (“Flaking”),
due to repeated hits on the flat-grain face. This is what you are trying to avoid in the BARREL OF A WHITE ASH BAT, when following the LOGO UP rule of thumb.
Because hard maple is a diffuse-porous species, there are no pronounced bands of large porous earlywood cells (See Figure 3). This means that annual ring separation is rarely observed in hard maple baseball bats – and there is no need to orient a hard maple baseball bats to make contact on the edge-grain face.
SO, edge grain contact is not required for Hard Maple – specifically, it is not required for the reasons that it is recommended for White Ash.
The next logical question…should there be a preferred orientation to hit with a hard maple baseball bat?
Preferred orientation for hitting with a hard maple baseball bat.
Past research data on the impact bending strength of wood were studied by the author of this website, and it was found that wood has the highest impact bending strength (i.e. toughness) when it is stressed on the face grain. Results indicate that toughness is up to 30% higher when contact is made on the flat-grain face vs. contact made on the edge-grain face.
<< NOTE: Impact Bending Strength is analogous to placing a stick between 2 supports, and hitting it with a “karate chop”. So, the paragraph above means… “wood will resist an impact better in FLAT-GRAIN, compared to EDGE-GRAIN – this is a percentage better. >>
This research showed that flat-grain contact has higher impact bending strength for both ring-porous species and diffuse-porous species. That means that ash would be stronger for flat-grain contact as well, but to prevent annual ring separation, edge-grain contact is longer lasting.
** AND IMPORTANT TO UNDERSTAND… all this discussion about “stronger”, this is for the strength in the HANDLE of baseball bats.
** REMEMBER that all that discussion about LOGO UP to prevent flaking, that was for increasing durability in the BARREL.
These are two different issues, for two different regions of the bat. Thus, in short, the best orientation for hitting a baseball with a diffuse-porous species like hard maple is to hit on the flat-grain face.
#2. Rings Per Inch – Players have learned to look for Ash Bats with 8 to 10 rings per inch. Is this justified?
Remember Figure 2 – that was a close-up of Ash Wood that had 8 rings per inch.
Look at (1) year of growth – and compare the thickness of the porous earlywood, to that of the thick latewood.
Figure 6. Same as Figure 3 – but the thickness of the earlywood (A) and latewood (B) are highlighted. (with 8 rings per inch – B takes up a higher percentage of the year of growth,
compared to the thickness of A.) More solid wood (B), equals stronger wood.
Now that you have a trained eye to look at Rings per Inch… and how that relates to STRONGER ASH WOOD, what do you see when you have Ash that has MANY RINGS PER INCH?
Figure 7. Another close-up photo of White Ash – this time with MANY RINGS PER INCH.
(this is about 25 rings per inch – and notice that the whole volume of wood is 50% POROUS).
Figure 8. AND because we are discussing Maple vs. Ash… here is a close-up of Maple with MANY RINGS PER INCH.
(this is over 25 rings per inch – but notice all solid – DIFFUSE wood – no POROUS wood).
THE WHOLE POINT OF THIS DISCUSSION (Figures 5 – 7)
IT IS RECOMMENDED TO SELECT WHITE ASH BATS WITH RINGS PER INCH BELOW ABOUT 12 RINGS PER INCH. NO NEED TO SELECT A TARGET RINGS PER INCH FOR MAPLE.
I had to research historical data on wood strength vs. rings per inch. You’ll see that Ash is sensitive to Rings Per Inch and Maple is not (i.e. maple has the same strength for any ring per inch).
The Grading of Wood for Baseball Bats
Most bat manufacturers rely on sawmills to process their wood. Processing involves harvesting logs, sawing logs to produce billets, and kiln drying billets to an appropriate moisture content level. Most sawmills do a very good job of processing billets according to “lumber” standards (no knots, checks, splits, etc.). However, bat manufacturers always request baseball bat billets that have exceptionally straight grain, which is stricter than most “lumber” standards.
The importance of straight grain is critical, because the wood property that has an overwhelming effect on the strength of the final baseball bat is slope-of-grain. Slope-of-grain is how close to parallel a piece of wood is cut with respect to the longitudinal axis of wood cells in the tree. When a piece of wood is cut perfectly parallel to the grain direction of the tree, it will have the highest strength. When wood is cut at an angle to the grain direction of the tree, the strength quickly diminishes.
There are two types of slope-of-grain:
Radial slope-of-grain – this is the angle between the annual growth rings of the tree, and the straight line down the middle of the wood. In the photo below, the red line represents the centerline of the round wood billet. The pencil line is drawn along the growth rings.
The angle made by these two lines is the RADIAL Slope of Grain.
This EDGE GRAIN (i.e. RADIAL Slope of Grain) is the number one visible wood characteristic used by bat manufacturers to grade their wood. The straighter, the better.
Tangential slope-of-grain – this is the angle of the wood grain on the flat-grain face. Tangential Slope of Grain is the culprit in most multiple-piece failure broken bats…
Tangential slope of grain is the angle that the wood fiber makes with the centerline of the wood. In Hard Maple, this fiber is not easily visible.
This is the reason for the new 2009 requirement that all maple wood baseball bat manufacturers must now place an ink dot on the handle of the wood bat. When an ink dot is placed on the raw wood surface, the ink bleeds ALONG the wood grain. This bleeding highlights the direction of the wood grain.
In the photo below, the ink dot on the flat-grain face (i.e. Tangential face) is shown, along with a red line, which represents the centerline of the round wood billet.
These are 2 very important facts to understand… (1) a billet can have absolutely perfect straight grain on the edge-grain face, and yet, have a very bad fiber angle on the flat-grain face, and (2) nearly all broken bat failures that are due to slope of grain are due to a bad angle on the flat-grain face (i.e. due to tangential slope-of-grain).
The frequency of broken wood bats has grown since the introduction of hard maple wood bats, primarily because manufacturers were not aware of the above characteristic. Basically, it is difficult to see the tangential slope of grain with the naked eye… Hence, the ink spot.
Furthermore, the likely reason why wood bats break more often today, compared to years past is… the method in which wood is processed from the log. Years ago, labor intensive methods were used to split logs, and then turn those triangular staves into round billets. This resulted in wood baseball bats that had straight-grained wood. Nowadays, with higher-production sawing equipment, and increased demands for yields and efficiency… a large percentage of wood billets are SAWN from logs. If wood is not SPLIT, then it is most likely being sawn across the radial and/or tangential slope of grain… resulting in round billets like the one shown above (with tangential slope of grain).
Some sawmills still use the split-log method to produce billets for baseball bats… however, this is more common for ash, because it splits more easily than maple.
Wood Baseball Bat Strength and this property called “Slope of Grain”:
How do baseball bats break?
Typically, bats can be categorized into four types of failure: (1) rupture-type failure, (2) slope-of-grain failure, (3) brash failure, and (4) annual ring separation. The two more common failures are Rupture and Slope-of-Grain.
Rupture-type failure in the handle of a baseball bat is the type of failure that occurs when a straight-grained piece of wood is bent until it breaks. The classic “beam failure” is observed, where there is tension failure on one side and usually shear cracks along the length of the handle. Bats that fail this way are a strong indicator that the bat contained straight-grained wood, and the stress created from hitting a baseball simply exceeded the strength of the wood. This is considered a “good” failure, because the bat remains intact, and does not fly apart.
Below is a Rupture failure, which is typically a Single-Piece Failure
Slope-of-grain failure in the handle of a baseball bat is a very different type of failure. Because the strength of the wood quickly decreases when slope-of-grain increases, failure occurs along the slope-of-grain plane. The noticeable characteristic in a baseball bat that has failed due to large slope-of-grain is the oval-shaped failure plane (seen in the handle portion below).
This is a Slope of Grain failure, and typically fails into Multiple Pieces – the most dangerous to the players and fans.
IMPORTANT NOTE: IF SLOPE of GRAIN EXISTS., ASH BATS BREAK INTO MULTIPLE PIECES, JUST LIKE MAPLE.
For bats with excessive slope-of-grain, how much is strength reduced?
The effect of slope-of-grain on the impact bending strength of wood
It is well documented that when slope-of-grain increases in wood, strength properties decrease. The relationship between slope-of-grain and strength loss is described in the literature by a formula called the Hankinson’s equation. As the slope-of-grain increases (i.e. as the angle between fiber direction and longitudinal axis of the piece of wood increases), the strength properties of wood decrease. In the USDA Forest Service Wood Handbook, this effect is represented by the following plot:
The different graphs represent different properties. For IMPACT BENDING STRENGTH, which most closely relates to the strength of a wood baseball bat in use… the bottom graph is used.
NOTE that the bottom graph decreases the most rapidly when the angle of grain increases:
As an example of how to use the above graph… the slope-of-grain failure in the bat below has approximately a 1:6 slope-of-grain failure plane. “1:6” is pronounced “1-in-6”, and it means that 1-inch of grain deviation per 6-inches of length along the bat.
Transforming “1:6” to an angle, this is approximately a 9.5-degree fiber angle, compared to a line along the length of the bat.
A roughly 10-degree angle means that the wood only has about 40% of the strength of a bat with straight-grained wood.
Bats break into multiple pieces more easily when the grain is not straight.
A survey of broken bat failures
With a trained eye, an observer will notice that a very large percentage of broken wood bats that fly apart and into the field of play, are predominantly due to slope-of-grain failure. The photos below show the noticeable oval-shaped failure plane.
When you see this oval-shaped failure plane, it is due to SLOPE OF GRAIN.
Important points to understand all the changes in MLB bat rules:
- A wood billet can be graded out to have perfectly straight annual rings (i.e. it looks perfect), which means that it has straight grain in the radial face. But it can have severe slope of grain in the tangential surface (like in the photo shown earlier). This hidden defect is more common in hard maple because of its fine-grained nature, and because maple logs are not typically split … basically, the grain is difficult to see on the flat-grain face.
- Wood bat manufacturers are doing a pretty good job of sorting out straight-grained wood in the radial surface, but the tangential slope-of-grain is often overlooked. This is why manufacturers are now required to place an ink dot on the flat-grain face of maple bats… so that inspectors can come in and see the grain.
The ink will bleed along the grain of the wood, and this will highlight the “slope of grain” on the tangential face.
- Because past research data has shown that wood is stronger when contact is made on the flat-grain face, manufacturers of diffuse-porous wood baseball bats now have to orient their logos 90-degrees different than white ash – to promote flat-grain contact.
This is the important part that even most manufacturers still do not understand…
If you have perfectly straight-grained wood that has been split with a wedge and turned into a baseball bat… there is a slight difference in strength between flat-grain contact and edge-grain contact (flat-grain contact is higher). BUT… most wood baseball bats are not made from perfectly straight-grained wood that has been split with a wedge (anymore). When bats DO have some slope of grain (which is nearly all of them)… then making contact on the flat-grain face is NOTICEABLY stronger than wood that is contacted on the edge-grain face. To improve the strength of THE HANDLE of wood baseball bats as much as possible, the change to flat-grain contact was made for all diffuse-porous species. Past research data shows that this strength increase can be as high as 15% to 30% for impact bending strength.
Other reasons bats are breaking?
There are many (strong) opinions as to why bats are breaking in baseball. These include:
- Bat shapes are too severe (big barrel, small handle)
- Weight drops need to be increased (from -3.5 to -2)
- Wood is being over-dried
- and many others.
It should be understood that there are MANY factors that influence the strength of the bat… and all must be taken into consideration. HOWEVER, some properties have stronger influence that others… and this is why you have only read about changes relating to “slope-of-grain”.
MLB decided to make changes because Slope of Grain had the largest IMMEDIATE influence on increasing the strength in bats. And NO… other people’s opinion did not get ignored.
For example, here is (roughly) the influence for each of the above properties:
(1) Regarding Bat Shapes…. If you take a bat shape that has a 0.93″ handle diameter, and increase it to 1.00″, this would be a (1.00/0.93)3 increase in strength… that’s a 24% increase. Or stated another way… a 0.93″ handle diameter is only 80% of the strength of a 1.00″ handle diameter.
(2) Regarding Weight Drops… If you increase weight drops from -3.5 to -2, that means you are using a slightly more dense piece of wood… which does offer higher strength. However, to make a -2 bat only requires a billet that is approximately 4% to 5% heavier than the billet used to make a -3.5 bat. Looking at a density vs. strength relationships for wood, this 4% to 5% heavier wood will only translate into a small percentage increase in strength (maybe 5%?)
(3) Regarding Over-Dried Wood… Over-dried wood would typically break in a noticeable manner… brash, for example. However, for the most part… when a bat is observed to break into multiple pieces, it is typically due to slope of grain. When more bats are observed to fail by brash, and/or when straight-grain bats begin to explode… it is those type of failures that can be suspected to be due to over-dried wood.
Why target Slope of Grain first (before the other properties)?
Many broken bats, like the ones shown in the photos on this page (and still seen today in games)… are found to have slope-of-grain angles as large as 10 to 15 degrees. Using the Hankinson chart above… this is saying that bats are entering our games that have the strength that is approximately 40% to 25%, respectively, of straight-grained wood (e.g. 1/3rd to 1/4th the strength of straight-grained wood).
If the slope of grain requirement is made more strict, that means that bats should only have a slope-of-grain angle of approximately 3 degrees… that means that the weakest bats ALLOWED in MLB should be over 280% stronger than the bats we’ve seen break with 1:4 and 1:6 slope-of-grain angles.
If you address bat shape only… and make bats 24% stronger… it won’t matter, because bats with bad slope-of-grain have wood that has 1/4th the strength.
If you address weight drops only… and make bats 5% stronger… it won’t matter, because bats with bad slope-of-grain have wood that has 1/4th the strength.
If you address slope-of-grain… and establish a minimum slope of grain level, you can make the weakest bats in the game be approximately 3 times stronger than the weakest bats we have been observing these past few years.
As you can see, addressing slope-of-grain first has the greatest influence on controlling the strength of wood bats now, and that’s the reason why it has received immediate attention in 2009.