by Rob Meyer
Is your league switching to wood bats only?
In recent years, many MSBL local leagues, or at least divisions within those leagues, have switched from metal to wood. If your league is switching to wood, you will have to face a couple of issues. First, what kind of wood bat should you purchase? Second, once you have that wood bat in your bag, what do you have to do to hit effectively with it?
Many MSBL players who have switched to wood have admitted that one has to make an adjustment to learn how to hit with wood. Success with wood requires a player to employ rotational hitting mechanics such as those presented by Mike Epstein in his the 2001 Summer and Fall Issues of HardBall Magazine. Later in this article, I discuss the adjustment that you will likely have to make. First, I will address the factors you need to consider when purchasing a wood bat.
Dollars and Other Factors
While metal bats often last for several seasons, wood bats break during the course of a season, and that means they must be replaced. You can usually find a good quality hard maple bat for $50-$60. A quality metal bat costs around $300. This means you can get a half dozen wood bats for the price of one metal bat. When I played professionally, I used ash for the first half of the season and maple for the second half. I ordered six bats and they lasted over 50 games. I only used them during the games, and used an ash bat during batting practice, so I would not needlessly break any of my gamers. Maple in my opinion is the only way to go for an MSBL player.
Many players want a wood bat that feels like a metal bat. That will not happen because with metal bats a lot of the weight is distributed in the handle, which makes the barrel very light. Weight distribution is a key factor in determining how heavy a bat “feels.” Two factors determine how well a bat is balanced: The size of the barrel and the size of the handle; more specifically, the size of the barrel in relationship to the size handle. This means that if you have a bat with a big barrel (i.e. 2 5/8”) and a thin handle (i.e. 15/16”) it will feel very heavy even though it might be a –2 or –3. If you want a big barrel and still want the bat to feel balanced you would need a thicker handle (i.e. 2 5/8” barrel with a 1 1/16” handle). A bat that is very balanced will feel lighter than a top-heavy bat, despite being the same overall weight. Also, the longer the bat is, the heavier it will feel. This is because the heaviest part of the bat (the barrel) is further away from your hands. Another factor players do not understand is that the models of bats that have a bigger barrel are not going to have the same quality wood as models with smaller barrels. The reason is this: Consider a bat with a barrel of 2 5/8” that is to weigh 30 oz. and another bat with a 2 ½” barrel to also weigh 30 oz., the wood used for the bat with a 2 5/8” barrel will have to be less dense than the wood used for the bat with a 2 ½” barrel. So here are your options for bats with big barrels: heavy bat with quality wood, or a light bat with lesser quality wood. One way to solve this problem is to get the heavier bat with quality wood and also use a thicker handle, so that it feels lighter.
I would recommend using a heavier bat. First, you will get better quality, denser wood. Second, you will hit the ball further with less effort. This is because a bat with more weight in the barrel drives the ball more effectively. Imagine that you have a 33'’/30 oz. bat and you throw a basketball in the air and hit it with that bat. You will be able to see that the bat, which is relatively light, will bounce off the basketball. If you were able to hit the basketball with 300 oz. bat, and generate about the same bat speed, the bat would sill bounce off the basketball, but to such a much smaller degree that it would be hard to notice. The same thing happens when you hit a baseball, but on such a small scale that you cannot see the effect with the naked eye.
I am not suggesting jumping several ounces in weight from what is comfortable for you, but it is not a bad choice to increase your bat’s weight one or two ounces. You will also be able to swing with less effort because once you put the heavier bat in motion, its momentum will work to your advantage. When two objects collide, the heavier object will continue to advance against the lighter object. Once you get that bat moving, and particularly if the movement is a result of rotational mechanics it is impossible for the ball to stop it. More to the point, the ball will yield more and the bat will yield less as a consequence of the collision. Translation: hard hit bats that travel longer distances.
Similarly, even when you find yourself on your front foot because you were fooled by an off speed pitch, the results you get will be better from a heavier bat. So don’t run from those bats that feel top heavy. The big league hitters who use them look like they swing so effortless, but get great results. Top heavy bats are usually for the hitters in the middle of the lineup. Singles hitters usually use bats that are more balanced and lighter. This so they can wait a bit longer on the pitch and slap it the other way if necessary. Their role is not to hit the ball out of the park, but to get on base.
Types of Wood
The two types of woods that are predominately used today are hard, sugar or rock maple (comes from the same tree but has three names) and white ash. These are both hardwoods grown in the northeast portion of North America. In my opinion, maple is by far the superior wood. It is harder than ash. It lasts longer than ash because it is harder. It also lasts longer because of its closed grain pattern. The grains of maple wood are very, very narrow and have very small pores. Ash on the other hand is a very open grain wood with a great many pores in the grain. These pores cause more frequent splintering not only in the handle when mishits occur, but also in the barrel over a period of regular use. In my years playing professional baseball I never saw a maple bat splinter in barrel. This is what makes maple bats very cost effective, whereas ash bats may be slightly cheaper, but they break, not only in the handle, but also in the barrel.
Adjusting Hitting Mechanics to Wood
When a hitter switches to wood, he learns that he cannot get good results if he tries to he only with his hands and upper body. Such a hitter is a linear hitter who tends to advance his body forward during the course of his swing. With the lightness of metal, a linear hitter is able to generate the bat speed he needs to at least smack line drives to the outfield. One of the advantages of metal is that the hitter can use a relatively long bat, say 34 inches, and bat length provides leverage and power. With wood, the linear hitter fits that the same 34 inch bat is heavily, and he cannot attain the same bat speed that he achieves with the same size metal bat. Often, the linear hitter sizes down to a shorter wood bat in an effort to improve bat speed. Unfortunately, shorter bats provide less leverage and less power.
As long as the hitter continues to employ linear mechanics with wood, he will be stuck in a world of limited power and limited success. Sooner or later, he will have to learn how to adjust to a rotational style of hitting. Once he can hit rotationally, he will be able to attain the bat speed of metal with a heavier wood bat of the same length. This is the challenge the hitter faces.
If you watch most big leaguers you will see the degree to which their rear leg bears weight at contact. Invariably, a professional hitter’s back leg, at the point of contact, is flexed in somewhat of an ‘L’ shape. This allows him to derive power by rotating his hips. Barry Bonds is the best one to watch. His rotational mechanics are near perfect.
As Epstein discusses, hitting starts from the ground up. The hitter must learn to counter rotate and tilt backwards when executing his swing. In so doing, he use his legs properly.
When the hitter counter rotates, he is twisting his upper body in preparation for the moment when the bat will rotate through the hitting zone for the purpose of striking the ball hard. As Epstein explained, the hitter triggers his swing by dropping his front heel. The rotational hitter learns how to take a stride with his front foot without lunging forward with his body. He does this by bending his back knee so that his upper body tilts back a bit even while his front foot advance in his stride.
Back Leg Fatigue?
For the hitter who is making the transition to rotational hitting, one way for him to judge if he is using his legs is check during batting practice to see if he experiences some extra fatigue in the back leg.
In some cases, a player will discover that he needs to strengthen his legs in order to support his efforts to hit rotationally. For the dedicated MSBL player, a good idea to condition himself is to walk and run regularly. The more ambitious player may wish to visit the squat rack regularly.
Why the need to condition the legs? A rotational hitter invariably bears more weight on the back leg than the linear hitter. A hitter cannot stand stiff legged at the plate and expect to use his legs in his swing. He needs to have some flex in the legs, and he especially needs to be able to bend the back leg.
This will cause your back leg to straighten out and there will not be any weight on it. If there is no weight on it, then it is not possible to use it. Every movement in a hitter’s coil, stride, etc. affects another part of the swing and if the hitter fails at one these early points, it becomes somewhat of a domino effect and the whole swing breaks down.
Rob Meyer played as an outfielder in minor league system of the San Francisco Giants. He now is an owner of Gamer Bat Company. For more information about his company and its products, visit http://www.gamerbats.com.