Back in 1965, your choice for baseball bats was fairly straight-forward. Did you prefer the Louisville Slugger like Mickey Mantle used or the Adirondack like Willie Mays. Both were made from select ash. Professional baseball was dominated by a few big bat companies.
At the turn of the 21st century, Barry Bonds home run exploits put the spotlight on the bat he was using, and his bat was made out of maple.
Birch, which is more flexible like ash and dense like maple, is starting to be picked up by a growing number of big leaguers. Birch recently passed ash as the number two type of bat in major league baseball.
Wooden bats can also be carved from hickory, although they are rare in the 21st century and the new darling of sustainable wood fans – bamboo bats. The wood type bat makers choose is only limited by their imagination.
When I started doing the research on traditional ash bats, I learned that there is a natural enemy causing some problems. For decades, Pennsylvania forests have provided ash wood for baseball bats. In 2002, the emerald ash borer, a species of beetle dangerous to ash trees and once foreign to America, was discovered in Michigan. By 2007 it had reached Pennsylvania. If it reaches certain parts of the state, the supply of ash bats could be severely diminished. While the manufacturers of bats are aware of the beetle and are taking what precautions they can, it still threatens.
If we can avoid that fate, the number of major league stars using ash bats is also in decline. The latest stats show that only about 10% of players are still using ash bats in MLB games.
Let’s be clear, ash bats have set almost every major league baseball record you know off the top of your head. Babe Ruth hit all his home runs with an ash bat. Henry Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s record using ash. Joe DiMaggio hit in 56 straight games with ash. Ted Williams hit .406 with ash. Ty Cobb and Pete Rose both swung ash to get over 4,000 base hits. Mark McGuire crushed 70 home runs with an ash bat.
An ash bat has the largest sweet spot. If you are a contact hitter, your chance of hitting a line drive will increase with ash. Due to density, ash flexes more. Some feel that this flex actually helps to create a trampoline effect, driving the ball farther, compensating some of the distance lost due to lack of rebound velocity.
The construction of an ash bat by leading bat manufacturers is an art that has developed over the last 150 years, and involves careful selection of the right grades of wood, control over moisture content and drying times, and even the number of growth rings. About eight growth rings per inch in a northern white ash bat seems to be favored by most players, although some bats are made with 15 growth rings per inch since a large number of growth rings indicates an increase in the density and strength of the wood.
Let’s talk about breakage. Ash bats tend to break on inside pitches (jammed) while maples tend to break on outside pitches (cued). So depending on your hitting tendencies, you can reduce the number of bats you splinter or break in a season merely by selecting the right type of bat. You can tell when an ash bat is reaching the end of its lifespan because it will start flaking.
The rise of maple bats has come as baseball has seen an increase in strikeouts and home runs, but relation does not imply causation. Jim Sherwood of the Baseball Research Center at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, said the conclusion of a 2005 study was that the ball goes just as far off maple as it does off ash. Lloyd V. Smith, an engineering professor at Washington State University, went even further, telling the Washington Post, “If Barry Bonds had not been swinging maple when he broke that record, I don’t think anybody would even be talking about maple right now.”
Maple is a very dense wood, which tends to make it one of the best species to use for wood baseball bats. Density is directly related to hardness and durability. The denser the wood used to make a bat, the more durable a bat will be and the more “pop” it will have. Also, maple is a diffuse-porous wood (close-grain). The properties of diffuse-porous wood are such that it will hold together under high intensity impact. The more you hit with maple baseball bats, the more the grains will compact and press together. This makes the bat harder in this area of frequent impact. Maple has the hardest surface of the three major species of wood typically used to manufacture wood bats.
Maple lumber with a straight grain structure is harder to find than ash so it’s important to buy from a company that uses quality wood for their baseball bats. This is important because a maple bat without a straight grain will be much weaker and will break with much more regularity than “Pro Grade” maple bats. Maple does not flex much and the result is a feeling of a more powerful bat that the ball seems to jump off. Maple bats are ideal for a baseball player that wants the best performance from a bat and is willing to pay a little more for that.
The type of maple is usually listed as rock maple, which sounds awesome, but it’s also known by it’s more common name, sugar maple.
Scientists have argued that batted ball speeds are no different between ash and maple. They say that what ash loses in hardness it makes up for in flex (like a golf club). But in those tests, the scientists ignored a science even more important to baseball than physics: psychology. We use what we think gives us the best chance to win. We use what gives us confidence.
The X Bats Pro Stock Model 73 is one of the most popular new styles in the big leagues and their best selling bat by 2-1 over any other model.
Birch bats have started to carve out a place with major league players. Raleigh native and former MVP Josh Hamilton and Mark Trumbo both swing bats made from birch in games.
Birch bats want to be used, because the more impacts they experience, the denser the wood will become. Some call it the “break-in period” for birch bats.
The biggest difference between a maple bat and a birch bat is the flex. Many players say that a birch bat is the perfect mix of the hardness of a maple bat and the flex of ash. However, it’s not quite that simple. Although birch definitely has more flex than maple, it doesn’t compare to the flex of an ash bat.
B45 Baseball, who was one of the early pioneers in birch bats, has a great selection that should satisfy every type of hitter and budget.
For any bat, it usually makes sense to pay a little bit more to get a better grade of wood. The “Pro Stock” or “Select Stock” or whatever your favorite manufacturer calls it, usually means increased durability.
This summer I decided to order a wood baseball bat made from European Beech wood from Ruth Baseball. Beech isn’t a common wood used for baseball bats, but neither was Maple… until it was.
Why “European Beech” you may ask. Probably the primary reason is American Beech lumber is slightly heavier than European.
Beech wood has a straight grain and fine, even texture which makes it an ideal candidate for turning bats.
Beech also responds very well to processing in a variety of machines, responds well to evaporation treatments, and is one of the best woods to absorb shocks and blows.
Sandlot Stiks out in California uses American Beech for their bats.
The Right Wood Bat For You
Everyone wants to know what are the best wood bats and what are they made of? After all the words you read to get to this point, the next line may be disappointing.
There is no such thing as the best type of wood for a baseball bat, it depends. If you are a consistent hitter who generally hits the ball on the sweet-spot then any of the bats will be just fine.
If you are a singles hitter who wants more bat control than anything else, you might want to stick with a traditional ash bat since it gives you the lightest length to weight ratio and the ability to expand your sweet-spot.
Big hitters who have the power to swing a bigger bat and generate tremendous bat speed may want to check into maple which is harder and a bit heavier.
If you want to try something in the middle, check out the birch bats that are now available and see if the combination of harder wood with more flex than maple is the middle ground that lets you eek out a few more hits. This article doesn’t touch on the rise of composite bats, but they’re gaining in popularity and more leagues are allowing their use.