Aluminum bats: Are they unsafe weapons in the hands of high school hitters? The wood bat vs. aluminum issue is certainly not new, and studies validate that baseballs jump off aluminum bats with more velocity than they do off wood bats.
But due to a near-fatal head injury suffered last month by a high school pitcher in Marin County, the controversy has fresh legs.
Sixteen-year-old Gunnar Sandberg is in stable condition in intensive care unit. As a result of his injury, the Marin County Athletic League has banned non-wood bats.
Coast Union head baseball Coach Brian Machado makes no bones about it: he favored wood over aluminum long before pitcher Sandberg was struck in the left temple with a ball that rocketed off an aluminum bat on March 11.
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“I think we should switch to wood,” Machado asserted earlier this week. Assistant coach Steve Kniffen takes issue with the added clout that swinging an aluminum bat gives to an average hitter. “I’m a baseball purist. I believe only the finest hitters should be able to drive one in the gap.”
Kniffen believes that if high schools used wooden bats, it would compel players to use their skills more, to learn how to hit and learn to punch the ball into the opposite field rather than rely on the extra power a baseball receives when belted off an aluminum bat.
When it comes to cost, wooden bats are much less expensive—albeit, they break more frequently than aluminum or composite aluminum bats. Aluminum bats can run upwards of $300 each and wooden bats cost between $30 and $100 each, depending on what grain of wood is used.
“I can buy a six-pack of wooden bats for $150,” Machado adds.
“If someone gets hurt here in the next month or so, like that kid in Marin County, I can see this league going to wooden bats,” Machado states.
Meanwhile California Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) has introduced legislation to ban aluminum and alloy bats in public and in private high school sports for three years. Huffman’s bill would also require further review on bat safety.
Dr. Daniel Russell, associate professor of applied physics at Kettering University, Mich., cites four reasons why aluminum bats outperform wood bats: One, aluminum bats are lighter and swing quicker; two, when a ball hits a wood bat, it “compresses to nearly half its original diameter, losing up to 75%” of it’s energy”; but when it hits a hollow aluminum bat, there’s less energy loss; to wit, the aluminum bat sends the ball an average of 8 mph faster; three, aluminum bats have “wider sweet spots” (location on the bat where the ball comes off fastest); and, four, aluminum bats rarely break.
New York City has banned non-wood bats, as has the state of North Dakota. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that between 1991 and 2001, 17 baseball player deaths have been attributed to “impact with a batted ball” — eight of those involved non-wood bats.
— John FitzRandolph, special to The Cambrian