Wood or aluminum

It’s aluminum bats (top) against wooden bats and the question is which is safer and what to do about it.

For years, it has been a familiar sound at any high school or college baseball game. That unmistakable “plink” of an aluminum baseball bat making contact with the pitched ball, sending it out into the field.

From the day he plays his very first pee-wee league game up until the day he plays his final game at college, a baseball player in this day and age is sure to have used aluminum bats almost exclusively throughout his career, with very few exceptions.

Metal bats have simply become the standard, and wooden bats are something that only the big leaguers get to use.

In some places, however, that standard is beginning to change. A number of high school and college leagues across the country have opted to go back to the good old days of using wooden bats and wooden bats only, citing safety concerns and desire for a more “pure” game as their main reasons for the switch.

Aluminum baseball bats first came onto the scene back in the early 1970s, and over the years have gradually phased out wooden bats in youth baseball mainly for economic reasons. Wooden bats break and have to be replaced; metal bats are of course more durable and can take a substantial beating and still be effective.

As time has gone on, however, aluminum bat technology has improved by leaps and bounds. The walls have gotten thinner, the sweet spots have gotten bigger and the ball flies off of them much better than their early prototypes.

In fact, some say that these days they are flat out dangerous.

Take the story of Bill Kalant, for instance. Last April, a 16-year-old Kalant was pitching for the sophomore team at Oak Lawn High School in suburban Chicago when a line drive was hit off his head, sending him into a two-week coma during which it was questioned whether or not he would survive, let alone walk and talk again.

While Kalant beat the odds and has made a full recovery, his near-tragic experience throws fuel on the fire of this debate. Are aluminum bats too dangerous? Would it be safer if everybody just used wood?

The answer to these questions right now is this: nobody knows for sure.

“There’s not a whole lot of data to prove that wood bats are any safer,” says Anthony Holman, Assistant Executive Director at the Illinois High School Association. “There still seems to be a perception, however, that aluminum bats are more dangerous.”

IHSA, along with many college conferences and high school associations across the country, is now taking a deeper look into the issue. Holman says that while this has always been a concern, the recent Kalant incident has escalated it.

“When those types of things happen, they stay front and center for awhile,” said Holman. “Quite honestly, though, batted ball injuries are far less common than sliding injuries or thrown ball injuries.”

That may be true, but the typical severity of batted ball injuries has forced IHSA to start conducting case studies to investigate whether or not wood may be safer.

“It wouldn’t bother me if they came out tomorrow and said we had to start using wooden bats,” said Ted Kerner, varsity baseball coach at Neoga High School. “But its not a big enough risk right now.”

Kerner says that from his years of experience as a high school coach and player he would agree that metal bats are more dangerous, but for high school players they aren’t too dangerous.

“If they were too dangerous, they wouldn’t let us use them,” said Kerner.

Effingham High School coach Chris Fleener agrees, saying that high school players aren’t hitting the ball hard enough on a routine basis to warrant a sweeping change throughout the state. Not that he would mind.

“If we could go back to wooden bats, I think it would be cool,” Fleener said. “I love the sound of a wooden bat.”

Both Kerner and Fleener agree that while they don’t consider this to be a pressing issue at the high school level, college baseball is a whole different animal.

“Watching the College World Series right now, some of those number nine hitters were the best players at their schools and All-Staters,” said Kerner. “Some of those guys just hit the ball hard.”

“Its definitely an issue for college baseball with the kinds of athletes and hitters at that level,” said Fleener. “But not in high school.”

If IHSA, or any other high school association for that matter, were to make a change, college baseball would almost certainly have to do it first.

“It’d have to be a trickle-down effect,” said Kerner. “If (colleges) change, then maybe in a few years it’d change in high school.”

Some colleges already have. Take the Great Lakes Valley Conference, for instance. Home of Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, the Division II conference has been using wooden bats exclusively since 1999 with safety of its players being the main concern.

About a dozen collegiate baseball leagues, including several summer leagues that were overseen by the NCAA prior to this year, have made the switch. No Division I conferences are on the list.

SIUE Coach Garry Collins is a proponent of the change in the GLVC, which was made a year before the NCAA mandated rule changes designed to limit the speed at which the ball flies off of an aluminum bat and thus make them more comparable to wood.

Today, the maximum barrel diameter at the widest point is 2 5/8 inches for an aluminum bat. Also, a bat must have at least a “-3” ratio, which means that if the bat is 33 inches long it can weigh no less than 30 ounces.

Before that, -5 bats were the norm and barrels were allowed to be 2 3/4 inches. The new NCAA standard is also enforced in high school play.

Of course, the rule change had nothing to do with the changes GLVC made, seeing how they came first. Collins doesn’t even necessarily feel like the NCAA standards will do much.

“They have toned (the bats) down,” said Collins. “But I still think the ball comes off the bat faster.”

In fact, Collins doesn’t agree that the college level is where the most danger lies.

“Look at these youth leagues where they use -7 bats and some of the kids are already 6-4 and shaving,” said Collins. “They’re hitting balls at other, smaller kids who can’t react like college players can.”

While he exaggerates a bit, Collins’ point is that in youth baseball, not all players are at the same stage in physical development. The danger lies in the fact that a more developed child could injure a smaller counterpart by hitting a ball so hard that the fielder cannot react.

Collins’ beef at the college level is that aluminum bats build what he calls “incomplete hitters.”

“The metal bats allow hitters to generate more bat speed with less strength,” said Collins. “You have to have a complete swing to hit with wood. Aluminum bats are way more forgiving and don’t expose certain holes that a player may have in his swing.”

Jim Jarrett, former Effingham St. Anthony baseball coach and current skipper at Lake Land College in Mattoon, feels likewise.

“The sweet spot on a wood bat is smaller, and if you hit the ball off the handle of an aluminum bat it’ll still jump off and maybe even clear the infield,” said Jarrett. “Most young players today don’t know how to use a wooden bat; they don’t know where the sweet spot is and how to hit with the grain.”

Both of these college coaches agree that if a player thinks he is ever going to play pro ball, these are things he is going to have to know. Pro hitters don’t have the luxury of the “trampoline effect” that aluminum bats provide.

As a result, the style of baseball played at SIUE has changed significantly.

“The pitchers like it,” said Collins. “In 1997 we had a really good team, and our ERA was 6.05. The power numbers have really gone down; home runs have dropped significantly. We hit seven home runs in conference play last year.”

That’s over the span of 56 games, including GLVC play. Collins says that batting averages have dropped an average of 50 to 70 points since 1999. His leading hitter, Jeff Darnall, hit .308 and was the only man to crack the .300 plateau.

Collins says that game times have also dropped by nearly an hour, and his team ERA was 2.09. He also says that none of this will influence a change across the board at the NCAA, and neither will the safety issue.

He says that batmakers like Easton and Louisville Slugger have major endorsement deals with many of the big-time college programs, and there is little likelihood that college baseball will voluntarily cut its ties with these companies.

“This whole thing is all about the bat companies getting rich off of aluminum bats,” said Collins. Both he and Jarrett pointed out that aluminum bats these days, while very powerful and sleek, aren’t built to last anymore and are increasingly expensive, generally costing hundreds of dollars.

“Back when the first Easton aluminum bats came out, they lasted two or three seasons,” Jarrett said. “Now you’re lucky if it lasts a whole year.” He pointed out that while today’s metal bats are much higher quality, they also have warranties that say bats shouldn’t be stored at temperatures below 45 degrees and shouldn’t be taken on airplanes due to pressure issues.

Jarrett says that just as economics led to the use of aluminum bats years ago, so too will they possibly lead to a change at the high school level.

“It’s going to go back the other way,” Jarrett said. “You can buy a wood composite bat these days for $75-90. Some of those are guaranteed for up to 1,000 contacts.”

“When (IHSA) went to aluminum bats back in the early 70s, it was mainly a cost issue,” Holman said. Now, metal bats aren’t necessarily the cheapest alternative, and that if any may be the reason that wooden bats eventually become the standard once again.

“Honestly, I think that the cost issue is what will drive this thing the other way,” Jarrett said. “It may not be the right reason, but that’s what is going to do it.”

Dustin White can be reached at 217-347-7151 ext. 123 or dustin.white@effinghamdailynews.com

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