I've heard hitting a baseball called "the single hardest thing to do in any sport." It sounds simple enough: Hit a round ball with a round bat. But you have less than half a second to decide whether to swing or not. The ball might be traveling 90 miles per hour or curve into the dirt at the last second.
No wonder even the best hitters in the world are successful only three out of 10 times. Still, even if you're not Derek Jeter, you can increase your odds of connecting. Finding the right bat is essential if you want to maximize your chances at the plate.
With so many types of bats on the market, picking the right one can be a daunting task. Here are several factors to consider.
Choose a bat that feels right in your hands. Pick it up and take some practice swings. You'll usually know within a few seconds if the bat feels good or not. This builds confidence and keeps you from second-guessing yourself at the plate. Brett Bonvechio, hitting coach for the Atlantic League's Camden Riversharks and former Minor League baseball player, says, "No matter what, your bat has to be comfortable in your hands, like it's an extension of your body."
This decision is the easiest: wood or metal. Most players, from T-ball to college, use metal bats. Wood bats, on the other hand, are required in professional baseball and certain college baseball conferences. Wood breaks more easily and doesn't have the same "pop" as metal, but can turn a good hitter into a great one with practice.
Wood bats are usually made from ash or maple, but more exotic materials like bamboo and birch are gaining popularity. Ash is lighter and has more "whip," while maple feels heavier and is less likely to break. Ash has an "open" grain, seen in the visible lines of the wood on the surface of the bat. This shrinks the sweet spot to the area of the bat where the grains are tightly layered. Maple has a "closed" grain and can hit the ball on all 360 degrees of its surface.
Simply put, ash requires greater precision because of its limited hitting surface, while maple sacrifices some whip for a more forgiving sweet spot.
Metal bats come in two materials: alloy (a fancy name for aluminum) and composite (a blend of fiberglass, graphite and other materials). Alloy has the edge over composite for durability, but composite has a lighter swing feel, which can lead to more power. Composite creates a greater "trampoline" effect when the ball hits the bat, because the center of the bat is hollow and the batwall flexes on impact, launching the ball at greater speeds than alloy.This has led many leagues to ban composite bats for safety concerns.
Recently, the regulations for metal bats have changed, and all bats used in high school and college competition must adhere to BBCOR standards. BBCOR stands for "Batted Ball Co-efficient of Restitution," which measures the bat's trampoline effect. These new standards render older BESR-certified bats illegal in most leagues. Check with your coach to make sure you know what's allowed.
Bats come in different sizes and weights. Short, long, light, heavy and everywhere in between. Players should choose a bat that suits their hitting style and meets the regulations of their league.
Bats have a "drop," which is the difference between the bat's weight in ounces and length in inches. So a 33-inch bat that weighs 30 ounces has a "-3 drop". Metal bats used in high school and college must be -3, while senior leagues usually require -5 to -8 and Little League can be as light as -15.
Simple physics tells us that, if everything else is equal, a heavier bat will hit the ball further than a lighter bat, but studies show you can make up the difference by swinging a lighter bat faster. A big bat increases plate coverage but can hurt your swing mechanics if it's too heavy. Always err on the side of greater bat speed when choosing a bat. Power doesn't matter if you can't catch up to the heat.
Wood bats are made according to a "turning model," which describes the unique features of the bat, including barrel size, handle size and overall balance. Most turning models are based on designs originally created by Louisville Slugger, such as the P72, a light, thin-handled bat, Derek Jeter's model of choice; the M110, thicker handle, less top heavy, favored by Curtis Granderson; the C243, a top heavy bat with a big barrel that's great for power hitters like David Wright; and the C271, arguably the most popular model for its superb balance, made famous by greats like Ken Griffey Jr.
Metal bats don't have turning models but still vary in shape. Virtually all metal bats used in high school and college have a 2-5/8-inch barrel, so the main factor to consider is barrel taper, which is how quickly the bat goes from thick to thin from the barrel to the handle. A more subtle taper creates a bigger sweet spot but makes the bat less top heavy and less suitable for power hitters.
Simple rules for choosing a bat
- If you're a contact hitter, opt for a balanced bat with a big barrel to help put the ball in play. Maple is a great choice.
- If you hit for power, go with a more top-heavy bat with lots of whip, like ash.
- Practice like you play. Training with wood might help your swing, but you need to take batting practice with metal if you use it in games and expect to be comfortable at the plate.
- Confidence is everything. Regardless of what a bat costs or how a bat looks, what matters most is how it feels in your hands.
Burkman, Ernest. Physics of Sport. Lexington, MA: Ginn, 1980.
Nathan, Alan M. "Characterizing the Performance of Baseball Bats." American Journal of Physics 71.2 (2003): 134-38.
Nathan, Alan M., J. J. Crisco, R. M. Greenwald, D. A. Russell, and Lloyd V. Smith. "A Comparative Study of Baseball Bat Performance." Sports Engineering 13.4 (2011): 153-62.
Russell, D. A. "Hoop Frequency as a Predictor of Performance for Softball Bat." The Engineering of Sport 5. Vol. 2: International Sports Engineering Association, 2004. 641-47.
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock