MLB, bat companies work to increase safety
Focus remains on maple bats, such as one that struck Cubs' Colvin
CHICAGO -- The pieces of the bat that struck Cubs outfielder Tyler Colvin in the chest were sent to a lab to be examined by Major League Baseball-appointed experts. Meanwhile, the bat's manufacturer on Monday commended MLB's efforts to improve the quality of maple bats.
The bat used by Cubs catcher Welington Castillo was shipped from Chicago to the Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wis. Experts there will determine the cause of breakage, according to Dan Halem, vice president for labor relations for MLB.
The rate of maple bats breaking, which dropped 35 percent from 2008 to '09, has gone down another 15 percent from '09 to '10, according to an MLB official.
"We've actually seen the number of broken bats go down and applaud Major League Baseball for the steps they took last year," said Seth Cramer, the general manager of Phoenix Bat Company, which made Castillo's bat.
"It's simple physics -- you can't have big barrels and thin handles and expect the bats to hold up," Cramer said. "There were some manufacturers using sub-standard wood species to get some of these big-barreled, thin-handled [bats].
"The bat that broke [on Sunday], that's just pure fluke. If you see the replays, it hit off the very end of the bat, which for a maple bat is the very danger point."
Colvin was on third base on Sunday in the Cubs' series finale against the Marlins when Castillo hit a ball to left. The bat broke, and the sharp end struck Colvin in the chest under his collarbone as he ran down the line. Colvin scored, but was immediately taken to a Miami hospital and diagnosed with pneumothorax, which occurs when a person has air trapped in the space between the outside of the lung and inside of the chest wall.
Colvin remained hospitalized Tuesday and was in stable condition, but he will miss the final two weeks of the season.
"Something has to be done," Marlins manager Edwin Rodriguez said on Monday. "We are watching now stronger players who have more bat-speed. Pitchers are throwing harder -- 95, 98 [mph] on a daily basis."
With bigger, stronger players, Rodriguez says there are increased chances that bats will break. When they shatter into pieces, they increase the risk of injury.
"The manufactures of the bats have to find a way to make better quality, to make sure that it doesn't become a missile," Rodriguez said.
MLB did ban several types of maple bats in the Minor Leagues this year, but that ban applied only to players who were not yet members of the union. According to MLB regulations, experts have determined that one of the principle reason maple bats fail is inadequate "slope of grain" of the wood. All manufacturers now are required to adhere to slope-of-grain standards.
Also, low-density maple bats raised durability issues, independent of wood quality. Effective this year, all maple bats used in Major League games must meet a minimum level of wood density. Low-density maple bats were being phased out through a grandfathering process.
Also in 2010, MLB reduced the maximum diameter of bat barrels and increased the minimum diameter of bat handles permitted in Major League games. These revisions limit the use of certain less-durable bat models.
Cramer said Castillo had to switch to a new bat model because of the stricter regulations.
"[The new rules] altered the design of Welington's bat," Cramer said. "Welington used a bigger barrel bat last year, and under the new restrictions, his bat now complies with all Major League rules. We reread the rules Monday to make sure we hadn't missed anything."
Cramer said he had talked to Castillo since the incident on Sunday. He also has provided the bat specifications to MLB to help in their testing.
"At the end of the day, it's about how you have a ball moving at 90-plus miles an hour hitting a piece of wood," Cramer said. "And if you catch it at the absolute wrong spot, the chance is there that it's going to break, if it's maple or ash."
Rick Helling, a former big league pitcher who works with the Major League Baseball Players Association, knows firsthand what Colvin went through. He was hit on the left arm by shards of a broken bat in May 2005 when he was pitching for Triple-A Nashville.
"First and foremost, players want safety on the field, and not only for themselves but also for fans," Helling said on Monday. "[The MLBPA] has definitely done a lot of work in looking into the frequency of bats breaking and what types of bats break and where and how often. There have been regulations that have been put on bats. We're definitely taking precautionary steps to try to make this [as infrequent] as possible.
"But in the end, they are wood bats. They are going to break if you don't hit the ball on the barrel of the bat. Short of doing away with all wood bats, I think ash breaks, maple breaks -- they all break. It's just a matter of trying to make it as safe as possible."
The Phoenix Bat Company is trying. Cramer said the new rules affect Minor League players, not Major Leaguers. He said Cubs outfielder Alfonso Soriano wanted a specific bat with a large barrel and thin handle, but the only way to make it, Cramer said, was to use soft maple instead of rock maple.
"We refused [Soriano]," Cramer said. "We've walked away from some people, and said, 'We're not going to make your bat because we cannot make it with rock maple, and we're not going to make it out of a lesser species.'"
Helling was happy to hear that. He knows how particular hitters are regarding their bats.
"It may take a while [to change], because guys who have maybe been around the game for a long time and came up without the regulations in place have gotten used to a certain bat feeling a certain way," Helling said. "With these regulations, they're going to have to understand how they can be comfortable with the new kind of bat.
"For hitters, it's their livelihood, and they want to feel comfortable with the bat in their hand. You talk to any hitter in the Major Leagues, and they'll tell you they want to feel safe, too, and not only for them but for their teammates, for opposing players, for fans in the stands."
Some players are taking the matter into their own hands. For example, Yankees catcher Jorge Posada switched from maple to ash. Dave Cook, president of Hoosier Bat Co. in Valparaiso, Ind., would like to see MLB go one step further. His company only makes ash and birch bats. He'd like to see maple eliminated completely.
"I don't think they're worth it," Cook said. "That's why I never made them."
There have been studies that show no difference in the distance of balls hit by maple versus ash bats. But, Cook said, when Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs with a maple bat, it became the hot bat.
"Right away, everybody thinks, 'It's the bat,'" Cook said.
Ash bats aren't indestructible.
"Ash doesn't break, it cracks," Cook said. "Maple shatters. For example, if you have a big pane of glass and throw a stone, it cracks. Then you have a thin pane of glass and you throw a rock, and it shatters. That's the difference between the two."
Does Helling still cringe when he sees incidents like the one that happened to Colvin?
"Obviously, it's scary," Helling said. "It's amazing that we've played this game this long, and something hasn't happened to a more magnified extent than what happened to Tyler or myself. Athletes are bigger, stronger, faster now; pitchers are throwing harder in general. We're just going to try to do our best to curtail it and make it as infrequent as possible."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.