Wood vs. aluminum baseball bats: Why the difference is game changing


Frank Graff talks about differences in wood vs. aluminum baseball bats that affect personal average and the game itself.

There are some sounds in sports that are simply iconic. 

Think of the “thwack” sound of a perfectly hit golf ball. The “smack” of a hockey stick hitting the puck in the stick’s sweet spot. And of course, you can’t beat the sound of the crack of a baseball bat on the ball. 

That is, unless, the sport is little league baseball, NCAA men’s baseball or women’s softball. Then the sound of bat striking ball is more of a dull clang. That’s because the bats are aluminum. While there is no doubt the sound is different, what about bat performance in the game? 

Aluminum bats started to appear in the 1970s. They are about five ounces lighter than wooden bats and the barrels are bigger. It’s because aluminum bats are lighter that they can be swung faster. 

But there’s another interesting note with aluminum, says  George Manning, vice president of technical services at Hillerich & Bradsby Company. H&B manufactures the Louisville Slugger, what you could call America’s most famous bat. 

Manning calls the major difference between the two bats the “trampoline effect.” 

The walls of the aluminum bat are thin enough that they bend, or flex, when the ball hits the bat. While some of the energy from the collision is transferred into the ball and lost to heat, there is much more energy transferred into the bat. But because the walls of the bat are thin enough that they bend or flex when the ball hits the bat, the energy is then given back to the ball when the wall bounces back. The ball travels farther. 

Manning says when the company began comparing statistics between wooden and aluminum bats, it found team batting averages went up about 20-points and home run production almost doubled for teams with aluminum bats. 

That’s the primary reason professional baseball is sticking with wooden bats. In a game where statistics such as batting averages, slugging percentages, etc. are so important, the pros want to protect historic records. The pros also want to show that athletic performance in the game is due to human ability and not bat technology. 

There is also a legitimate concern about player safety because the ball is travelling so much faster. Some metals have already been prohibited from being used in bats because the ball was hit too hard. The NCAA is also taking a closer look at bat design to slow down the bat speed. 

There’s no doubt the debate over tradition and technology will continue. Something to discuss during the seventh inning stretch perhaps? 

—Frank Graff 

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci Tech Now North Carolina, a weekly science series that airs Tuesdays on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!

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