Physics Professor Addresses Aluminum v. Composite Bat Controversy (Part II)

After recently addressing the question whether Fresno State had an advantage due to the bats the W.A.C. champions used during the College World Series in reply to a FanPost by FisheriesDawg, I contacted Kettering University’s Daniel A. Russell, whose research as an associate professor of applied physics has examined the characteristics of aluminum and composite bats.

Dr. Russell was kind enough to take the time to write an extensive e-mail in reply, which I am publishing in its entirety here at Dawg Sports, edited only to correct minor typographical errors and add extra emphasis upon a particularly important point. The first part of his response was posted yesterday and the rest of Dr. Russell’s comprehensive answer appears below:

However, I can think of two possible reasons why a composite bat that passes the BESR+MOI performance standard might outperform a similarly high performance aluminum bat. These two possibilities are only conjectures but they are based on factual evidence that I know to be true about composite bats in slow-pitch softball and youth baseball.

(1) Composite bats improve as they are broken in.

As composite bats age, their performance improves. This is especially true in slow-pitch softball, to the extent that the batted-ball speed for a slow-pitch softball bat might increase by 3-5 mph from brand new condition to after 500 hits have been put on it. A 5-mph increase in speed as the ball leaves the bat could make the difference between warning track and over the fence.

The gain in performance for slow-pitch softball bats is so-well known that many players use artificial break-in (ABI) techniques to break their bats in without having to hit 500 balls. Some players hit their bats against a tree (stupid) or squeeze their bat in a vise grip until they hear the fibers crack (more stupid - because they are actually breaking their bats). Other players use a slightly more sophisticated method of rolling their bats (look up "bat rolling" on YouTube).

This practice has become so widespread that the Amateur Softball Association has just begun artificially breaking bats with a rolling machine BEFORE sending them to the lab to be certified for the ASA bat performance standard. Most of the composite slow-pitch softball bats that were legal last year are no longer legal because they exceed the performance standard after being broken in.

I do not know for certain, but it is entirely possible that composite baseball bats may actually be performing better than aluminum in recent college games because these composite bats may be broken in to the point that they perform better than they were originally designed to. I have spoken with someone in the college baseball community who suspects that ABI techniques might be making their way into college baseball. He was commenting on the fact that a surprising number of composite bats were shattering during games in the early part of the CWS playoffs.

Players were hitting balls hard, deep into the outfield or over the wall, but during their third or fourth at-bats their composite bats would shatter. He noted that this had been happening much more frequently than in past years. Some of the artificial break-in techniques weaken the bats (it is called "break"-in for a reason because it literally breaks the carbon fibers that give the barrel its strength) and greatly reduce the durability and longevity of the bats.

(2) Bats can be illegally altered to enhance performance.

Please understand that I am not accusing, nor am I even suggesting, that any teams or players are intentionally cheating. However, illegal alteration of bats is a huge problem in men's slow-pitch softball, and it is quickly becoming a problem in youth baseball. Illegal alteration is different from advanced break-in techniques. Advanced break-in techniques involve changing the elastic properties of the barrel by weakening the composite fibers making up the bat wall. Illegal alteration involves altering the actual structure of the bat.

Two illegal alterations are currently very popular in slow-pitch softball (and are being detected quite often in youth baseball): end-loading and barrel shaving. End-loading involves adding weight to the end of the barrel so that the bat's swing weight increases. Assuming that a player can swing the heavier bat at the same speed, the heavier bat will hit the ball faster. Of course, most players cannot swing a heavier bat as fast as they can swing a lighter bat, and a lower swing speed will remove any gain from using a heavier bat.

The more popular alteration is shaving the barrel - the end cap is removed, and a lathe is used to scrape of some of the material on the inside of the barrel. Making the walls of the barrel thinner makes the trampoline effect greater and can result in a significant increase (in excess of 8-mph) to the batted-ball speed. Barrel shaving can be done for both aluminum and composite bats, with similar increases in performance for both.

In softball it is more frequently encountered for composite bats, mainly because composite bats are more popular at present. In softball this phenomenon has been aggressively attacked through legal means (with bat manufacturers and associations winning some hefty lawsuits against individuals who altered bats for money). I would be very disappointed, and somewhat surprised, to find it happening in college baseball at this level. But, this ugly practice of illegal alteration of bats has recently been appearing with increasing frequency in youth baseball, so it could be possible, though unlikely.

Again, let me reiterate that possibility (2) is very serious, and I am in no way implying (and most definitely do NOT want to be quoted as saying) that teams are cheating. I would be inclined to suspect that reason (1) - composite bats increasing in performance as they are broken in - is a more likely possible reason as to how a BESR+MOI certified composite bat could perform better than a similarly BESR+MOI certified aluminum bat IF THESE BATS ARE IN FACT ACTUALLY PERFORMING BETTER.

Of course, it could be (shame on me for even suggesting it) that the Georgia Bulldogs and the other teams were either simply outplayed, or that they just couldn't manage to get solid hits. I would have to see some pretty serious statistics of team performance for the entire season and through the playoffs before I would be willing to believe that the bats they used are the sole reason why the Bulldogs lost the championship game. Regardless of the bats used, hitters still have to make solid contact and put the ball into play. But, there may be a plausible reason why composite bats could give one good team a slight advantage over an equally good team using aluminum bats.

Obviously, Dr. Russell’s closing point (which was anticipated and echoed by deanpat92) is important to remember; Fresno State won the College World Series finals because the West Coast Bulldogs were the better team over the final two games, period, and there is no basis whatsoever for believing any rules were broken or even bent by the N.C.A.A. champions. F.S.U. won, fair and square.

In a game of inches, however, little things can mean a lot. In the last game of the 2008 college baseball season, two crucial plays stand out in this regard: Steve Detwiler’s first home run only barely cleared the wall and Danny Muno’s rally-killing double play in the ninth inning narrowly missed getting by him.

It very well could be the case that Detwiler’s impassioned play was so inspired that he would have hit a home run even had he been wielding the bat Matt Cerione sent flying into the Fresno State dugout; it very well could be the case that Muno, the perpetrator of three previous errors, was so determined to atone for his earlier miscues that he would have gotten to the last ball hit his way on sheer grit and perseverance, irrespective of whether the Diamond Dogs had been armed with Easton’s latest model.

Should we even have to wonder whether this is so, though? In a game where even minute variations can carry enormous consequences, don’t we want to know that David Perno’s club is equipped with the best bats they are able to use while still remaining within the bounds of fair play and the established rules? Are we certain the Red and Black were given the best chance to win by the bats they were contractually obligated to use?

Whatever the answer to those questions, though, I am grateful to Dr. Russell for educating us all on the nuances of this issue and I thank him for giving us all the benefit of his expertise.

Go ‘Dawgs!

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