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

Following Georgia’s loss in the College World Series finals, I took a look at whether Fresno State had the benefit of better bats and cited the research of Daniel A. Russell, an associate professor of applied physics at Kettering University.

Obviously, this is an issue of interest to college baseball fans everywhere, as evidenced by a recent posting appearing at Carolina March, in which T.H. wondered whether Ryan Peisel’s awareness that F.S.U. used Easton bats while North Carolina used Nike bats like those the Diamond Dogs employed might have put the Red and Black at a psychological disadvantage going into their series with the West Coast Bulldogs.

(As an aside, I should add here that I was rooting for Fresno State to win the other bracket, because I believed the Tar Heels, who are veterans of two straight College World Series finals and are led by Baseball America coach of the year Mike Fox, would be the tougher team to beat.)

That Marty McFly is a heck of a baseball coach!

As T.H. notes, this allegation---raised by the Athens Banner-Herald’s John Kaltefleiter, brought to our attention by FisheriesDawg, and furthered by Loran Smith (not the real one!)---is a serious one, so I sent an e-mail to Dr. Russell asking if he would be willing to be interviewed upon the topic.

Dr. Russell promptly and graciously sent me a lengthy response exploring the issue in detail and illustrating, unsurprisingly, that the subject is not as simple as it seems. Because his reply was comprehensive, I will break up his answer into multiple parts, the first of which appears below and has been edited only to correct a couple of minor typographical errors. (In Dr. Russell’s defense, he was writing an e-mail, not a peer-reviewed article for an academic research journal.)

Dr. Russell began his answer as follows:

I didn't watch the entire CWS, but I did see some of the championship game and did notice that Georgia was using Nike bats while their opponents were using Easton bats. I don't watch a lot of college baseball, and when I do watch my primary focus is trying to see what bats each team is using. I was surprised to see Nike bats, mainly because I didn't know they had such high profile teams under contract to play with their bats.

Personally - and this is purely my personal opinion - I don't like the fact that college teams have contracts to use a specific manufacturer's bats. I understand the money game from both the manufacturer's side (smart advertising) and the team side (free bats). But, I wish players were free to use bats they like to play with. Kind of like the pros - each individual player may have a contract with a bat company who supplies their bats, but the whole team does not have to use the same bat - each player has a choice of bat style, color, wood type, and manufacturer. I would prefer to see the same freedom of choice in college sports.

While Nike is relatively new to the bat market, they are not novices. Two of Nike's bat design engineers recently (within the last 2-3 years) migrated to Nike from Easton and Louisville Slugger. I know both of them personally, and can testify that they know what they are doing when it comes to designing and testing bats. Their first few bat models might not have the success of Easton models that have been around for a while, and they may need to work some of the bugs out of their manufacturing processes before their bats gain the same reputation as bats by Easton and other manufacturers. But the brain power and bat design knowledge of Nike guys is not lacking in any way.

All bats used for NCAA college play must pass the NCAA bat performance test that requires the Ball-Exit-Speed-Ratio (which determines the effectiveness of the collision between bat and ball) fall below a set limit and that the Moment-of-Inertia (which affects how quickly a player can swing a bat) be above a set limit. Every Easton composite bat and every Nike aluminum bat must pass this BESR+MOI standard in order to be legal for play. That said, most manufacturers push their bat performance as close to the limit as possible, and from what I have seen, there is very little difference in the performance of the top line bat models from all manufacturers.

The main differences are color and graphics (it is interesting to observe how bat color influences player perception of performance), material - aluminum vs. composite (which affects the sound the bat makes more than anything) and handle stiffness (which does NOT have any effect on performance but does have a significant influence on feel). I have done some testing on both Nike and Easton bats, and for the specific bats I tested, I would expect to see very little difference in their performance.

You also have to understand that an awful lot of the hype around new bat designs (like handle flex, titanium-composite blends, nanoparticles, etc.) is purely marketing hype. Manufacturers want (and need) you to think that the bat you purchased last year is no longer any good, and that you need to throw down the money for a new one, because this year's model is a better color, had some new space age material, or some special new gimmick.

But, the fact is that as long as bats are required to pass the BESR+MOI standard, one high performance bat from one manufacturer is not going to significantly outperform a high performance bat from a different manufacturer. And the bat you thought was awesome last year is still going to be awesome this year.

The quotes from my web article on composite bats that you highlighted in your blog discuss only what is possible, and do not explain why an Easton composite bat might be hotter than a Nike aluminum bat. The quote about composite bats only states that bat designers have more freedom with composites to tune the bending and hoop stiffnesses to produce a much greater range of bending (feel in the hands) and hoop (trampoline effect in barrel) properties. However, the bats still have to pass the BESR+MOI test, which severely restricts and limits what is possible.

The allowed bats are nowhere near as hot as they could be if performance restrictions were lifted. About 4-5 years ago the Georgia Bulldogs field tested a composite prototype from a Canadian bat manufacturer (CE-Composites, makers of the Combat line of bats) with which almost every player on the team was hitting balls 450-500 feet!!! I have one of these bats in my lab and it is very HOT - the elastic properties of the barrel are also very different from the Easton Stealth and Nike Aero - and this HOT prototype is most definitely NOT legal for NCAA play.

With composite materials it is possible to design bats that can perform way better than aluminum. However, composite bats that pass the BESR+MOI performance standard will not perform significantly better than aluminum bats.

To be continued. . . .

Go ‘Dawgs!