Maple Bat Man Strikes Back!

You might wonder what would inspire a normally sane, rational man to write this:

So, while you’re sitting around this Christmas handing out hundreds of dollars in presents to the ones you care for, think about all the families and business you have managed to destroy. Think about the hand you played in putting these things through. Think about all of the hard working people you are going to put out of business. When your all done with that, remember me, Romeo Filip, proud owner of Diablo Bats. Remember that I personally told you to go fuck yourself and stick this approval letter up your ass.

P.S. Merry Christmas

Well, here’s a little background.

Major League Baseball has been in a tizzy over the past year regarding the dangers of broken bats.

bat fans

An incident in which Pittsburgh hitting coach Don Long took a maple bat shard to the face led Yahoo’s Jeff Passan to write with more than a touch of drama, “Someone’s going to die at a baseball stadium soon.”

Conventional wisdom has centered on the use of maple wood, which some claim has a greater tendency to shatter into dangerous splinters. Players, on the other hand, love maple wood bats because they believe they are superior dinger-smackers.

Toronto slugger Joe Carter was the first to use maple bats back in the 90s. When Barry Bonds obliterated home run records while wielding maple bats, they became all the rage. Today, over 50% of major leaguers use maple bats.

Many baseball writers spent last season getting all worked up about the peril that shattering maple bats are posing to the safety of players, coaches and fans. For example, Tom Verducci called them a “daily danger”:

The danger of maple bats is, however, so clearly established that every major league baseball game is an accident and lawsuit waiting to happen. Baseball will not be able to claim in court that it was unaware of the hazards caused by maple bats, which routinely break apart in large jagged pieces that put players and, most especially, fans in harm’s way. Major league baseball has been collecting breakage information for years from club equipment managers and, most obviously, seen the scary highlights nightly.

The danger is so prevalent that Selig should consider the equivalent of a temporary restraining order, banning them immediately until and unless safety assurances can be put in place.

Easier said than done, because despite Verducci’s claims, the danger was only established anecdotally, not scientifically – thus the players’ union was staunchly opposed to taking maple bats out of the hands of players who have grown to love them.

utley maple

For example: Chase Utley, shattering a maple bat above, has used maple sticks his entire career:

“I like them,” Utley says without hesitation. “They last a lot longer than ash. They don’t fray or chip away. I enjoy them. Some people don’t because they feel they explode. I’ve used maple for my whole big-league career. Yes, I’ve had a few that have exploded, but I’ve also had some ash bats that have done the same thing.”

MLB decided to investigate and hired a researcher to check things out:

In 2005, alarmed by the increasing number of broken bats, baseball gave $109,000 to a man named Jim Sherwood and asked him to compare maple bats with the ash ones that used to be the norm. Sherwood runs the Baseball Research Center at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, and the conclusion of the study did not jibe with the hundreds of players who swear maple leads to better performance.

“We found that the batted-ball speeds were essentially the same for the two woods,” Sherwood said. “Maple has no advantage in getting a longer hit over an ash bat.”

The study also found something evident to anyone watching baseball: Ash bats crack while maple bats snap.

Case closed, right?

Sportsfilter veteran Hal Incandenza begs to differ:

Ah, but there’s the rub! It’s not about bats hitting the balls further overall, it’s about having a wider sweet spot- which is one of the other advantages of aluminum bats besides hitting it further, and which is why maple became popular: it’s a wood bat with a larger, and thus more forgiving, sweet spot. You lose less speed on the batted ball when hitting just off the sweet spot with maple than with ash. Outside of Ted Williams and Ichiro Suzuki, hitting the ball with the sweet spot is the exception, not the rule.

Mis-hit balls go furthest with aluminum bats, then a little less far with maple, then less far with ash. This link- go to point #3 in particular, and check out the site it is on- has more on the physics of the batted ball. If you look at the ball speeds, outside the sweet spot the ball speeds drop off faster for wood bats than aluminum bats. Well, maple bats are in the middle: the ball speed drops off faster than aluminum, but not as fast as ash.

Now, if that extra 5-10mph on the mis-hit balls nets one swing a week that is transformed from an easily played hopping grounder into a squibber that gets through the infield for a short single, that’s 1 hit a week you didn’t get with ash. If you’re an every day player, 1 hit a week is about 25 hits, which for a 600 at-bat season would turn a guy with 175 hits (.291) into a guy with 200 hits (.333, and a pretty big contract come signing time). Even if the benefit is only once every two weeks that a ground out becomes a clean short single, or a warning track pop fly gets over the fence, that’s still 20 points in batting average.

So it’s by no means clear that maple bats aren’t giving the players some kind of benefit.

Regardless, baseball is less concerned about the advantages of maple bats, and most concerned about breaking bats – most particularly, with the public image problem caused by breaking bats.

If MLB can “scientifically” establish that maple bats aren’t better than ash bats, they can ban or regulate them more easily…which has probably been their intent all along.

Not only that, but it’s hard to look at MLB’s approach to this concern without concluding that part of its agenda was to squeeze out small bat manufacturers to the benefit of several large, well-connected corporations.

Here’s Jeff Passan again, reporting on the research MLB conducted before releasing its new bat rules in December:

Label stamps have been on the face grain pretty much since bats were invented, and players are encouraged to hold the bat with the label facing toward them in order to strike the ball 90 degrees from the label.

Extensive testing from MLB during its nearly six-month-long study of maple bats showed hitting on the wood’s face grain would produce fewer catastrophic breaks than the edge grain. Baseball hired the Forest Products Laboratory, a government entity, along with Harvard statistician Carl Morris, Massachusetts-Lowell mechanical engineering professor James Sherwood and wood-certification company TECO to analyze more than 2,200 bats broken between July 2 and Sept. 7.

Their task: Figure out why the bats are breaking and make suggestions to limit future breaks. Their conclusion: Conventional wisdom that discouraged face-grain contact was actually wrong.

“We didn’t tell them what they should look at,” said Dan Halem, MLB’s general counsel who helped draft the new guidelines. “The one thing we all knew from the beginning of this issue is that it was complicated. We wanted science and statistics to validate what we do.

“We hired experts. We let them run with it. And wherever their conclusions led them, they went.”

The research found that the majority of catastrophic breaks – ones in which barrels with splintered ends go airborne like medieval weaponry – are due to a poor “slope of grain.” Essentially, the best quality wood has an even grain, and some manufacturers were using low-quality wood with large barrels and thin handles, leading to increased breakage. The other suggestion, about hitting on the face grain, came from Roland Hernandez, a TECO employee.

Hernandez owned his own maple-bat company, RockBats, and worked with the Forest Products Laboratory before going to TECO. RockBats was the lone bat company that suggested hitting on the face grain. No major league players are known to use RockBats.

“Nobody other than MLB and TECO agrees with this theory,” said one bat manufacturer, who asked for anonymity because of concerns over MLB pulling his certification.

[…]

MLB’s team went to five manufacturers’ plants to see the bat-making process. Included were Hillerich & Bradsby, the parent company of the best-selling Louisville Slugger; and the Original Maple Bat Corporation, home of Sam Bats, which started the maple craze in 2001 by providing bats to Barry Bonds during his 73-home run season.

Still, as MLB prepared to release its study, some bat manufacturers weren’t content with its scientific merit. One sent MLB two dozen questions that went unanswered. In a conference call with MLB’s Health and Safety Advisory Committee, the question was posed whether the experts had tested bats that weren’t breaking to see why they performed so well. The answer was no. MLB also did not submit the study to a peer review, figuring that the checks and balances among the scientists from different disciplines were enough.

MLB chose not to release the 50-page report, citing the breadth of proprietary information gathered on its trips to the manufacturing plants.

To recap: MLB commissioned research that determined maple bats weren’t better than ash bats – even though its definition of “better” is rather suspect.

Then MLB conducted research at a small number of manufacturing plants, all of which happened to be owned by the biggest corporate entities in bat manufacturing. Louisville Slugger is obviously a huge company, but even once-small Sam Bats is now owned by sporting goods giant Wilson.

Their findings formed the basis for drastic new requirements – but they won’t release those findings, because the huge bat companies need to be protected from their competition.

Nothing fishy about that…

You know what else would protect those large and well-connected companies: jack up the fees for everyone else, and weed out the small manufacturers who can’t afford to pony up!

Hey, what do you know — MLB doubled its bat-manufacturer licensing fees and now mandates a $10 million insurance policy!

Most small manufacturers are privately grousing about this, but won’t go public with their complaints for fear of being totally blackballed by MLB.

But Romeo Filip is an exception.

filip
Romeo Filip: Mad as hell and not gonna take it any more.

Filip’s Diablo Bats company makes maple, ash and birch bats used by major leaguers including MVP/home run king Ryan Howard. Eric Chavez popularized Filip’s bats and is a loyal customer. Jermaine Dye calls them “the hardest bats I’ve ever used.”

Diablo first ran afoul of MLB when Manny Ramirez took his Diablo bats to play Oakland in Japan. Manny had used Diablo bats all throughout spring training, but ran into problems when he tried to use them in the season opener.

The red bats were outlawed by baseball officials, who said they would distract the pitchers.

As opposed to, say, Louisville Slugger’s pink bats, distributed by MLB itself to raise breast cancer awareness?? Granted, that’s a good cause, but if colored bats distract pitchers, why is MLB endorsing their use in non-exhibition games? Or could it be that the ruling on Diablo’s bats was totally arbitrary and not scientific whatsoever?

According to Manny, this decision robbed him of a home run:

Ramirez hit a drive to deep center and was sure it would be a home run. It wasn’t.

Just Manny being Manny.

He learned when he got to the ballpark that he couldn’t use the red-barreled bat he planned on using because it would distract pitchers. So he got some new bats in Tokyo.

“Maybe if I used my American bat that ball maybe would have gone,” he said. “I thought I hit it good. I couldn’t use my bat because it wasn’t legal. Thank God I got some Japanese wood that I could use.”

Manny ended up using an orange Japanese bat after being forced to switch from Diablo’s red bat. So FYI – pink and orange are not distracting, but red is. The scientific data to back this up must be in another of MLB’s secret research packets that you’re only allowed to see if you ask really nicely…and work for Louisville Slugger or Wilson.

pinkbats
Red bats: distracting. Pink bats: totally acceptable.

MLB’s decision to address the maple bat controversy by overturning a century of accepted bat-wisdom based on a single, secret study that was not peer-reviewed, while jacking up prices for all bat manufacturers to essentially ensure that only large corporations could stay in the game…well, that seriously pissed off Romeo Filip.

So he decided to let MLB’s pointman for the maple bat controversy, Roy Krasik, know how he felt about it.

And he didn’t mince words.

Jeff Passan’s story referred to Filip’s email only euphemistically. Although it was CCed to every other major bat manufacturer, the actual email doesn’t seem to be publicly available anywhere on the interwebs…probably because it’s pretty strongly worded.

So ROTI contacted Mr. Filip and he obligingly sent it along to us. Now we’re making it public for the first time:

This bullshit packet that you have sent out is just another clear violation of everything our country stands against. MLB, MLBPA, YOU, and your staff have been robbing good hard working people for long enough. Your regulations are as big a crock of shit as your players integrity. You have the [nerve] to send this packet to us after we bust our asses sitting in the rain waiting to sell our products. We bend over backwards and kiss ass to every idiot clubhouse manager in the league. We get no special treatment, no respect, and no direct contact to players. We set up at 5:00am in the parking lots for your teams just to watch Louisville Slugger reps walk right past us directly into the clubhouse. We get shit on by you, the teams, the agents, and even players from time to time. We take this abuse from you for what??? We do this so you can send us this bullshit approval process that no owner in his right mind should stand for. Who do you guys think you are? Who the hell made you idiots the know it alls when it comes to bat making.

How many bats have you made in your lifetime Krasik? How many maple, ash, or yellow birch billets have you sorted for quality? How many custom orders have you processed and hand delivered to the players? The answer is zero. Zero, like the amount of information you have on bat making. You and your idiot detectives (aka, Louisville Slugger) have been in bed together since this approval process started. We tailor our hand created products to your specifications just to watch Louisville Slugger build whatever they like. The morons you hired to do this amazing research have put together a list of the stupidest regulations ever assembled on one piece of paper. Who the hell came up with hitting against the grain. You idiots have to be the stupidest people I have ever come across. A 15 year old high school player can tell you that hitting against the grain is outrageous.

Along with all this you dare raise the administration fee and the insurance requirements to over $50,000.00 per year! We are in a recession you fucking idiots. Hundreds of people are losing their business, jobs, and well being in these harsh times. What do you fucking greedy idiots come up with. Make it harder for us. Kick us further while we are down. Hurt our business more and make it harder for us to put food on our families tables. You Mr. Krasik are a FUCKING thief. MLB is a fucking thief. You steal from the poor and give money to the rich.

I wonder how much you’re sorry ass gets paid to kill businesses and destroy lives. I’m sure your overpaid sorry ass gets a 6 figure paycheck. I’m sure your just fine in these tough times. I’m sure you will not lose a minute of sleep when you notice only a handful of bat companies were able to pay your ransom. I’m just wondering how your Christmas is going to be this year. I’m sure you have finished your shopping and wrapped your presents. I’m sure your planning on driving your Mercedes to your family’s house for a big turkey dinner. Guess what we are doing this year Mr. Krasik. We are holding on for dear life just so we don’t go bankrupt. We are saving every penny we can for the rainy days ahead. We aren’t buying gifts because we all understand how hard times are, and how [bad] the economy really is.

(The email concludes with the paragraph printed at the top of the post.)

When we spoke with Filip, he was pretty cool and rational about the matter, despite the evident fury in his email.

I was very upset at the time that I wrote it,” he told us via email, “so it does contain several words and quotes I don’t think really tell who I am as a person. Anger can make people say and do many things they wish they had not done at the time. With that said, I am not ashamed for my words or my beliefs in how MLB is strong arming small companies such as mine. I don’t feel any of the bat companies are treated fairly and it was about time people heard about it.

In essence, Filip said, this was the act of a small businessman pushed over the edge by a huge and merciless corporation.

Of course, in the aftermath of this email, MLB refuses to show its super-secret report to Filip, and ostensibly this will be true for any other manufacturer who dares to object.

To which we say, bullshit.

There’s little doubt that a lot of maple bats shattered this year, posing a danger to players, spectators and coaches. But ash bats broke too, sending barrels flying in the direction of potential victims.

Not only that, but the hazards of broken bats are hardly the only threats on a baseball field, as Red Sox pitcher Bryce Florie can tell you, after he took a line drive to the face a decade ago…

florie
Oh the humanity!! Ban baseballs!!

Ray Chapman could also tell you a thing or two about the dangers posed by the baseball, if he hadn’t died after a beaning. Ditto Mike Coolbaugh, the Colorado minor-league coach who was struck and killed by a line drive.

It very well may be true that MLB is right to tighten specifications and rules about maple bats. However, the way they are going about it leaves a lot of questions to be answered.

It’s not clear if MLB is actually trying to solve the problem in an equitable manner, taking into account the desire of players to maximize their hitting abilities and the ability of small bat manufacturers to continue to drive innovation in the sport, or if they just want this problem to go away, and help out their buddies at Louisville Slugger while they’re at it.

But if you ask Romeo Filip, the answer is obvious.

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