Aluminum baseball bats have come under increasing scrutiny over the years because of the perception that they result in more injuries on the baseball diamond.
That premise was derived from empirical data that show balls hit by aluminum bats not only go farther, in some cases, but travel up to several miles per hour faster than a ball struck by a wooden bat.
It comes down to the material the bat is made of, how hard it is swung by the batter, and how fast the pitch is coming in when the ball is hit.
According to the work of Daniel Russell, Ph.D., professor of applied physics at Kettering University in Flint, Mich., that does not mean metal bats hit balls at “dangerously high speeds.”
Pitchers are considered to be at greatest risk of injury on the diamond because of their reduced reaction time to a batted ball. They are positioned 54 feet or so away from the batter when completing their follow-through.
Russell’s work has shown it takes approximately four-tenths of a second for a batted ball to travel that distance. However, the difference between the flight time of a ball hit by a professional-grade wood bat and the highest-performing metal bat available earlier this year — even before new NCAA guidelines went into effect — is only .02 seconds. That’s one-fifth the time required to blink an eye.
Russell concluded the difference in reaction time has virtually no effect on a pitcher’s ability to protect himself from being struck by a line drive.
He also cited a 2003 study by Kevin Breen, which studied college pitchers’ response times to balls hit in their direction. He quoted Breen as concluding, “the largest determining factor in whether a pitcher will be struck by a batted ball is whether the pitcher puts himself in position to field the ball after delivery.”
Breen’s study demonstrated poor positioning by a pitcher could add more than one-tenth of a second to his reaction time.
Aluminum bats get bad rap
That kind of information hasn’t stopped aluminum bats from being blamed for some tragic incidents, including deaths, involving young baseball players.
Baseball player deaths are rare, but in May, 13-year-old Brady Lee Frazier of St. Regis Falls, N.Y., died after being struck in the head by a line drive during a scrimmage in Burlington, Vt.
In 2003, Brandon Patch, an American Legion pitcher in Montana, died at age 18 after he was struck in the left temple by a line drive.
Earlier this year, the California Legislature considered, but did not enact, a temporary ban on aluminum bats in the state’s high schools. The discussion began after Gunnar Sandberg, 16, a pitcher at Marin Catholic High School, was hit in the head by a line drive during a scrimmage.
Sandberg suffered a brain injury and has since experienced trouble with his memory and must take anti-seizure medication.
Recently, California’s high school athletic association voted to begin using aluminum bats that meet new NCAA guidelines in 2011, a year earlier than required by the National Federation of State High School Associations.
The New York City Council in 2007 enacted a ban on metal bats in high school play. That came as a response to a 2006 incident involving a New Jersey teen who suffered brain damage after his heart stopped when was hit in the chest by a line drive off a metal bat.
North Dakota banned the use of metal bats in high school baseball in 2007, citing lack of bat durability, the cost of replacing dented bats, restoring the integrity of the game and safety among its reasons.
Baseball statistics tell safety story
The statistical reality is, baseball remains a relatively safe sport — even when the most lively aluminum bats are used.
According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injuries, based at the University of North Carolina and headed by Fred Mueller, there were 11 high school fatalities directly attributable to baseball from 1983 through 2009. That included one death during ’08-09.
In the college ranks, there were only three fatalities during the same 26-year period. The deaths were included among only 12 catastrophic (resulting in brain or spinal cord injury or skull/spinal fracture) injuries labeled as “non-fatal” or “serious.”
Non-fatal means the injury resulted in permanent functional disability and serious means severe but with no permanent functional disability.
In all, there were 52 catastrophic injuries in college and high school baseball from 1983-2009. There were three such injuries in 2009.
There have been more than 9,500,000 high school and college baseball participants since 1982, according to USA Baseball.
Mueller was quoted in a USA Today article in July as saying there is no data to correlate baseball injuries with the use of metal bats.
Russell’s research has reached the same conclusion.
“…Metal bats (as of March 2007) legal for play under NCAA and NFHS regulations do not pose a safety risk that is significantly greater than the risk of playing baseball with wood bats,” Russell wrote.
“Severe injuries resulting from pitchers being struck by batted balls are tragic, but extremely rare,” he continued. “The available scientific evidence suggests that banning metal bats will not necessarily make the game of baseball any safer.”