In 1996, Fernando Seguignol of the AAA Ottawa Lynx hit a homerun that would change the course of baseball history. Seguignol, according to Sam Holman, the maker of the now famous Sam Bat, was the first player to homer with a Maple bat. In the next season, Joe Carter became the first MLB player to pioneer Holman’s Maple bat (albeit illegally), sparking a mass overhaul by the mid-2000s. Barry Bonds famously/infamously swung Maple in his video game years of 2001-2004, in which he won 4 consecutive MVPs. Bonds was not only the League’s most valuable player, but the Maple bat industry’s, too. After those seasons, Maple went from a AAA experiment to the league standard, achieving 50% usage by 2008, according to a report. The author of that article, Jeff Passan, urged readers to consider a ban of Maple bats, because he believed “someone (was) going to die at a baseball stadium soon.”
Though stricter standards are in place (ink dot) to prevent injury, Maple has not only survived, but continued to slice into Ash market share. (On a side note, broken bats are down 50% since 2008 thanks to those standards.) Just how popular is Maple for the best players in the world? Funny you ask—we just so happen to keep track of that. Maple is favored by 77.9% of WPW-featured hitters. That’s not bats ordered, or contracts signed, that’s bats taken to the box. Maple’s hardness has clearly become the star’s choice over Ash’s flexibility.
What’s even more telling is that, of the players featured on WPW, about half of the guys who still swing Ash are the ones on their way out. Ash is swung by 18.9% of the players featured on WPW, namely guys like Ichiro, Jeter, ARod—all guys that were playing professionally before the Maple takeover. When their time is up, will Ash go with them?
Anybody who has swung both probably knows the difference. I swung a Maple M9 271 for a while, and I can remember squaring something up and thinking I just split the ball in half. What a feeling. In my experience, Ash feels a little bit more forgiving (off the end), with more flex, lighter, and with a larger sweet spot. Maple on the other hand, is stiffer, harder, and heavier. And when you catch a lazy slider on the barrel of a Maple bat, the pitcher better get short quick. The ball sizzles. Torii Hunter, who swings Ash after a brief experiment with Maple, equated good contact with Maple to “a car crash at full speed.”
But is that just baseball mythology? Scientists have argued that batted ball speeds are no different between Ash and Maple. They say that what Ash loses in hardness it makes up for in flex (like a golf club). But in those tests, the scientists ignored a science even more important to baseball than physics: psychology. We use what we think gives us the best chance to win. We use what gives us confidence. As a player who values bat control, I still have the most confidence in Ash. One, its cheaper and therefore less risk for a baller on a budget, and two, I am a feeble man. I need the bat speed and forgiveness.
With that said, it makes perfect sense that the typical pro player would choose Maple. For one, their hand-eye coordination is as good as it gets for a human, and they’re also incredibly strong. The drawbacks of Maple (heavier, smaller sweet spot) don’t slow them down as much as an average player, so its logical that the masters of hitting go with the harder, more explosive wood. And as far as baseball goes, what’s more scientific than this?
That statement resonates with a ballplayer more than any MIT professor’s study ever could.
The only other wood type in the discussion, Birch, is the new kid on the block. Its been picked up by a select group of guys (3.3% of those profiled on WPW, two players), and though its a small sample, these are still a pair of the biggest power guys in the game. Josh Hamilton and Mark Trumbo both swing Birch in games. In fact, Trumbo hit two of the seven longest shots of the 2013 season with his Trinity PS 27:1 Birch.
They seem to have found a happy medium in the Ash/Maple debate, as Birch is considered a little lighter than Maple, and a little harder than Ash.
Will Birch be the next Maple? Former CEO of Louisville Slugger, Jack Hillerich III, told WPW recently that that remains to be seen: “There are so many things about a wood bat that we can’t tell. For instance, the sound of a bat. We came out with a wonderful bat made out of beech, very durable, didn’t chip, and (pro players) didn’t like the sound.”
Though I can’t speak on the sound, based on the chart above, I’m interested to give it a try. Chuck Schupp, Slugger’s salesman to the pros told me that David Wright, an Ash guy, has flirted with Birch, swinging a B9 C243 a bit in games, though we haven’t found any photo evidence yet. Wright swings Birch frequently in BP.
The adoption of Birch is still in the balance, as is the future of Ash. Maple is the surest bet to remain popular at the top level of our game, but we all know that in baseball, nothing is guaranteed. There is only one thing we can be sure of; this debate will not be decided in a laboratory, it’ll be decided at the plate—the only bat test that has ever, or will ever matter.
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