New MLB rules cause maple bat flap

Less than a week after Major League Baseball announced new regulations in December concerning maple-wood bat production, a bat manufacturer named Romeo Filip sent an email to the owners and operators of nearly every bat-making company. He wanted them to read the letter he had written to Roy Krasik, baseball's point man for the bat debate, that ran 696 angry, profane, passionate words long.

"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," wrote Filip, one of his milder comments. The debate over maple bats stokes ardor on both sides, and nothing illustrates this better than the argument by some manufacturers that MLB's new rules – backed up by a multi-pronged study that cost half a million dollars – are not just scientifically wrong but also potentially dangerous.

Already wary of scrutiny after a year in which one broken bat catapulted into a dugout and sliced Pittsburgh Pirates hitting coach Don Long's face and another went into the stands and broke a fan's jaw, some maple-bat manufacturers worry the new standards will hurt their bottom line, too.

Particularly disturbing, two manufacturers say, is the new mandate to place the manufacturers' stamp on bats' edge grain instead of the face grain. 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.

Filip paints a darker picture. The tensile strength of wood, he said, runs down its edge grain. Hitting against the grain, Filip said, will cause bats to snap even more violently and straight ahead instead of toward the foul lines.

"You're going to have helicoptering hammers flying directly at the pitchers," Filip said. "I'll bet my company on the fact that you're going to see pitchers not impaled but knocked out by these things."

Admittedly, Filip's company, Diablo Bats, isn't worth much these days. He's fighting to stave off bankruptcy, and he blames MLB. The $500,000 study commissioned by the league resulted in the doubling of a licensing fee required to sell bats to major league players. Filip said he cannot afford the $10,000, nor can he pay for the $10 million in insurance coverage mandated by MLB, also twice as much as last season.

In the study, Morris ran regression analyses on the characteristics of the bats that broke, Forest Product Laboratory's Dave Kretschmann tested the actual wood and Sherwood used his lab to try different bats and see which held up best. They studied maple and ash-wood bats, and recommend players continue to hit ash bats on the edge grain because striking with the face grain produces "shelling," or the separation of wood grains.

After dismissing the theory of most bat makers – large-barreled, thin-handled bats, and those with a differential of three between a bat's length in inches and weight in ounces (i.e., 33-inch 30-ounce bats) – 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. If asked by a bat-maker to see the results, Halem said, "We could do that."

Filip asked Krasik to read it and never heard back, his chances probably killed by his Dec. 16 letter. In it, he addressed nine curse words at Krasik and questioned his understanding of the complicated bat-making craft.

"How many bats have you made in your lifetime Krasik?" Filip wrote. "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."

After Filip sent the letter, he said, he received a call from MLB security. The official, Filip said, asked if he planned on harming Krasik. He replied no, though he now says, "I wouldn't take back a single word of what I said. Not one word."

Filip doesn't mince words when it comes to the new regulations on maple bats, either. He said the test to determine whether the wood used in maple bats has an even slope of grain can easily be beaten (manufacturers will be required to place an ink dot on the bat handle, and if it bleeds more than a quarter of an inch diagonally, the bat is not certified). By rubbing 250-grit sandpaper on the handle, Filip said, the pores on the wood close and mask its true grain.

The confusion, said the bat maker who requested anonymity, has stretched to the players as well. With the new bats currently going through lathes in preparation for spring training, manufacturers are calling players to explain the changes and how bats will look different. Even with the recommendations to hit using the face grain, the manufacturer said, "The players are going to hold the bat how they want to hold it, hit it how they want to hit it. Just because MLB wants them to use the face grain doesn't mean they will."

MLB and the players' association plan to meet with manufacturers again during spring training. Next on the agenda is studying the different drying methods used and how bat shapes affect breaks. The manufacturer believes certain standards for bat geometry – smaller length-to-weight ratios for bats with larger barrels and thinner handles, for example – is likelier to curb breakage than slope-of-grain policing.

"We're not done with anything," Halem said. "This is the first step in fixing the problem. We're doing continuous research and analyzing data and speaking to people. The committee will change things if need be."

Filip finds no solace in that. He started making bats for himself as a hobby, then sold some to friends. His business boomed on eBay and picked up when Eric Chavez started using them. Manny Ramirez got Diablo publicity last year when MLB banned him from using a batch of the bats in Japan because of their red barrels, and Filip is convinced baseball has used other strong-arming to discourage players from using his bats.

"We were one of the people they were able to beat," Filip said. "You kick somebody enough times, they're going to fight. But when there are 20 bullies on you and they're all kicking you in the face, you're gonna stop.

"These people don't deserve us. These entities doing their best to stomp us out don't deserve our ability, our expertise, our loyalty to their players. If they want a bad product and want to threaten the integrity of the game by making it more dangerous, that's on their conscience."