This is the first article in a three-part series.
For over 30 years, New Jersey has used aluminum bats for all youth baseball and softball games, as has most of the country.
The change from wood to aluminum has raised issues about the purity of the game, the risk of injuries, the impact on college scouting and the cost of replacing wood bats that break or shatter.
Following a tragedy in youth baseball, the Essex County division of American Legion Baseball made the switch to wood in the summer of 2007. Since then, proponents and opponents of wood bats have had a back-and-forth debate.
While the debate about the safety differences between wood and aluminum bats has raged on, there is no question and no argument that aluminum turns a game based on pitching and defense into a slugfest.
Just picture a wood bat as a child riding a bike and an aluminum as a kid riding the same bike, but with a twin-turbo engine attached to the back. Wood and aluminum make for two very contrasting games. Currently, the state's baseball programs are playing the same game as most schools, colleges and universities in the country—aluminum all the way.
This spring during the Columbia baseball team's high school season, the squad belted 30 home runs and scored 228 runs in 28 games.
During the summer, when Essex County American Legion Baseball switches to wood, the team didn't hit a single home run and scored an estimated 35 to 40 runs in 22 games. This is according to Bob Dreschsel who serves as head coach of the South-Orange-Maplewood American Legion baseball team. No official stats are recorded during the American Legion season.
While it should be noted some of the players on the high school team did not play on the American Legion squad, the drop from 8.1 runs per game to 1.82 has a lot to do with switching to wood.
"The power numbers are always going to be down because jam shots on aluminum can be a base hit," recent Columbia High School graduate Stephen Tamayo said. "With wood, it's a broken bat."
In Millburn, where home runs are harder to come by with no outfield fence, the Millers hit about 10 homers during the high school season. During the summer, even with many returnees, they hit one (according to an estimate by player Tim Swanson) and witnessed a significant drop in offensive production.
"Power-wise, the wood is definitely a lot less," Swanson said. "Any hits to the outfield, you can see they don't have as much pop and they don't go as far."
New Jersey made the complete switch to aluminum in the spring of 1974. It was a change many welcomed back then.
"Most of us were happy at the time," said Millburn softball coach John Childs, who was a senior pitcher in South Jersey when the change was made. "If you didn't hit it squarely, the bat didn't hurt in your hands like it did with a wood bat."
A Matter of Power
While power numbers have been consistently better since the change, it's fair to note that baseball at the professional level had been trending in that direction since Babe Ruth signed with the Yankees in 1920. His 54 home runs that season were unprecedented at the time and forever changed baseball.
Since then, 50 home-run seasons have become a regular thing, baseball has become re-popularized by the offensive explosion (most recently brought on by the steroid age), and it seems that most fans appreciate high-scoring games.
"When you go to a Major League game, you want to see home runs, not 1-0 games." Drechsel said. "They have home run derbies, not pitching derbies."
But while no one is complaining about the offense, there are some concerns about how the runs are being scored. Aluminum bats, which at times are not completely aluminum and are mixed with different metals and alloys for lighter, more aerodynamic composite shafts and have a larger "sweet spot" than wooden bats.
"If you look at the way the ball comes off of an aluminum bat, I don't see how you can say it's not different," Millburn baseball coach Daryl Palmieri said. "The biggest difference to me is that [aluminum] makes getting solid contact easier."
Strategy Behind Wood
James Caldwell High School and American Legion baseball coach Tom Lamont pointed out that the duration of games are significantly shorter with wood bats since more balls put in play result in outs.
"In general, games average 40 minutes shorter [with wood], because balls hit on the ground are outs," Lamont said. "It's like you're playing 50 feet closer in the outfield with wood."
During the summer months, many ground balls that would have been base hits during the high school season are infield outs and home runs are contained to doubles. Batting averages drop and the game becomes more about strategy with sacrificing runners over and less about out-slugging the opponent.
"I'm not seeing the bombs like you see with the aluminum bats," Palmieri said. "Kids who are getting solid contact with the wood bats are hitting line drives and hits into the gaps for doubles."
However, once the Essex County American Legion season ends, aluminum bats return for the district tournaments.
While you don't need to be a scientist to see the differences, there have been several scientific studies performed to prove it. Dr. Ravindra Nuggehalli, head of the physics department at NJIT, recently determined that there is more force behind a ball coming off an aluminum bat.
To prove this, he took standard baseballs and froze them in liquid nitrogen at 196 degrees Fahrenheit for seven minutes. He then had two NJIT baseball players hit the balls off tees using both wood and aluminum bats. Nuggehalli initially hypothesized that the balls hit with the aluminum bats would explode or implode, but that was not the case.
What he did find was cracks of varying sizes on the baseballs. Balls hit with the aluminum bats lost more mass, had more cracks, longer cracks and more rings (continuous cracks). All of this proved that there was more force being generated by aluminum, thus making hits more likely. (To see the entire interview with Nuggehalli, check out the associated video).
"With the aluminum bats, there was a 15 percent decrease in the change in the mass of the ball, as opposed to the wooden bats," Nuggehalli said. "In other words, the result was the ball was going faster with the aluminum bat as compared with the wood bat."
The same thing was concluded in 2007 by an Illinois study conducted jointly by the NCAA and the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). The study determined that games with non-wood bats produce more runs, hits, at-bats and last longer than games played with wood bats.
"The baseball is overall a lot better," said Jeff Goldberg, vice chairman of Essex County American Legion Baseball. "It's pure baseball, the way it's supposed to be played. Close games, low scores and good fielding. … It comes off the bat and it's not even close to the speed of an aluminum bat."
The study also determined that a wood bat breaks once every 35 at-bats, providing more ammo for those opposed to banning aluminum bats.
"It's a better game with wood," Lamont said. "The problem with wood is that there is an expense to be burdened. We're playing now with kids who have broken six wooden bats."
Though many players have their own bats, each high school team has some team bats that players can use.
Theoretically, going to wood bats could cost more money than playing with aluminum bats, which never break. But with new aluminum models coming out each year, athletes growing in size and strength, the likelihood that a player uses the same bat all four years of high school is not very high.
In addition, considering aluminum bats can cost as much as $400, while wooden bats range from $30 to $100, the cost differential may not be as much as it seems.
Since aluminum makes it easier to hit, regulations have been placed on bat companies, which have continued to improve their products' performance by making them lighter yet stronger at the same time.
"They're much lighter to the feel and it seems like the barrel is even bigger," West Essex High School baseball coach Scott Illiano said of bats today compared to ones when he played in high school during the late-'80s. "I affectionately call them lightning rods. How can you ever make an out with them?"
The bats became so diverse that the NCAA and the NFHS mandated that the Ball Exit Speed Ratio (BESR) had to be identical for all bats used in organized baseball.
A ball hit off of an aluminum bat being swung at the same speed as a wood bat must produce identical ball exit speeds, which would be slow enough to allow pitchers ample reaction time to field the ball or move out of the way. It was determined that a pitcher needs .4 seconds to react to a batted ball.
This gave those opposed to banning aluminum license to claim that there was no difference between the two aside from the sweet spots.
The other difference is the way the weight is distributed in each of the types of bats. The Moment of Inertia (MOI) is a rating that shows how a bat's weight is distributed.
An aluminum bat and a wood bat of the same weight and height will generally have different MOIs. The aluminum bat will have a low MOI, allowing for more bat maneuverability and bat speed and it makes contact more easily. A wooden bat with a high MOI will not have as much bat speed, but will provide more force on contact.
Dr. Alan Nathan, a physics professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a member of the Baseball Research Panel that advises the NCAA on bat performance, said there is no difference in the speed of a ball hit with either bat because of the MOI.
A wooden bat has more density and has most of its weight in the barrel. While that makes it harder to handle, when it does make good contact, there is more power generated.
In contrast, an aluminum bat has its weight more evenly distributed, but because of the hollow barrel, when the bat makes contact, it does not have as much force. So what players gain in bat speed in aluminum, they're losing in density of the bat, according to Nathan.
The NCAA tries to regulate bats by placing a minimum on MOI and a maximum on BESR. Beginning in the 2011 season, the NCAA will no longer use BESR as a rating, but will instead use bat-ball coefficient of restitution (BBCOR), which measures the trampoline effect or the bounciness of a bat.
All of the differences between wood and aluminum has meant more offense in games with aluminum - but is scoring more runs necessarily a bad thing?
Baseball is notoriously a game of failure. In Major League Baseball, a player who succeeds 30 percent of the time at the plate is considered an all-star, top-tier player. Ruth, arguably the greatest hitter of all time, succeeded slightly over 34 percent of the time at the plate in his 22-year career.
Proponents of wood bats argue that eliminating aluminum bats, especially at the youth level, would cause interest to dwindle and young athletes to abandon the game. For most children, failure isn't fun and there's no questioning that they would struggle more with wood than with aluminum.
"The kids who are true baseball players and the kids who truly love the game would appreciate it," Palmieri said. "They would just work harder. They would be used to hitting with wood."
Enhanced performance alone is not enough ammunition for those against non-wood bats to force a change. The most likely catalyst for a change would be if the NCAA decided to switch to wood, or if there were an epidemic of scary injuries that left them no choice.
According to Marcus McGriff, a 2009 Columbia High School grad, wood bats reveal who the truly talented players are.
"I prefer aluminum because it's a stats booster, but the game is more exciting with wood," McGriff said. "Wood is more of a skills game. You find out who is really good with wood."
This is an updated version of this story, detailing how the Moment of Inertia indicates there is no difference in the speed of a ball hit with either an aluminum or wooden bat. A previous version of this story also indicated there was a 15 percent increase in the change in the mass of a ball hit with aluminum bats compared to wooden bats. However, there is a 15 percent decrease in the mass of the ball.