A Bad Idea for Solving the Maple Bat Problem

How not to address the maple bat issue.

The most prominent manufacturer of maple bats said Tuesday that baseball players and owners should ensure the quality of bats by paying roughly triple the price.

Sam Holman, founder of the Canadian company that makes the maple bats popularized by Barry Bonds, said baseball’s maple bat crisis — bats snapping into large pieces and flying toward players and into the stands — could be resolved by setting minimum prices that would compel manufacturers to use the finest wood rather than competing for business by selling cheaper bats made of lower-quality wood.

“It would level the competition,” Holman said. “That would do as much as any regulation of what kind of wood.”…

He can make a maple bat for $55 and sell it for $60 to $65, he said. He said he would support a $200 minimum so manufacturers would not be tempted to cut corners and use the lower-quality wood that he said is much more prone to breakage.

How would this cause bat companies to not cut corners? Players have already shown a willingness to use $65 bats. Maybe at a higher price, players would expect higher quality bats, but how would a player know whether or not he received a “$200″ bat and not a substandard one?

I think Mr. Holman is a bit more interested in restricting competition in the maple bat industry than he is in ensuring bat quality. Let’s say MLB adopts a $200 minimum price for maple bats. Assuming the demand for maple bats is highly inelastic, fewer players will use maple bats, but they will continue to use maple bats at a high rate. As bat-making technology improves or input prices fall, bat-makers will reap wind-fall profits and cannot pass cost savings on to players.

And let’s say a new maple bat company comes along that can provide the same, if not superior, quality bat. The competitor would have a hard time wooing users when players already have confidence in an existing supplier. One strategy to acquire customers would be to sell bats at a cheaper price, possibly even giving them away initially. However, this would be against league rules; and thus, new bat companies will be less likely to enter the market. It also prevents companies who develop new methods for producing high-quality bats at a cheaper price from entering the market.

This proposal is rent seeking, pure and simple. Let’s hope no one on the committee is stupid enough to buy this argument. A preferable alternative for ensuring bat quality would be to set up objective testing standards that all bats must meet. A breakage test could be one of the tests employed. This would not distort the competitive incentives of the bat industry, and bat makers would continue to seek methods for cutting costs without sacrificing quality while attempting to earn greater profits.

12 Responses “A Bad Idea for Solving the Maple Bat Problem”

  1. ChuckO says:

    The first thing they need to do is determine what exactly is the cause of these breaks. My knowledge of this is not comprehensive by any means, but I don’t recall reading anywhere that the cause had been determined by empirical testing.

    It might be simpler to require bigger handles relative to the barrel. Perhaps the bats would then not break so dramatically, even if they were made of substandard wood. Of course, that too would need to be empirically determined.

  2. Millsy says:

    Did Mr. Holman have an evil smirk on his face when he made this proposal? That’s kind of funny.

    In response to the bat handle, very good point. The handles on the Maple bats, in my experience, seem to be thinner than other bats I used in the past. The handle also seems to be longer on the maple bats I’ve used, leaving a better weight distribution for swinging, quickly expanding into a barrell, rather than the traditional gradual widening. I’m not a wood expert, but I assume companies are able to do this because maple is a stronger wood than others, therefore allowing for this longer/thinner handle.

    Yesterday was the first I had heard any real concern about the bat breaking problem though. An umpire being hit in the head with a piece of it is a pretty freak accident. Is the increase in bat breaks that significant that this needs to be a real concern? People have been using maple for years, it’s not a new species of tree.

  3. Cliff says:

    Millsy,

    Actually, almost all MLB bats were ash until probably the early 90’s when maple started taking part of the market.

    Breakage of bats IN LARGE PIECES is so overwhelmingly anecdotally increased (my lyin eyes) that there has to be a new problem. It SEEMS to be worse with maple.

    The really funny thing to me about the manufacturer’s comments was that IF a company can tell prior to manufacture that certain wood is insuffcient, then why don’t we get those tests, replicate them (to see if maple really CAN be used safely) and require the testing of the wood to be done independently of the company. Then, if bat prices increase to $200, so be it. If no test will confirm better wood, how can a manufacturer (even if well intentioned) be able to assure making a better bat.

  4. Rick says:

    I saw something yesterday mentioning that there is an MRI company that has developed a product that images the bat to look for internal deficiency. I don’t know what percentage of broken bats is due to structural problems with the wood used vs. the shape of the bat (e.g. to narrow of a handle). Obviously, some research should be done on broken bats to determine why. But, requiring an MRI on all bats could not only help prevent broken bats, but could also help to insure quality product is being delivered.

  5. David says:

    What gets me is that every newspaper article I have seen on the subject uses anecdotal evidence. And the anecdote with the more severe damage was to Steve Yeager in 1976, with an ash bat.

    Am I the only one who thinks that bats are safer if they break more often because people will be more aware of the fact that they break?

  6. kevin says:

    Is there any effort to get gather the information about which company’s bats shatter? If what Holman is saying is true – then disqualify manufacturer’s with a high SAAB ratio (Shatters Above Ash Bats).

    It really seems we should start with information not hearings.

  7. Greyson says:

    David, you’re really stretching on anecdotal evidence there… of course it is silly to assume since one ump gets injured by a maple bat we should ban them, it’s almost like saying since one minor league first base coach got killed we should mandate the use of a protective device that wouldn’t have saved him… oh wait we already did that.

    However, there is plenty of evidence out there that maple bats shatter more frequently and more violently than ash. I’m not sure I buy the idea that anyone is more prepared because they know it will happen more often, nor does it really matter how prepared you are when a jagged bat head comes flying at you at high speed. Generally, most players at this level have taught themselves to be so deep into the game that they unconsciously pay no attention to flying bat particles… and lets not even start with absent-minded fans who get the good seats and don’t keep their heads in the game.

    JC is absolutely right, as he almost always is in economic matters, that these proposals make little sense. I’m wondering if it might make sense to extend the interference rule to include a player’s bat… so that if an umpire has reason to believe that a bat, or part thereof, causes a miscue in the field then the batter can be ruled out and the ball dead… this would likely lead to a lot of players wanting to ensure fewer breaks, which is the only way we’re really going to fix the problem.

  8. David says:

    Greyson,

    I was just throwing a hypothesis out there at the end. My point is that these articles don’t show anything involving the number of accidents, etc, just that the bats explode violently. Rather, I’d like to see the data, etc, on injury rates, not just bat breakages. Is each bat breakage at the margin more dangerous when they break more often?

  9. Jonny Schuerholz says:

    Sheesh, why don’t we just have complete government regulation of the bat industry, just to create more opportunities for people like Sam Holman to seek rents. Maybe Congress should create the Department of Sports and Recreation, complete with a Flying Bats and Other Airborne Objects Regulatory Agency!

  10. James Carter says:

    Wood is not unlike metal. “Harder” is not always better in wood or metal applications. Harder equals more brittle, metal or wood (carbide chips very very easily and only a diamond is harder!). Hickory is not as “hard” as maple but is is many times tougher………… thus you have Hickory handles on impact tools and not maple.

  11. josh says:

    Wet wood breaks easier then dry wood. Are the maple bats being dried out to the same moister content as the tougher ash bats?

    “Hickory is not as “hard” as maple but is is many times tougher………… thus you have Hickory handles on impact tools and not maple.”

    hickory is cheaper and easier on the cutting edges of the tools. Maple would be an upgrade if used on any handle. You don’t see to many hickory cutting boards. You do see a lot of maple cutting boards, mallets, butcher block tops, workbench tops. Maple is much tougher then hickory.

  12. Stan says:

    I don’t know about maple vs ash, but I do notice one thing when players come to bat. They (most anyway) don’t seem to pay any attention to where the trademark is. Maybe it no longer makes a difference, but when I was a kid playing Little League, Pony League, and high school baseball (the mid sixties) we had no metal bats, so, of course, we used wood bats. We were taught to always have the trademark (99 times out of 100 Louisville Slugger) pointing toward the sky. This naturally meant that when we made contact with the ball the layers of the grain would essentially be parallel to the ground and thus the bat would be more difficult to break. Like I said, it’s hard to imagine that professional ballplayers don’t know how to hold a bat, but it sure appears on TV that they’re paying little or no attention to the grain of the wood.