Types of Wood Baseball Bats (and How to Choose One)
As recently as two decades ago, few baseball players hit with wood bats during their amateur careers. Today, it’s common for kids as young as Little League to take a portion of their practice cuts with wood or wood composite bats. In a previous article, we explained why hitting with wood is a smart idea, and in another we listed a few of our favorite wood bats.
In this post, we’re going to dive deep into how wood bats are made, explore the different types of wood bats on the market, and help you understand what you should look for when shopping for a wood bat.
Table of Contents:
- How wood baseball bats are made
- Wood baseball bat characteristics
- Types of wood baseball bats
- Turn models
- Frequently asked questions
How Wood Baseball Bats Are Made
Although technology and new materials have brought more consistency and customization to bat manufacturing, the process of making bats remains largely the same as it was when Bud Hillerich “turned” the first professional bat in 1884.
Hillerich founded the Louisville Slugger bat company shortly thereafter, which today manufactures 1.8 million bats per year.
The journey from tree to bat begins when mature trees — about 40 to 50 years old, in the case of ash — are harvested and cut down into 37-inch-long, 2.75-inch-diameter cores called billets. Those billets are then sent to individual bat manufacturers, where they’re sorted primarily based on weight and, in the case of ash, the straightness of their grains.
Billets are turned on a high-speed lathe (a machine used for shaping wood or metal), which trims off excess wood until the billet begins to match a template that specifies the bat’s length, width, and other physical features.
Traditionally, a craftsman would turn the billet and use a pair of calipers (a tool for measuring the distance between two opposite sides of an object) to frequently compare the billet to a nearby prototype model of the player’s bat.
A skilled craftsman can finish a bat this way in 15 minutes. Since 2002, however, Louisville Slugger has used a computer-driven lathe program that’s accurate to a thousandth of an inch and can also finish an entire bat in just 50 seconds.
After the billets have been turned into bats on the lathe, they’re sanded and checked again for weight. The manufacturer’s label is then placed on the weakest point of the bat — usually about six inches up from the end of the handle and a quarter turn away from the “face” of the wood, where the bat’s grains are straight and in-line.
Hitters seek to make contact along the side of several grains at once because that’s where the bat is strongest and less likely to flake. That’s why you always hear, “hit with the label up or down.”
After the bats are labeled, they may be dipped in lacquer. Then they’re dried, packed and shipped.
Wood Bat Characteristics
- Standard: A round knob with a slight bevel where the hitter’s bottom hand meets the bat.
- Tapered: A tapered knob has a slight flare towards the end, putting more material in the hand.
- Cone: A flared knob with no bevel, resulting in one smooth cone off the end of the bat.
- Axe: A new design that’s similar to the oblong shape of an axe handle, this style has become popular for forcing the hitter’s hands into the correct position. It’s also useful for players recovering from hamate surgery, since the axe grip allows easier movement at the hand-wrist joint.
The grip, or handle, is the area of the bat measuring 18 inches from the knob until the taper of the bat begins. Some hitters prefer very thin handles for their lighter weight and whip-like feel, but these bats will break easier than a model with a thicker handle (which is often the choice of hitters with bigger hands or shorter fingers).
Knob and handle style are probably the most important choice a hitter makes when choosing a bat: if it doesn’t feel right in your hands and can’t be controlled, the rest of the bat won’t be of much use.
Further up from the grip is the bat’s taper, where the diameter of the bat begins to increase until it reaches its full size along the barrel. Most manufacturers place their label on the taper so it’s visible away from the hitter’s hands, yet unlikely to be distorted by ball marks.
Making contact in the taper often results in a technical phenomenon known as “getting sawed off.” This area is the weakest part of the bat and most breaks occur in the taper — even when a ball is hit off the end of the bat.
Above the taper is the barrel, which contains a bat’s “sweet spot” — the hardest, densest part of the bat and the best place to make contact. (A knot in the grain at the sweet spot is ideal.)
The single biggest difference between wood and aluminum is the size of a bat’s sweet spot. A metal bat’s sweet spot can be as long as six inches of the barrel, while a wood bat only offers 2.5 to 3 inches of prime contact area. As a result, hitters using a wood bat have much less margin for error.
Beyond the barrel lies the end of the bat, and there are generally two options: a full end or a cupped end. A bat with a full end has a slight taper where the billet is beveled off but the wood is left intact. A cupped end will have up to 1.25-inches of material removed inside the barrel at the end of the bat.
This lessens the bat weight and also moves the bat’s balance point further back towards the hitter’s hands. A full end will offer greater centrifugal force as a hitter swings, but this will also make it more difficult to control.
What Are Baseball Bats Made Of?
There are several types of wood that are used to make bats, and each has its own characteristics. Hitters should try and find the species that best suits their own hitting style.
Understanding Wood Grade
Louisville Slugger makes 1.8 million bats a year, and only a tiny fraction of those will ever make it to the big leagues. Even fewer will see live game action, since hitters set aside their lesser bats for practice only. After Major Leaguers get their share, the best remaining bats are sent to minor leaguers, then advanced collegiate summer leagues, and so on.
By the time an order of bats — they’re usually shipped by the dozen — arrives in your local sporting goods store, there may be a few clunkers in the bunch. As such, it’s vitally important to understand what to look for in a quality bat. In a word, the grade comes down to the grain.
Here’s what you need to know…
The process of choosing a wood bat was a lot easier when everyone used ash bats, because ash is known as a ring-porous species. This means there are porous wood cells in every year of growth — what we think of as the rings in a tree trunk. The rings (or grains) are clearly visible in ash, which makes grading an ash bat a fairly straightforward process.
First, a hitter should look for grains that are as absolutely straight as possible. Every log has what’s known as a 0-degree line, which is the line in the center of the log (the pith) if you were to split it in two.
Grains that are perfectly parallel to the center line are the strongest formation a wood bat can have, and the bat weakens exponentially the further from center the grains are.
For example, wood with a 10 degree slope of grain (about five inches from center over the length of a 33” bat) will only be 30% as strong as a perfectly straight-grained bat!
The second element a hitter should look for is the spacing of the grains themselves. Here, wider is better. Since each ring represents a year of growth, wide spaces are years where the tree received a lot of water and nutrients to grow densely.
The rings themselves are also where moisture accumulates within the wood — more rings or grains means more places for water to stay, which means heavier weight. Most amateur bats have 20 or more grains in the barrel; a top-of-the-line major league bat will be under 10 grains.
Diffuse Grains: Why Maple Bats Explode
When it comes to other types of wood, grading the grains can be a little bit trickier. Maple and birch are known as diffuse-porous species, which means the pores are spread throughout the wood material instead of in clear lines as they are in ash. The pores of maple, in particular, are smaller and tightly packed together, which makes for a dense and strong wood that continues to compress, instead of flake, with usage.
Diffuse grains are also stiffer than ash, and with no way to bend, these types of bats often ‘explode’ when they break. Staring in 2008, MLB required that all maple bat handles remain unfinished and that the manufacturer stain a small section of the handle so the grain itself became visible.
This is known as the “ink dot,” and you can usually see it on TV when the hitter is standing in the box. The ink dot reveals the slope of grain on a diffuse-porous bat and has been used to ensure only the straightest-grained bats are used in game play. As a result, catastrophic bat failures are down dramatically since MLB instituted this requirement.
Now that you know a bit about what to look for when grading wood (wide, straight grains), let’s look at some of the species that are used to make bats themselves.
The traditional species used in modern baseball, ash supplanted hickory as the wood of choice and has since been overtaken by maple. Ash is strong, lightweight, and easily identified by its grain lines that run the length of the bat. When you think of stereotypical wooden bats, you’re probably thinking of ash.
Pros: Lightweight, cheap, and more flexible and forgiving than maple.
Cons: Low moisture content will cause grains to flake and splinter over time. Not as dense as some other bats.
Used by about 75% of MLB hitters. Maple is the hardest of the three major wood species used in pro baseball (the others are ash and birch).
As noted above, maple is a diffuse-porous wood, meaning that the grains do not run in a straight line. As such, maple is more brittle than ash and can break spectacularly under certain circumstances.
Pros: Very hard wood that compresses over time.
Cons: May acquire moisture and weight over the lifespan of the bat. Maple is such a dense wood, and so heavy, that hitters may not be able to use the maximum 2.61-inch barrel diameter.
A softer wood with more flexibility that may help generate more whip-like speed through the hitting zone. Birch, like maple, is a curly-grained species that will compress over time and resist flaking.
Pros: Flexible, softer wood that’s less likely to break
Cons: Softness requires a ‘break-in’ period until all the grains are compressed to a higher density. Exit velocity may suffer until this is achieved.
The first baseball bats were made out of hickory, which is the heaviest and hardest of all bat-wood species. It’s very stiff, has no flex (i.e., no trampoline effect) and little feel.
Pros: Very hard wood results in high exit velocity. Durable and doesn’t break easily.
Cons: Very heavy wood that’s not compatible with today’s high pitch speeds. Babe Ruth’s bat is rumored to have weighed 50 ounces! (Most modern big league bats weigh between 30 and 34 ounces.)
Bamboo is technically a grass, and many strips of it must be pressed together into long rectangular billets that are then turned into the round shape of a bat. Because it’s not single-piece construction, bamboo has not been approved for MLB play.
Pros: Very strong and durable.
Cons: Not approved for play in all leagues.
Composite bats have soared in popularity in recent years, and are the material of choice for “hybrid” leagues, like the German Baseball Bundesliga, which are comprised of semi-pro teams that may not be able to afford a full-season’s supply of single-piece wood bats.
Composite bats are made from two or more pieces of wood and/or incorporate a synthetic coating of resin or polymer. They’re not approved in most of professional baseball, but are very durable and make a good practice bat, and are a useful option for players starting out with wood.
Wood Bat Design: Turn Models
Over the years, bat production has settled into producing several standard models that can be found in the hands of pro hitters. These models are referred to a “turn models,” a name that ties back to the production process described at the beginning of this article.
The most common shape when we think of a “baseball bat,” the 271 is the most popular turn model and features a relatively thin handle with a long taper to a medium size 2.5-inch barrel. The 271 is a lightweight, but slightly end-loaded, model.
This bat was originally created for Mickey Mantle (hence the ‘M’ designation) and is known as a well-balanced and durable bat. The 110 has a slightly thicker handle and a long taper to a 2.5-inch barrel. The bat is less end-loaded than many models (particularly in its popular cupped version).
The 243 is known for its large and long barrel size, which makes it a favorite of power hitters. This bat has a thin handle with a sharp taper out to the 2.61-inch barrel. The result is an end-loaded bat that can do great damage, but which can also be difficult to control.
This model is similar to the 243 barrel construction, but it also features a thicker handle and a more gradual taper. While the result is a sturdy and durable bat, the larger components result in a heavy bat often called “the barge pole.”
The 141 model is most like combining the barrel of a 271 with the handle of the M110. The result is a well-balanced bat with a long and gradual taper that still retains some flexibility at contact.
Frequently Asked Questions About Wooden Baseball Bats
Here are answers to a few of the most commonly-asked questions about wood baseball bats.
Get a bat that matches your body type and hitting style. Fat hands? Use a thick handle. Long arms? Find a bat with a good taper that will allow you to whip the bat and generate bat speed and leverage. The knob and handle will be in your hands, so start there and find the style that’s most comfortable. You should also read through our guide to picking the right baseball bat.
A composite bat is designed to be nearly unbreakable while imitating the performance of wood. Wood and metal bats differ primarily in their balance point and barrel size; a composite bat will imitate wood’s performance while being more forgiving to a new hitter. Otherwise, Hickory is the hardest bat to break, but also one of the worst-performing.
Stiffer woods like maple are more prone to break since they will not flex if contact is made away from the sweet spot on the barrel.
Time and force. The point-of-contact on a bat lasts just one-thousandth of a second, and the force of that short impact is about 5,000 pounds. If contact doesn’t occur on the sweet spot — the densest, strongest part of the barrel — the bat may fail. The stinging sensation familiar to those who’ve missed the barrel is caused by vibration. A strong enough vibration will break the bonds of the bat at its weakest point, the taper.
In a word, no. Ash bats will begin to flake over time as their grains pull apart due to repeated contact. This is exacerbated when the hitter doesn’t hit with the grains, (aka, “label up.”) However, this takes thousands of repetitions and nearly all hitters will break the bat in some other way before this happens.
Maple bats and birch bats have a different grain style that runs throughout the wood, as opposed to the straight-line grain of ash. Maple and birch actually compress over time, and the barrel gets harder with continued use.
Types of Wood Bats — Final Thoughts
There are a lot of options out there for hitters looking to make the switch to wood, and there’s no teacher like experience. It can take a hitter up to a year to truly understand and become accustomed to wood bats, and the main difference involves understanding their balance points and barrel sizes. So try as many different bats as you can, especially old hand-me-down models, until you find one you like.
A composite bat is a good place to start if you’re just switching from alloy bats. It has the shape and performance of wood without the liabilities. A hitter needs to be able to swing without worrying about the bat breaking, and repetition and knowledge of one’s own hitting style is key. Knowing your swing and style will allow you to choose the right model and features, and it all starts with the part in your hands. Baseball bat wood type should be the last consideration for a young hitter.