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MLB addresses the dangers of broken bats

| Wednesday, June 15, 2011

MADISON, Wis. — When it comes to baseball, Dave Kretschmann always keeps his eye on the bat.

A casual fan whose loyalties are split between the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers, Kretschmann watches games much differently than he did three years ago.

When a player steps to the plate, Kretschmann isn't thinking about the pitching matchup or second-guessing the manager. He's focused on the brand, shape and composition of the bat the player has in his hands. If Kretschmann sees something he doesn't like, he worries about whether it's about to shatter into flying fragments that could hurt a player, a coach or a fan.

"I know too much now," he said.

Faced with an epidemic of dangerous broken bats in 2008, Major League Baseball turned to the U.S. Forest Service for help in solving the problem. And who knows wood better than the Forest Service?

Led by Kretschmann, a research engineer at the Forest Service's Forest Products Laboratory near the University of Wisconsin campus, the partnership appears to be working.

Since the broken-bat issue reached its peak in the middle of the '08 season, the overall number of broken bats has remained relatively steady. But Kretschmann has tracked an approximately 50 percent reduction in the most dangerous type of broken bat, where a piece or pieces of the bat literally come flying off the handle after contact with the ball.

Kretschmann calls it a "multiple-piece failure." Others in the game call it just plain dangerous.

"They're flying into stands with the jagged edge sticking out, they're flying into the ground all over the field," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said.

Dan Halem, MLB's senior vice president of labor relations, credited Kretschmann for leading the way in making significant steps for safety.

"It's a pure safety issue," Halem said. "The only interest that we have here is making sure that there are no safety incidents with on-field personnel or fans because of a broken bat."

After sorting through thousands of broken bats — including nearly every bat that broke in the second half of the 2008 season — Kretschmann and colleagues at Harvard and the University of Massachusetts Lowell identified issues that made bats more prone to shattering.

Many in baseball have blamed the rise of maple bats.

"I do a lot of woodworking," Roenicke said. "I work with maple and I work with ash. Ash, you can take a screw and drill right through it. Maple, you do that and it busts. It's a fact."

Indeed, research showed that bats made of particularly low-density varieties of maple instead of ash are more prone to multiple-piece failures. There also are problems with the shape of bats preferred by some of today's sluggers — bats with thin handles and thick barrels; Kretschmann calls them "tennis rackets."

But those aren't the biggest problems. Kretschmann said the main issue with bats that break into multiple pieces is the so-called "slope of grain" in the wood.

Ideally, a bat would be made so the grain runs perfectly straight along the length of the bat. But if it's off by more than three degrees from parallel, the bat can lose about 20 percent of its strength and Kretschmann found himself examining bats that were off by 10 degrees or more.

Today, equipment manufacturers can be fined if they make bats that don't meet new standards that include slope-of-grain restrictions, a minimum handle diameter and maximum barrel diameter. Players using bats that don't conform can have them confiscated.

MLB employs TECO, a certification and testing agency for wood products, to inspect bats. And now that broken-bat incidents are being tracked and categorized, the data can be used to target specific teams, players and manufacturers.

"It becomes very obvious what players are breaking the most multiple-piece failures," Kretschmann said. "What teams are they on• What are the teams that are breaking a lot of bats• You can kind of pinpoint where you go."

Halem did not disclose those details, though he said that manufacturers have been fined and bats have been confiscated — something players don't necessarily appreciate.

"Players are very choosy about the bats that they use," Halem said. "It's the instrument of their trade. So it's a sensitive issue."

» Derek Jeter went on the 15-day disabled list Tuesday because of a strained right calf, an untimely setback for the New York Yankees star as he pursues 3,000 career hits. The Yankees put the All-Star shortstop on the DL for the first time since 2003, making the move prior to their game against Texas. Jeter limped off the field Monday night, four innings after he got his 2,994th hit.

» Slumping outfielder Jason Bay was held out of the starting lineup for the New York Mets' game against the Atlanta Braves. Bay is hitting .207 with two homers and 11 RBI, including a 2-for-30 slide in June.

» The Washington Nationals reinstated All-Star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman from the disabled list after he missed 58 games because of an injured abdominal muscle.

» Minnesota Twins first baseman Justin Morneau could be headed to the disabled list. The Twins said a cortisone shot in Morneau's left wrist Sunday has yet to take, and he said it feels as if he's swinging one-handed. Morneau met with a specialist yesterday, but he said the team is still contemplating a course of action.

» The Toronto Blue Jays demoted right-handed pitcher Kyle Drabek, son of former Pirates pitcher Doug Drabek, to Triple-A Las Vegas after his latest rough outing. The 23-year-old Drabek was tagged for three homers and eight earned runs in four innings Sunday during a 14-1 loss to Boston.

» The Houston Astros fired pitching coach Brad Arnsberg and replaced him on an interim basis with Doug Brocail, a former Astros pitcher.

» The Baltimore Orioles said pitching coach Mark Connor resigned for personal reasons. Bullpen coach Rick Adair took over for Connor.

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