Best Youth Baseball Bats: A Skeptic’s Guide

Every year or two there comes along a new bat that quickly takes the youth baseball world by storm. I call the latest of these the “Magic Bat.”

Making contact anywhere on the barrel sends the ball to the outfield, regardless of how hard you swing or which part of the bat hits the ball—or so reported my son the first time he saw this bat in action among 9- to 10-year-olds. Each month I see ever more players in travel ball and even recreation leagues with this $300 bat:

easton-2016-green-mako-bat-image

Is this the best bat for youth baseball? If you’d like to spend $300 to improve your player’s hitting, is this the best way to spend it?

Maybe. Maybe not.

To understand whether this bat is worth the money or more generally what bat makes sense for a given player, it’s a good idea to first understand the basics of hitting, what happens when a bat collides with a ball, and what effect baseball bat design has on that collision.

This comprehensive article aims to help navigate the world of high tech bats. You’ll be better informed if you read it all, starting with the facts that never change: what it takes to be a good hitter and the basic physics of what happens when a bat hits a ball.

At the end are product recommendations by age group, which I update monthly. If you just want to skip to particular sections, here’s a table of contents:

Table of Contents

Deficiencies of the Typical Baseball Bat Review

I spend a considerable amount of time doing research for FilterJoe articles. I read reviews and spec sheets. I test products. I visit stores. I talk to experts. I pore through scientific studies. While not every information source is good, it is usually simple to find detailed specifications for any piece of tech gear, and there almost always seem to be at least 1 or 2 good reviews, whether the topic is a monitor, an e-reader, a battery charger, or something more esoteric.

Finding factual information and decent reviews for youth baseball bats is much harder.

For many bats I can’t even determine basic specifications beyond size and weight, and weight is fuzzy due to how the bat’s weight is distributed. Worse, the weight printed on bats is usually inaccurate, sometimes understated by as much as 3 ounces!

Nearly all bat reviews I’ve read do little more than rephrase marketing bullet points and buzzwords put out by the manufacturer, assuring the reader that this year’s model is better than last year’s model.

No reviews explain in great detail what actually makes one bat better than another, how bats are tested, and whether players who switch bats achieve measurably different results. And while reviews by customers on Amazon and other online retailers are helpful for many types of items, they are usually not helpful for bats, because there are multiple interpretations for “has great pop,” which is the most common form of praise (more on this later).

Before I could consider recommending a type of bat or specific bat for youth baseball, I needed to answer some questions:

  • What is the difference between a $300 bat and a $40 bat?
  • Does a Little League or PONY league player achieve better results with a $300 bat than a $40 bat? If yes, how much better?
  • What do all the buzzwords mean, and how much do they matter? I’m talking about BPF, MOI, the trampoline effect, composite, end loaded, balanced, etc.
  • How do I even know what a given bat is made of?

It took me weeks of research to answer most of these questions to my satisfaction. Baseball vendors and resellers are light on information, but fortunately there is good information available from Alan Nathan, Daniel Russell, and other scientists who study the physics of baseball. The components of good hitting can be learned from any competent baseball coach or coaching book.

The Basics of Hitting

I break down hitting as follows:

  • Mental readiness
  • See the ball
  • Hit the ball

You hear many coaches say “See the ball, hit the ball” to keep it simple. But mental readiness is quite often the hardest part for batters of any age. Many hitters lack confidence and have unhelpful thoughts swirling around before each pitch, perhaps fearing being hit or striking out. Others hope to draw a walk, or perhaps wait on each pitch to see if it will be a good one before getting ready to take a swing. These kinds of thoughts and approaches don’t contribute to an appropriate state of readiness.

I have literally seen a kid who was a great batter transform into a poor batter for months after taking a particularly nasty hit by a pitch. I also know a fearless batter with poor mechanics, slow swing speed, and a tendency to swing at poor pitches who is very comfortable and ready for each pitch . . . he hits the ball into play almost every at bat.

For some players, having a bat you like and believe in may boost your confidence and therefore help with readiness. But the reality is that any hitter can become appropriately ready by following a simple formula. Many major league players swear by the book, The Mental Game of Baseball, which discusses this issue and many others related to the mental side of baseball. I will try to distill the concept of readiness down into one paragraph:

Before getting ready, it is important to stay loose, relaxed, and not overly focused while the pitcher is deliberating. Look at the pitcher’s hat or a point hundreds of feet beyond the pitcher’s head. Then get ready as the pitcher starts his motion, by assuming the pitcher is going to throw a perfect pitch. The physical part of getting ready (loading the hip by shifting weight to the back foot) follows automatically when you expect to hit a perfect pitch. Focus in on the pitcher’s hand and start your swing very shortly after the ball leaves the hand. Do all this, especially the mental parts, and you will be physically ready to “see the ball, hit the ball.”

See the ball sounds simple. Just watch the ball coming out of the pitcher’s hand and determine where it’s going to go. This turns out to be hard.

If the only pitches are fastballs, then it’s a matter of judging speed and location. Judging speed can be helped by watching the pitcher as he warms up and pitches to other batters. An observant hitter will often have the timing down before receiving the first pitch. Some may prefer to take a pitch or two to get that timing. Once you have the timing down, you know precisely when to start the swing. So you start your swing, then decide to abort or continue the swing depending on whether you like the pitch.

Many a poor hitter does not start a swing early enough—they wait to start the swing until they are sure if it’s a strike or ball. This will not work against fast pitching. This is not so much a problem with “seeing” the ball as it is with readiness. You have to be ready to hit and already (barely) starting your swing to have enough time to see and hit a good pitch.

The point of “seeing” the ball is to swing only at good pitches and if the pitch is good, aim the bat so as to hit the ball squarely on the sweet spot. Those who chase bad pitches will have difficulties hitting the ball well no matter how good their bats and no matter how well they do in every other aspect of hitting.

This all may sound obvious but it’s difficult to implement in practice. It takes time for any individual player to get used to seeing the ball well from a wide variety of pitching deliveries and speeds, anywhere from weeks to years. More typically it takes about 10-20 games to see the ball well enough to reliably make contact. And then it gets even harder to see the ball when pitchers get trickier with changeups and breaking balls.

After getting ready and then “seeing” a good pitch, you hit it. Bat speed is so critical to hitting the ball well that it merits a section of its own.

Bat Speed

To reliably hit the ball, the bat has to quickly get to where the ball is. The faster you swing a bat, the later you can start your swing, and the more time you get to see the ball to determine whether and where to swing. Also, the faster the swing, the harder the ball will be hit.

Three principle variables impact bat speed and how hard the ball can be hit:

  • Player strength
  • Hitting mechanics
  • The bat

Player strength is obvious. The bigger and stronger the kid, the faster the bat swing. When people think of “big hitters” they often think of upper body strength. But big hands, strong wrists, strong legs, and strength in the core will also help to produce a faster swing. The biggest kid on the team is usually the player who can hit the ball the hardest.

Hitting mechanics is the series of body motions required to swing a bat. Some players, especially bigger players or those who see the ball very well, get many good hits with poor hitting mechanics at younger ages because balls aren’t pitched very hard. But as players get older, it becomes increasingly difficult to hit with poor mechanics. By high school age pretty much everyone with poor mechanics is unable to hit good pitching, because bats are heavier and pitchers throw harder and trickier. When you see a kid who is not particularly big or strong frequently hitting the ball to the outfield, it is probably because he has good mechanics. When you combine larger than average size with great mechanics—you’ll see occasional home runs and frequent doubles.

Kids with good hitting mechanics for coach pitch can have their mechanics fall to pieces if they’re afraid of kid pitch. It’s pretty difficult to hit if you’re standing far from the plate, jumping away from every pitch, or watching almost every pitch go by. But this is more mental than it is physical and is a reflection of not being truly ready to hit before each pitch. Kids who have good mechanics before kid pitch will continue to have good mechanics, though that won’t be apparent until they stop being afraid of the ball.

Those who know a lot about baseball realize that in the long run, hitting mechanics matter more than how big you are or what bat you’re using.

I don’t mean to imply there is only one set of correct mechanics. There is variation depending on age, size, and body type. There is controversy among experts on many of the finer points. There are many reasonable styles of hitting, and as Ted Williams says in The Science of Hitting, “the style must fit the player, not the other way around.”

I know a travel ball coach who taught exactly the same hitting mechanics to every player. It was a good set of mechanics, and some players got much better at hitting. Others, for whom the style was not well suited, got worse.

Another interesting thing about mechanics is the basic dichotomy between a home run swing and a contact hitter’s swing. Most players these days are taught the short, level swing of a contact hitter, which makes it easier to hit faster or trickier pitching. Bigger players sometimes develop more of a home run swing which requires loading the hip more, starting the swing earlier, and an upwards slope to the swing. The risk of a home run swing is more outs from strikeouts and pop files, but the rewards are spectacular extra base hits, including the occasional home run.

I won’t get into any more detail about mechanics as it’s a very big topic that is best learned through video or, better yet, live instruction. If you’re still questioning how much mechanics matter, whether hitting lessons are worth it, and related questions such as when it makes sense to work on mechanics, then I suggest your read my hitting mechanics post.

The bat also matters. The weight and length of the bat matters as well as how that weight is distributed. The materials and craftsmanship also matter. But exactly how much does the bat matter? What about a bat matters most?

Before going into more detail on this, it’s useful to understand what happens when a bat contacts a ball.

What Happens When a Bat Hits a Baseball

When a wood bat hits a baseball, the baseball compresses about 50%, as you can see here:

bat ball collision
Bat/Ball collision compresses baseball

The wood barely bends at the point of contact with the ball, which makes for a very inefficient collision. If the ball hits the sweet spot of a wooden bat for a line drive hit, approximately 75% of the energy of the bat/ball collision is wasted compressing the ball and generating heat. Even more is wasted if the ball doesn’t hit the sweet spot, as additional energy is expended to vibrate the bat. The fat part of the bat is called the barrel. The sweet spot is on a portion of the barrel. It is a region where collisions with a baseball cause little or no vibration, thus minimizing wasted energy.

Conservation of momentum is a physical law that describes what happens when two objects collide. In the case of a bat and a ball, the batted ball speed (BBS) of the ball after it contacts the bat will be determined by an equation relating the speed of the bat, the speed of the ball, and a coefficient q that describes how much energy is retained when this collision occurs:

BBS = q * (pitch speed) + (1 + q) * (bat speed)

When I talk about bat speed, I am always referring to the speed of the bat at the instant it collides with the ball. Bat speed may be faster than is apparent from visual observation as strong wrists combined with flexing of the front forearm can speed up the bat just before contact.

A bat is much heavier than a ball so BBS is influenced much more by swing speed than pitch speed. For a 10-year-old batter, bat q ranges from 1.12 to 1.15, so an extra 1 MPH of swing speed translates to an additional 1.12 to 1.15 MPH of batted ball speed, and therefore 5 feet of additional distance the ball will travel. For the adult batter these numbers are slightly higher due to the higher q of the bat (1.2 MPH and 6 feet).

For more detail, read what scientist Alan Nathan has to say about the bat/ball collision. Two examples illustrate the difference between adults and kids:

Adult Batted Ball Example:

  • Bat: wood 34in, 31oz, q = .20
  • Bat speed: 70 MPH
  • Pitch speed: 85 MPH
  • Computed Batted Ball Speed: 101 MPH
  • Computed distance of hit launched at 33 degree angle: 394 feet at first contact with ground

This first example is from Alan Nathan’s article and can be computed precisely using his baseball trajectory spreadsheet. I believe these numbers represent a typical minor league hitter with typical bat and pitch speeds. This example and the next assume no wind, typical atmospheric conditions, and that the ball is hit squarely on the sweet spot of the bat. This value of q, 0.20, is based on many studies of wooden bats sized for adults. In ideal, fully understood conditions, the distance a ball travels can be computed (and therefore predicted) exactly.

Of course, conditions in the real world are often a little messy. A ding on the bat, a gust of wind, a moist baseball . . . these and many other factors can cause the distance to come out differently from the value calculated by a simplified model.

By far the biggest reason for variance from the batted ball model is where the ball meets the bat. The pitcher does everything possible to make it difficult for the batter to hit the ball squarely on the sweet spot. So . . . the ball is rarely hit squarely on the sweet spot of the bat. For example, a curveball may unexpectedly drop after a hitter has nearly completed the swing, hitting the bottom side of the barrel for a weak grounder instead of a blast to the fence.

11-year-old Batted Ball Example:

  • Bat: aluminum 30in, 18oz, q = .12 (a low quality non-wood bat)
  • Bat speed: 40 MPH
  • Pitch speed: 47 MPH
  • Computed Batted Ball Speed (BBS): 53 MPH
  • Computed distance of hit launched at 33 degree angle: 141 feet at first contact with ground

The bat and pitch speed numbers for this second example are typical for an 11- to 12-year-old recreation league player, and are considerably above average for a 9- to 10-year-old rec league player. There has been little scientific study of youth swing speeds and there is little data on youth bats. I derived plausible values for q on my own by downloading Alan Nathan’s baseball trajectory spreadsheet and modifying it to include the above formula. I started with average swing speeds from a 1991 study, and then increased swing speed to confirm a home run I observed by a (particularly strong) 10-year-old on a field with a fence 170 feet from home plate. I also checked with baseball scientist Alan Nathan, who was kind enough to confirm my guesswork as being right in line with what he has observed.

The value of q for a 30in, 18oz youth baseball bat ranges from .12 to .15, depending on the bat. The player who hit a home run at our local field was using an expensive, end loaded Easton XL1 bat with a q I estimate at .15 and had an unusually high swing speed for a 10-year-old of approximately 45 MPH. Had he used a bat with q = .12 with the same launch angle, bat speed, and pitch speed, the ball would have been hit 166 feet instead of 180 feet and would therefore not have cleared the fence for a home run. So using a bat with higher q did matter, by 14 feet.

At the youth level, variation in swing speeds from hitter to hitter is far greater than variation in bats. I can visually see that there are a couple players on each team at the beginning of each season (usually beginners) with very slow swing speeds—perhaps 20MPH or even less. Using a q=.12 bat, the player swinging at 20 MPH who hits the ball perfectly square on the sweet spot will hit the ball only 53 feet as opposed to 141 feet for the 40 MPH hitter (the ball will always first contact the ground in the infield). Swinging a bat that slowly decreases the chances of hitting the ball perfectly or even at all, so hitting the ball 53 feet would be rare for a player with a 20 MPH swing.

For 20MPH-swinging-players swinging a much better q = .15 bat, the distance of a perfectly hit ball would be 59 feet. That’s only 6 feet further. At the youth baseball level, variation in swing speed has a far greater impact on the distance a ball is hit than variation in q. In other words:

At the youth level, most “pop” comes from the batter, not the bat.

One could reasonably argue that it’s a bit of an extreme example to choose the batter with the slowest swing on the team. What about a 10-year-old with a more average swing speed, of perhaps 30MPH? Then, with q = .12, 93 feet (shallow outfield) is the distance of a perfectly hit ball. With the much better q = .15 bat, the distance is 102 feet. We can see that the higher the bat speed, the more the bat starts to matter—but 9 feet is still a pretty small number. Only for the fastest swinging 10-year-old batters in the league will a much better bat cause batted ball distances to increase by more than 10 feet.

The astute reader will have already realized that buying a $300 bat is not going to help hit the ball much further for the majority of youth baseball players below the age of 11. Only players who are already consistently able to contact the ball with fast swings benefit significantly from a high q bat.

I keep talking about q. What is this mysterious q? The best way to think of it is collision efficiency for a given bat when it collides with a ball on the sweet spot. The higher the q, the faster the baseball will come off the sweet spot of a bat. So the natural question to ask next is what factors impact a bat’s q.

Bat Weight vs. Bat Speed

By far the most important influence on q is bat weight. Given identical bat speed, the bigger and heavier the bat, the harder the ball will be hit. For anyone who has studied basic physics, this should be obvious from the equation describing two colliding objects. Many kids intuitively understand this and therefore want to swing a heavier bat.

As every youth baseball coach knows, bat speed is not identical for a heavier bat. The most common way to ruin a good swing is to switch to a heavier bat. The heavier the bat, the slower the swing, and the earlier a player must start the swing to have a chance of hitting the ball. If the swing is really slow, the hitter’s mechanics suffer as well and it is hard to contact the ball at all.

This concept is so important, that I devoted an entire article to discussing how to tell if your kid’s bat is too heavy.

Conversely, the lighter the bat, the faster the swing, and the more a player can wait on a pitch. Waiting longer allows you to see the pitch longer and therefore aim the bat better (or decide whether to swing). There is a point of diminishing returns from going lighter because there is a finite speed limit to how fast arms can swing. If moving to a lighter bat results in very little increase in swing speed, the ball will not be hit as far and there won’t be any benefit. However, too heavy is far more often an issue than too light.

The impact of changing to a fast-swinging, light bat cannot be overstated. In my calculations above I always assume the batter hits the ball perfectly on the sweet spot. It’s very obvious that youth players rarely hit the ball squarely on the sweet spot. Most batted balls are foul balls, weak grounders, or weak popups. Switching to a lighter bat will greatly increase the chances of hitting hard line drives, hard grounders or deep fly balls.

Though studies such as Crisco et al find that lowering the weight of same-length bats does not usually result in perfectly hit balls traveling further (despite increased swing speed), such studies are trying to determine maximum possible Batted Ball Speed (BBS). For most players, switching from a too-heavy bat to a lighter bat causes the percentage of balls that are hit very well on the sweet spot to increase, which will mean a hit ball will travel further on average, even though the maximum possible distance is lower.

To illustrate with a true story: A 9-year-old player I knew was struggling at the plate, with many swings and misses. He had below-average mechanics and below-average ability to see the ball. I suggested this player borrow a lighter and smaller 27-in, 14-oz bat. In his first couple of at-bats against live pitching with this ultra-light bat, he hit a line drive and a hard grounder. He was so excited and said, “this bat really has pop!!!”

His swing was so much faster that he could more than make up for his below-average mechanics and batting eye. He could start the swing later, aim the bat better, hit the ball closer to (or on) the sweet spot, and hit it with a faster bat speed. All of this combined to instantly generate better batting results. I’m guessing his “readiness” was also helped thanks to increased confidence.

This inexpensive one-piece aluminum bat was so light that he may have lowered the q of his bat from .12 down to .10 (just guessing). But thanks to bat quickness and increased swing speed he immediately got better results by hitting the ball close to the sweet spot far more often.

In the above example, the dominating variable was the weight of the bat. Lowering weight was a quick fix for a below-average batting eye and swing mechanics. A perfectly hit ball will not travel as far with such a light bat, but he now has a much better chance to hit the ball square on the middle of the sweet spot, which is far better than missing completely or getting poor contact that glances off the top or bottom of the barrel.

This story is not unique—I have seen it play out a few times. Many coaches see this every year. Kids love to move up to bigger and heavier bats, and we coaches know how detrimental this can be without having to do any math. Some coaches check bats every few weeks to make sure nobody has started using too heavy a bat.

On occasion, you see exactly the opposite. I knew a 10-year-old player with a very slow swing speed despite having the build a of slugger, a light bat (29 in, 17oz), and coaches who tried hard to improve his mechanics. He managed to hit the ball weakly into play on most of his at bats despite his slow swing speed and unusual mechanics. I suggested he try using a much heavier bat, the heavily end loaded Anderson Techzilla (30 in, 21oz). His swing speed stayed the same. He immediately hit the ball harder in soft toss and in his second game using the bat was hitting very hard grounders and line drives to opposite field, much harder than I had ever seen him hit the ball before.

Bat size (length) also matters. A longer bat of similar construction but same weight will be more difficult to swing, and therefore the swing speed will not be as fast. This is somewhat offset by the fact that the sweet spot is further away from the batter’s hands, and therefore traveling faster to cover the longer arc than the shorter bat. If the rotational speed of two different length of bats is identical, and the ball is hit by the bat exactly 3 inches from the end of each bat, then the longer bat will have faster speed upon point of contact with the ball. Or course, most players will not be able to swing the longer bat as fast.

There are other factors besides bat size and weight. As I mentioned above, a 30 inch bat weighing 18oz can have a q that varies between .12 and .15. So what are the other factors that impact q?

Other Factors that Make a Bat Hot Besides Weight

A bat with a high q is often referred to as a “hot” bat. A bat is considered “hot” if, compared to other bats of the same size and weight, the ball seems to travel further when hit. One’s first thought is that some special high tech material causes the ball to bounce harder off the bat. This may be the case for some bats. However, it turns out there are several factors that cause people to perceive the bat as hot, and some of them have nothing to do with the material, or in some cases not even to do with increasing q, the efficiency with which the bat collides with the ball.

I already discussed the one factor that dominates all others: the weight of the bat. The heavier the bat, the more momentum there will be when it hits the ball, for a given speed. Actually, what matters even more than the weight is Moment of Inertia (MOI). You can think of MOI as perceived swing weight. For a given bat size and weight, if a bat is heavily weighted towards the barrel, it will have a high MOI and therefore be harder to swing. For the same size and weight of bat, a bat with the weight distributed more towards the handle will have a lower MOI and be perceived as lighter and easier to swing. Measuring MOI precisely requires lab equipment, though you can tell the difference between a high MOI and low MOI bat of the same size and weight with a few practice swings.

Bat makers call a low MOI bat “balanced” (weight shifted toward the handle). A higher MOI bat with the weight shifted toward the barrel is called “end loaded.” Wood bats are always end loaded because the wood barrel is solid.

Bat makers do not list the actual MOI and this information is generally not available to consumers. It is therefore possible to get a bat you think is the right weight but it turns out to be too heavy to swing well because it is end loaded, with an unexpectedly high MOI.

As already discussed in the last section, increasing q by increasing MOI reduces swing speed. This will often result in a hit ball traveling a shorter distance despite the higher MOI because it becomes much harder to contact the ball with the sweet spot. For many youth hitters, lowering MOI will allow a player to hit the ball squarely on the sweet spot much more often, resulting in hits which travel further despite the lower q of the bat. On the other hand, a strong player with good mechanics may be able to go the other way, swinging a high MOI bat fast enough to make contact and benefiting with hits that go further.

I previously estimated that q varied between .12 to .15 for a 30-in, 18-oz bat. Different MOI accounts for some of this variation. A bat with q = .15 will have a higher MOI than the q = .12 bat. So my previous calculations for the potential for improved batted ball speed were too optimistic, as it assumed identical swing speeds between the q = .12 and q = .15 bats. In reality swing speed will be lower so some of the benefit of the higher q bat will be offset by lower swing speed.

Armed with an understanding of MOI, we’re now ready to list the various factors that purportedly impact bat q or swing speed. I discuss each of these factors in detail below:

  • Trampoline effect improved by better materials
  • Trampoline effect improved by double walls
  • Balanced bat leads to higher swing speed
  • Two piece construction and vibration dampening
  • Bigger sweet spot
  • Superior craftsmanship
  • Forcing better swing mechanics

The trampoline effect is the key reason nonwood bats hit the ball further than wood bats. Aluminum bats were first introduced decades ago because aluminum doesn’t break as easily as wood. All aluminum bats are hollow. The first bats had similar performance to wood and were made with barrels that had thick walls to achieve high durability.

However, bat manufacturers discovered that making the walls thinner caused the bat to hit the ball further than wood bats. A ball colliding with a thin-walled aluminum bat does not compress as much, as some of the energy is transferred into bending the aluminum, which then springs back like a trampoline (the trampoline effect). Therefore, less energy is wasted compressing the ball.

The problem with the trampoline effect is that the thinner you make the aluminum walls of the bat, the more easily it will dent or crack and become unusable. The usual way to create thinner walls without risk of denting or cracking is to use better materials that are just as flexible yet stronger, such as a stronger aluminum alloy, a superior metal such as titanium, or a composite material. So that is exactly what bat manufacturers have focused on over the past few decades: develop ever thinner walls with greater trampoline effect.

Composite materials, usually graphite and carbon bonded together with resin, began to make their way into baseball bats 15 years ago. Within a few years, performance of the best composite bats exceeded those of the best aluminum alloy bats, thanks to a higher strength to weight ratio. In addition to potential for a much higher trampoline effect, composite materials allow for more flexible bat design in terms of exactly where the trampoline effect occurs, how weight is distributed and what happens at the interface between handle and barrel. See Daniel Russell’s article for a detailed, technical explanation about the advantages of composite materials.

Some materials have been so effective that bats based on them were too dangerous and had to be banned from play, as was the case for titanium bats produced in 1993 and certain composite bats produced in 2002-2003.

Today, the trampoline effect can be accurately measured in a lab, and therefore regulated. The college baseball regulatory body, NCAA, has gone through several rounds of standards. BBCOR is the latest and most stringent of the NCAA standards. The BBCOR standard is applied to both college and high school baseball.

The BBCOR standard which went into effect in 2011 is so strict that the trampoline effect on barrels is no longer significantly different than wood at the high school and college level. Home run rates were roughly cut in half for NCAA baseball after the 2011 BBCOR regulations went into effect and are now not much different from home run rates prior to the advent of aluminum bats in the 1970s.

At the youth level, there is a different and much looser standard called BPF 1.15 (Bat Performance Factor at or below 1.15). This standard gives so much leeway to manufacturers that there is wide variation in bat performance. As bat technology evolves, various youth baseball organizations occasionally push back by disallowing certain types of bats. For example, Little League banned composite bats altogether in 2011, though they now grant exceptions for composite bats that pass accelerated break-in testing.

UPDATE: Beginning January 2018, the BPF 1.15 standard will be replaced with a new wood-like bat standard called USAbat.

So what are the materials that go into bats? They are either aluminum alloy or composite material. The handle and barrel of the bat are often made of two different materials, for two-piece construction. If they are made of one material (usually aluminum alloy) then it’s called one-piece construction.

Bat makers obtain aluminum from either Alcoa or Kaiser. Several alloys have been commonly used in bats over the past couple decades, which you can read about in great detail here and here.

According to these and other articles, 7046 is at the low end for aluminum alloys, with 7050 (also called CU31) a bit stronger, 7055 (also called c405) a good mid-range alloy, and alloys with scandium in them at the current high end (in order of increasing quality: C500, C555, Sc777, Sc888, and Sc900).

Unfortunately, bat makers rarely inform you which of the basic aluminum alloys the bat is made of (or is a slight variation of). For example, Alcoa’s 7055 alloy is called c405 when supplied to bat makers, and then each bat maker brands c405 differently. In most cases consumers have no way of knowing what alloy goes into a specific bat. Generally speaking, though, the higher the manufacturer’s suggested retail price of an aluminum alloy bat, the stronger the alloy. Stronger alloys allow bat makers to make thinner walls, which increases the trampoline effect. A weaker alloy used in the same bat design would dent too easily.

Note however that any alloy can be manufactured with walls that are too thin. Some specific models of expensive, high-end aluminum alloy bats in recent times have been denting too easily, according to some reviews.

Two inexpensive bats I purchased for my son last year had no information about the alloy used in the bat. I called DeMarini for information about one of them, a 2011 30-in, 18-oz DeMarini Vengeance. The customer service representative was friendly and told me what he could, but he had no way of knowing what alloy this was. Based on the full retail price, my guess is that both bats were made from entry level aluminum alloys, perhaps variations of 7046 or 7050.

Some bats do have the type of aluminum printed on the bat. For example, the Easton Speed Brigade S500 YB14S500 has 7050 printed on the barrel. Note that the name “Easton Speed Brigade” implies nothing about the material that goes into the bat. Even the more specific “Easton Speed Brigade S500” changes from year to year. You can only be confident in getting this exact same bat if it has the model number YB14S500.

Bat makers use stronger and more expensive alloys for their more expensive bats. I have seen the results on the field. However, I have no way of knowing whether the current model is any better (or worse) than the prior year’s model at a given price point. The brand name of the alloy will often change, but it isn’t clear if the alloy itself has actually changed. It is also unclear whether it has improved.

One thing I have learned from experience is that inexpensive bats often have cheap alloys that dent easily. T-ball bats that cost $30-$60 and have a drop 12 or drop 13 are usually lower grade alloys with thin walls to keep the weight down. This is fine for kids aged 9 and under but these are not durable bats. If an adult uses the bat for hitting big pop flies for practice, these bats may get dented. The bat my son used when he was 7 became dented and unusable after a coach hit fungos to the outfield with it for half an hour. I suspect that a strong 10-year-old hitter could dent a drop 13 T-ball bat with prolonged use.

Drop” is the difference between the length and the weight of a bat. A 20oz, 30-in bat is drop 10. A 17oz, 30-in bat is drop 13. The higher the drop, the lighter the bat for a given length and the easier it will be to swing. Drop is a commonly used term to describe bats, and you will hear some coaches say that most kids below the age of 8 should use a drop 12 or drop 13 bat.

The other option for the barrel is a composite material. Composites can be made from many different formulas, but they have a few things in common. Historically, they have been less durable than aluminum (though some bat makers and resellers claim that the most expensive composite bats have become more durable than aluminum in recent years). The trampoline effect for composite bats gradually increases over time with use, increasing the q of the bat. Eventually the barrel will fail completely and have very little pop left. But just before that happens, the bat will deliver peak performance.

It is because of this increase in performance that some leagues (i.e. Little League) have banned composite bats altogether. However, composite bats now go through accelerated break-in testing and are permitted for use when they are at or below the permitted performance limits during the entire lifetime of the bat.

Some manufacturers, such as Easton, are now claiming that a break-in period is no longer required for their bats. From talking with people in the industry, I believe this claim is an exaggeration. A composite bat will still break down and get hotter over time, but to a lesser degree than composite bats from a few years ago. This is because composite bats are now made with greater durability than in prior years. There will still be a performance improvement over time, but it will be slight.

Most bat makers recommend avoiding extreme heat (car trunk on sunny day), and not using a composite bat below 60 degrees Fahrenheit or with the hard, dimpled balls used in batting cages. Despite these caveats, composite bats continue to grow in popularity, perhaps due to extra design flexibility which can allow for decreased sting, larger barrels, and lower MOIs (Moment of Intertia or Swing Weight). It is also possible that Easton, DeMarini, and other top bat makers are putting more resources into further developing composite technology, and therefore composite bats are improving faster in recent years than aluminum bats at these larger companies.

Even though composite bats can theoretically be designed with a much higher trampoline effect than aluminum, they are not designed that way due to regulatory limits. This means that performance for the better aluminum alloys is not too far behind composite, at least in terms of the trampoline effect.

I am somewhat puzzled by the lack of effort to develop better one piece aluminum alloy bats by the more established companies. This may be because composite technology allows greater flexibility of design. The current trend is to push bats with bigger sweet spots and lower MOI, an area where aluminum cannot effectively compete. However, not all players or coaches prefer this style of bat. From what I’ve been able to gather, more innovation is happening with aluminum bats from smaller companies such as Anderson, Baden Sports, and Marucci Sports.

Double walled bat construction has been popular for softball but not baseball. The only double walled baseball bat model currently produced is the Anderson Techzilla. This is quite curious, because double walled aluminum outperforms single wall aluminum according to scientific studies and is very competitive with legal, high end composite materials in terms of trampoline effect. The basic idea is to have an outer wall which is much thinner than a single wall aluminum bat to provide greater elasticity, while the inner wall prevents denting.

Bat manufacturers often push balanced (Low MOI) bats as best for contact hitters. Lowering MOI, or “swing weight” will decrease q while increasing bat speed. Increased bat speed will usually lead to better hitting results, as discussed earlier. But there are two ways to lower MOI. You can pay hundreds of dollars to get the same length and weight of bat with the lowest possible MOI. Or you can simply get a less expensive bat that is smaller and/or lighter.

In other words, the main things the “balanced” bat gets you over a smaller bat is an inch or two of greater bat length for greater plate coverage, a slightly faster bat speed due to the longer distance traveled by the bat’s arc in the same amount of time, and perhaps a slightly larger sweet spot. Extra plate coverage may help with outside corner pitches, and a larger barrel and/or sweet spot can increase chances of contacting the ball with the sweet spot. Probably the biggest benefit is the slight bump in bat speed.

Other than these benefits, I don’t see how an expensive balanced bat can generate better hitting results for a 10-year-old batter than a less expensive, more end-weighted bat that is 1-2 inches shorter with the same MOI, if the same materials are used. It is also possible to get the same length of bat at a lower weight in many cases. Instead of getting a 30-inch bat weighing 20oz that has weight shifted towards the handle to lower the MOI, you can get a 30-inch 18oz bat that will have about the same MOI, usually at a lower cost.

Paying top dollar for a balanced bat makes a lot more sense for high school or college players. This is because bats are strictly regulated to be drop 3 bats. A 31-inch-long bat cannot weigh less than 28 oz. Players must use BBCOR certified bats (updated in 2016) and none are available less than 30” long. Most high school players use a 31” or 32” bat. A shorter player using a 31” bat length is going to want to minimize the MOI of the 28-oz bat as much as is permitted by NCAA regulations. At this level, an expensive, high quality, balanced bat can be well worth the additional cost.

Two-piece bat construction is when the barrel is made of one material and the handle is made of a different material. It could be a composite handle and an aluminum alloy barrel, or it could be two different composite materials. There has been little scientific study on the impact of two-piece construction on batted ball speed (BBS), so far as I have been able to find. Some marketing materials from bat makers and bat resellers claim there is a whip effect, where the barrel trails behind the handle slightly and then whips forward just as the bat contacts the ball. This hasn’t been much studied. Baseball scientist Daniel A. Russell believed, as of early 2007, that if there is a positive whip effect from handle flex, it would be very small, and perhaps as likely to be negative as positive.

It is also worth noting that composite handles can be designed to flex. The whip effect from composite handle flex is more significant than the whip effect caused from having a two-piece design.

A two-piece bat design does allow for a vibration dampener to be placed in the connection piece. This really does work as anyone swinging these bats will confirm. However, it is unclear whether this is an advantage or disadvantage. Batters don’t like the stinging sensation that occurs when hitting a ball off the sweet spot. For some batters, knowing the bat will never sting may increase confidence and encourage swinging the bat harder. Some people believe this automatically happens at an unconscious level. Furthermore, the ball feels as though it has pop off the bat every time you hit it, because you never feel a sting. But not feeling the sting may be a disadvantage because it removes the feedback of mis-hit balls.

This is why I don’t like Amazon reviews for two-piece bats or any bats for that matter. You will read many reviews that say little more than “this bat has great pop.” This may mean that it never stings, so it feels as if it’s popping off the bat. It may mean that it makes a better sound. It may have a bigger sweet spot so that the player is much more often hitting the sweet spot. Or it could be that the bat has a lower MOI than the previously used bat, so the player can swing it faster, hit it harder, and more often hit the sweet spot. It could also be the hoped-for greater trampoline effect—but this is by no means assured.

Batted balls hit off a two-piece bat with vibration dampener may come off the bat slower because:

  • A small portion of vibrational energy that might go back into the baseball is instead dissipated in the vibration dampener.
  • Player development may be inhibited. The player gets little or no tactile feedback about where the best part of the sweet spot is. With a one piece bat, the sting hurts and over time, batters learn to “square up the bat” (aim the sweet spot at the ball) better. Without the tactile feedback of the sting, hitters with two-piece bats may develop more slowly than they otherwise would have.

DeMarini claims to have come up with a design that bounces the vibration back into the barrel and into the ball on some of their more expensive bats. This has not been vetted by scientific study, so whether DeMarini has achieved this goal is open to speculation. However, even if DeMarini has not yet succeeded, it may point to an area where bat makers will make progress over the next few years.

Perhaps the biggest advantage of two-piece construction is the added design flexibility in distributing weight across the bat. Whether lowering MOI for a balanced feel, raising MOI for an end-loaded feel, or simply creating something different that a player may prefer, the added flexibility makes for bats that really do have a different swing feel, and for some batters this may make a positive difference.

A bigger sweet spot is another way bat makers attempt to help the hitter. I already mentioned previously that the ball is rarely hit by the best part of the sweet spot of the bat at the youth level, or any level of baseball. The hard way to get more sweet spot contact is to improve hitting mechanics. The easy way is to use a bat with a bigger sweet spot.

What do I mean by bigger? This could mean that the fat part of the bat is longer, that the portion of it that is “sweet” is a greater percentage, or that the barrel is fatter. The baseball has a greater chance of contacting the sweet spot if it’s bigger. Some bats with very large sweet spots are more difficult to swing because of the way the weight is distributed. For a bigger sweet spot to result in more success, the bat must be designed in a way which is just as easy to swing as a bat with a smaller sweet spot. A great balance between massive sweet spot and easy-to-swing is what makes some bats, such as the Easton Mako I mentioned in the introduction, so popular.

How “fat” a bat can be is regulated by age and is different depending on the organization. 2 1/4 inch bats are legal at all youth levels but the legality of 2 5/8 inch bats and 2 3/4 inch bats varies by age and organization.

I have little doubt that a bigger sweet spot can lead to better batting results. I observed a batter on my son’s team who batted much better over a several month period compared to the previous season. What I hadn’t noticed was that he had changed to a 2 5/8” barrel bat. Our competitive summer team went to a tournament where 2 5/8 bats were not permitted. He went back to his old 2 1/4 inch bat and went 1 for 10 in 4 games, with 7 strikeouts. That’s a .100 batting average, compared to the .294 batting average he had in games in which he was permitted to use his big barrel bat.

This anecdote is not statistically significant, but it illustrates both the pros and cons of a bigger sweet spot. The pro is that you’ll get better contact more often and therefore get more hits. The con is that you may become dependent on the bigger sweet spot size, and no longer able to hit with a 2 1/4” bat when you need to. You can get away with being less precise with hitting mechanics and no longer get obvious feedback from mis-hit balls. As with vibration dampening, I think it’s a judgment call as to whether it’s more important to boost the player’s short-term results (and confidence) or increase skill level over a wider range of bats.

For a player who is already confident and who hopes to play baseball in high school or possibly beyond, it may be better to do whatever it takes to foster skill development and prepare for the more heavily regulated BBCOR bats in high school (and for the optimistic, the wood bats required in the minor leagues). For that, it may make sense to stick with 2 1/4” barrels that do not have massive, extended sweet spots. On the other hand, the player who is in it for fun and likely to lose interest in baseball before high school is better off with a big-barrel bat. Getting hits is more fun than getting outs, and that is more likely to happen with a bigger barrel, at least in the short run.

Superior craftsmanship is a catch-all phrase I use to cover bat attributes that are not much discussed or advertised but will nevertheless have an impact on bat performance over the lifetime of the bat. Examples include:

  • The trampoline effect is uniform throughout the fat part of the bat (except edges)
  • If the barrel is made from aluminum, it is durable (does not dent or crack for years)
  • If the barrel is made from a composite material, it lasts a long time before it goes dead
  • The tape on the handle is durable and never peels or unravels
  • The end cap and knob are shaped correctly and made of high quality materials. The end cap especially can have significant impacts on the sweet spot size and performance. Sometimes end caps pop off the end of a bat. Not good.

Unfortunately there is no way for a consumer to know in advance how good craftsmanship is for a particular bat. I’ve encouraged my son to experiment with bats lately. We have a hand-me-down 10-year-old Easton Octane c405 aluminum bat so heavily used that I needed to wrap the handle with more tape. The other day my son hit 8 balls off a tee with his 2011 DeMarini Vengeance with less than a year of use and the Easton Octane, both one-piece aluminum bats. On good hits, the ball travelled 10-15 feet further with the Octane. The Octane’s aluminum barrel was clearly durable to be doing so well after so much use, though it was also probably a higher grade of aluminum to begin with.

From reading through hundreds of consumer reviews, I am convinced that sticking with a well-known brand name such as Easton or DeMarini does not guarantee craftsmanship. For example, the 2014 drop 13 Easton S3 was supposed to be a high-end one piece aluminum bat with a THT100 scandium alloy, at $160. Perhaps the walls were too thin or perhaps quality control was inconsistent as there were some complaints about denting after little use. In fact, I know two players in our league who both liked this bat but dented 3 of these between them.

The last category of bat improvements is forcing better swing mechanics. So far as I know, the Axe Bat is the only bat currently in this category. Ted Williams says “swinging a bat is like swinging an axe” in his book the Science of Hitting. He even trained in the off season by chopping wood with an axe.

The Axe bat’s handle is oval and asymmetrical with an angled knob like that of an axe. This design is intended to position the wrists for optimal power, which apparently doesn’t come naturally to most hitters. The knob also has ergonomic benefits.

The Axe bat approach strikes me as more interesting and innovative than simply making walls thinner with a better material. My son loves Axe bats and I’ve written three reviews about his experiences: big barrel MB50, Origin 2016 drop 12, and a pair of Axe Bats from 2017. There is some science behind this bat, and a recent empirical test supports claims by the producer of this bat, Baden Sports.

Bats for Power Hitters vs. Bats for Contact Hitters: A False Dichotomy

Of all the confusing marketing materials for bats, the one which confounds me the most is the discussion regarding “balanced” bats and “end loaded” bats. Adult wood bats are all end loaded because the barrels are solid. Nonwood bats can be made in the end loaded style, or have weight shifted towards the handle for lower MOI, the so-called “balanced” feel.

There are two ideas that I see over and over that are more misleading then they are helpful:

  • Misleading idea #1: High MOI end loaded bats are for power hitters, while low MOI balanced bats are for contact hitters.
  • Misleading idea #2: To lower the MOI of a bat, get a balanced bat.

It is true that the bigger and stronger players with better mechanics will be able to swing bats with higher MOI. Fine. But you can get higher MOI either by getting the same size and weight of bat with more of an end loaded feel, or you can get higher MOI by getting a bigger and/or heavier bat. Either way increases MOI.

The same thing is true in the other direction. The contact hitters who are trying to get singles by hitting the ball into gaps will want a low MOI bat. This can be accomplished by using a more balanced bat of the same weight and length, or it can be done by changing to a smaller bat length and/or weight. Either way decreases MOI.

It is simply a matter of the style of bat you prefer. A contact hitter can use an end loaded smaller bat or a more balanced same-size bat. A power hitter can use an end-loaded same-sized bat or a balanced, bigger bat. The best way to find out is to test swing a bunch of different bats from teammates.

What is the Best Bat to Buy?

The best bat to buy is going to vary based on age, size, and skill level. Personal preference will also play a part. You may be able to narrow down to just a few bats with size, price, and materials criteria. Choosing among the remaining few may require a few practice swings against live pitching. My guess is that preference is largely determined by the varied distribution of weight in each bat.

I recommend below the best bats I happen to be familiar with. By no means have I seen every bat being used in the field, so no doubt I’ve missed some great bats. However, I will periodically update my recommendations when I come across better values or better performers.

Here is some generic advice that applies to all ages:

  • February 2016 UPDATE: Weigh your new bat at the store or when you get home. It may weigh anywhere from 1 to 3 ounces more than is stated on the bat. Manufacturers have become wildly inaccurate in reporting bat weight in recent years, which may result in a too-heavy bat that your kid can’t swing well. Much thanks to reader Chad Miller (patent attorney and former engineer), for pointing this out to me a few months ago. I have since weighed many brands and models of bats and verified that most youth bats produced over the past few years are overweight by 1 to 2 ounces.
  • Look for “approved for” and the name of your type of league printed on the bat (Little League, PONY, Babe Ruth, etc.), as well as the USSSA stamp and BPF 1.15. The BPF 1.15 designation means that the barrel of the bat has been tested and found not to exceed a bounciness measure of 1.15 (wood is less elastic and typically just above 1.05).
  • November 2016 UPDATE: Bats you purchase today will not permitted for use in PONY or Little League after January 1, 2018, when the new USAbat standard goes into effect. However, they can still be used for USSSA travel ball tournaments.
  • 2 3/4 inch barrels are not permitted for many levels of play in many leagues, so I’m not going to recommend any of these models. 2 5/8 inch barrels are permitted in most but not all leagues. Be sure to check if your league allows 2 5/8 inch barrels for your player’s age level.
  • Some bats marked “T-ball” bats are not permitted after the age of 6 or so, depending on your league. If you get such a bat, understand that you may have to stop using it when your kid moves up to the next level.
  • Do not assume that getting a particular brand of bat is the same as other bats with the same name. For example, Easton has numerous different versions of the “Power Brigade.” If you know the bat you want because your kid borrowed it from a teammate, take a picture of the information on the bat so you can match the model number with the bat you buy.
  • There is a wide range in quality of materials and craftsmanship that go into a bat. Generally speaking, the higher the manufacturer’s suggested retail price, the better the quality. Note, however, that last year’s top of the line is still going to be a great bat, and you may be able to get it for 50% less than its year-ago cost.
  • It is important to understand that the static weight listed on most bats is only a rough reflection of how difficult the bat is to swing. High MOI bats with “end loaded” weight are harder to swing than low MOI bats that are “balanced,” given the same static weight and bat length.
  • DeMarini differs from the rest of the industry by listing “swing weight” instead of “static weight.” This started a couple years ago. Weigh a DeMarini bat and the weight may be a little different than what is printed on that bat. This is a good thing, as the swing weight takes into account the MOI of the bat. This means that all DeMarini bats are comparable with each other in terms of how difficult it will be to swing the bat—and that matters far more than the static weight of the bat. However, this also means that DeMarini bat weights are not strictly comparable to bats from other manufacturers.
  • Many bats have a 6 month or 12 month warranty, and some have a 30 day money back guarantee if you don’t like the bat. If you choose to buy an expensive bat, make sure it has a warranty in case the bat dents or cracks within the first few months of use.

Player size and skill roughly correspond to age, so I’ll break down recommendations by age.

What Bat is Best for a 5 to 6-year-old?

There is little to be gained by buying an expensive bat for a 5 to 6-year-old. All that matters is getting an appropriate size and weight. An expensive bat will add at most 6 feet of distance over a cheap bat, and only for the biggest kids with the best hitting mechanics when they hit the ball perfectly.

One could argue that bats which enable faster swing speeds or better mechanics might be worth something. However, at this age the batter matters far more than the bat. The emphasis should be on teaching proper mechanics and getting in lots of practice swings, not an expensive bat.

Bat weight should be between 13 and 17oz and length between 24″ and 28″, depending on the size of kid. The very biggest 6-year-olds might be able to use a 28″, 17oz bat. More typical will be a 26″ bat weighing 13oz or 14oz. When in doubt, go smaller and lighter. At this age, kids want to have fun hitting the ball, and that is going to happen much less often with a heavy bat. If you accidentally get too big a bat, you can always have your kid borrow a lighter bat during games until he grows large enough to use his new bat. Alternatively, choking up on the bat is a way of reducing swing weight.

As discussed earlier, not all bat weights are the same, due to how the weight is distributed. Not many bats for the youngest ages are heavily end weighted, so stated bat weights at this age are generally comparable.

One important piece of advice: Don’t let an adult or older kid use one of these drop 12 or drop 13 bats for batting practice or fungos. Most of them are made of the weakest kind of aluminum alloy, and the walls are thin to keep the weight down. The bat will get dented if used by an adult or strong, older kid.

The one exception to this is the Axe bat, which is made of a more durable alloy than is typical for Tball bats, and is also engineered to be stronger on the portion of the barrel most likely to contact the ball.

If I were to buy a bat for a 5 or 6-year-old today, I would consider an Axe Bat not just for the durability reason, but also because the axe-like knob forces one part of hitting mechanics to be correct (where the hands are when the bat contacts the ball):

Axe Bat 2017 Hero T-Ball L129E (-11)

Another bat that is both durable and effective is the Easton S500, a bat I even more strongly recommend for 7 to 8-year-olds:

Easton Speed Brigade S500 Youth Baseball Bat

Apart from going too big, there’s really no way to go wrong at this age. If you do end up getting something too heavy to swing but your kid likes it, just wait a few months and he’ll be big enough to swing it.

What Bat is Best for a 7 to 8-year-old?

For most players, the same advice for 5 to 6-year-olds applies to 7 to 8-year-olds, but with a slight increase in size and weight of bat. Bats should weigh between 14 to 19 oz, and be between 26″ to 30″ long. The only reason I go so high with the range is that there is occasionally a really large and strong kid (over 53″ tall) who might be able to handle a 30″, 19oz bat. But the vast majority of players who use such a big and heavy bat will have a slow swing speed and therefore struggle at the plate.

A more typical bat for this age is 27″ and 16oz (drop 11) for a 50-inch tall 8-year-old, and something a little smaller and/or lighter for a 7-year-old or short 8-year-old.

By the age of 8, some players participate in higher level summer play with an all-star or travel ball team. These are referred to as 8u players. I have seen quite a few 8u players with $300-$400 high-end bats at this level and even a few in our local PONY league with such expensive bats.

If you understand the physics of the bat/ball collision I described above, then you know that for players of average size and weight, the best this can do is cause the batted ball to travel further by 6-8 feet. At this age, you would be far better off spending that same $300 on hitting lessons with an experienced hitting instructor. Or better yet spend time pitching to your kid at your local park.

The players who will benefit most from a high end bat are unusually big, heavy players with a very fast swing that are already consistently hitting the ball to the outfield with their existing inexpensive bat. A high end bat will add perhaps 8′ to 10′ feet of distance on a perfectly hit ball for such a hitter. For the average hitter, it will add little to batted ball distance.

One could argue that some bats speed up the swing or improve mechanics. However, at this age the batter matters far more than the bat. The emphasis should be on teaching proper mechanics and getting in lots of practice swings, not an expensive bat. If bat speed isn’t fast enough, switch to using a smaller and/or lighter bat.

It is possible to get a bigger barrel which makes it easier to get a good hit. By bigger, I mean either longer or fatter. In some leagues, you can’t go higher than 2 1/4″ thickness at this age so if you want a fatter barrel, you should check to make sure your league allows it. You might want to skip getting a fat barrel even if your league allows it, because your kid may have trouble swinging a bat with such a big barrel.

Whether or not to get a bigger barrel with a bigger sweet spot will depend to some extent on how serious your kid is about baseball and your beliefs about what kind of bat is best for long-term development. My son is very serious about his long-term baseball aspirations. He has never used a 2 5/8″ bat, and I will discourage him from using one if he expresses an interest before the age of 12, when fat barrels become the norm. My theory is that by using a 2 1/4″ bat with a normal barrel and some amount of bat vibration, he will forced to learn how to “bring the bat into the zone” in such a way that the ball hits a small sweet spot. I believe that using a bat with a smaller sweet spot will lead to better hitting skill in the long run.

All this should be taken as speculation on my part. I haven’t come across any scientific study to confirm or deny my hypothesis that big barrel is detrimental to long-term hitting development, and I don’t have any idea if my son will be able to hit much more difficult high school pitching when he comes of age with heavily regulated BBCOR bats. Nevertheless, until proven otherwise, I will encourage him to stay away from big barrel bats or bats that heavily dampen vibration.

On the other hand, if you have a player that enjoys baseball but doesn’t take it too seriously and you doubt he will play for more than a few years, then by all means get a big barrel bat. In the short run it will be easier to put the ball in play and reach first base safely. And that will without doubt be more fun.

Many coaches believe that confidence is more important to hitting than anything at this age. If having a big barrel, or dampened vibrations, a favorite bat color, or any other factor helps with confidence, then hitting results will likely improve. According to this line of thinking, bad habits can be corrected at a later age, while without confidence the player has little chance of success at the plate.

The contrasting view to this is that bad habits are harder to break the longer you practice them, so the earlier you get it right, the better. Long-term gain sometimes may require some short term pain.

At any level, the most important thing by far is not to get a bat that is too heavy. If you want a 29″ 17-oz bat that is light enough for your player to swing, one possibility is to spend more money on a high tech bat that lowers the MOI by using a very light material for the barrel and shifts the weight towards the handle. Or you can just get a 28″ 16-oz bat that has a similar or even smaller MOI but costs $80 or less.

Unfortunately for consumers, MOI is not printed on the bat or even obtainable from manufacturer web sites. Borrowing and testing teammates’ bats is a rough way of discovering a bat with a low enough MOI.

Among the various bats I’ve seen used among players between the ages of 7 and 10, two inexpensive bats have particularly impressed me. One is the Easton Speed Brigade S500. It is a balanced, drop 13, one-piece aluminum bat that can be purchased in any size between 27″ and 32″. There are plenty of other reasonable bats to be had for $60 but I point out this one because I’ve seen it used by several players, including one who switched from another bat to this one and immediately had more success. I also like that the barrel specifically says that 7050 is the type of aluminum that goes into it. While not a high-end aluminum, it is stronger than 7046 and I have yet to see one of these bats dented.

Easton Speed Brigade S500 Youth Baseball Bat

The other terrific choice is the following Axe Bat (see my review), which I have seen lead to even more dramatic improvement. Part of the improvement may be due to improved hand position upon contact, which is forced upon batters by the axe-like shape of the knob. This bat is now my favorite among sub $100 bats:

2017 Axe Bat Origin Youth (-12)

If you want to go for a bigger barrel, first check to make sure your league allows 2 5/8″. Most are too heavy but the following two are not too difficult to swing.

The best price I’ve seen on a big barrel that a 4′ 6″ player has a chance of swinging well is this version of the Axe bat (here’s my L144E review):

Axe Bat 2017 Origin Big Barrel L144E -10 Baseball Bat

(For a fancier looking version with higher quality grip tape, get the 2017 MB50 2 5/8″ barrel direct from the manufacturer and get 10% discount, using code JGOL10)

I have also seen the following big barrel bat costing around $150 – $200 used successfully by several players in our league:

Louisville Slugger Senior League 2 5/8-Inch Catalyst Baseball Bat

If you delay buying a fat barreled bat until the player is over 4 1/2 feet tall, there are many value-priced, heavier choices.

There are some very good, moderately priced 2 1/4″ models that are an upgrade over the s500, such as:

Marucci Hex Alloy Youth Baseball Bat

And yes—if your player is consistently hitting the ball and participating in high level summer play, the magic bat I introduced at the beginning of this post is indeed a good one for those who prefer a balanced bat. It is likely to result in a greater percentage of sweet spot contact:

Easton MAKO COMPOSITE Youth Baseball Bat

An up and coming alternative to Mako that is beginning to show up in our area and getting rave reviews is the fat barreled Combat Maxum:

Combat Maxum MAXSL112 2 5/8″ Drop 12

Those who prefer a more end-loaded feel will prefer the following Easton composite model. I have seen several sluggers hit the ball very far with the prior year’s model (XL1):

Easton MAKO XL COMP -10 Youth Baseball Bat

Those who like the feel of a two-piece design with an aluminum barrel may prefer this less expensive bat from DeMarini:

DeMarini 2015 Voodoo Overlord Youth Baseball Bat (-13)

What Bat is Best for a 9- to 10-year-old?

As players get older, differences between the most and least skilled players widen. Swing speed varies dramatically from less than 20 MPH for small beginners lacking in athleticism to 45 MPH for big kids who have above average hitting mechanics.

Most advice from younger ages continues to apply to 9- to 10-year-old players with average or below average swing speed. I won’t repeat it again, other than to say that the range of size and weights again increases. Size and weight of the player is much more important than age, but obviously the average size and weight of player increases with age.

A 14 oz, 27″ bat is the smallest I see used among 9- to 10-year-olds, while the largest is a 21 oz, 31″ bat used by the biggest kid in the league. That’s a wide range, because the kids range in height from 48″ to 62″. The right bat for an average sized 10-year-old would be 18oz, 29″, while the right bat for an average sized 9-year-old would be 17oz, 28″. Again, recall that not all bat weights are the same. Look for words like “balanced” or “end loaded.” If a bat is described as balanced, you may be able to get away with a slightly heavier or longer bat, but you’ll need to go a little lighter for an end loaded bat.

Even for this older age, I tend to believe that spending $300 on a bat is unnecessary for most rec league players. The rule of thumb continues to be that players who already consistently hit the ball hard are going to be the only players who significantly benefit from an expensive bat. A player who rarely contacts the ball on the sweet spot well may benefit from a bigger barrel, but the other aspects of a bat that drive up the cost into the $200-$400 range aren’t going to matter much until swing speed exceeds 40 MPH.

There are 96 players in our 9- to 10-year-old division. Based on the math I went through above and my knowledge of the players in our league, my guess is that somewhere between 15 to 30 of them might actually see a significant and noticeable benefit from using a high-end bat. The rest are not swinging the bat fast enough to make more than a few feet worth of difference. As with any age range, the most reliable way to improve hitting is to increase swing speed, and a simple and inexpensive way to do this is to switch to a smaller and lighter bat. For the majority of 9- to 10-year-old players, switching to a lighter bat will make more of a difference than switching to an expensive bat.

At the more competitive levels seen in all-star play and travel ball, most 10u players will be swinging the bat at 40 MPH or faster and a good number of 9u players will swing that fast as well. Not surprisingly, that is when you start to see a lot of $200-$400 bats. Using the same math I went through earlier, you can calculate that a player with a 40MPH swing will add 12 feet to the distance to a perfectly hit ball when using a high-end bat instead of a low-end bat, while a player with a 45 MPH swing can potentially add 14 feet. These extra distances are significant as an extra 12 to 14 feet can sometimes be the difference between a caught ball or an extra base hit. The extra batted ball speed can also turn routine grounders into ones so hard that all but the best fielders won’t be able to stop them.

Do note that a great bat is limited in what it can do for a player. I have already mentioned the rule of thumb that the players who benefit from an expensive bat are the ones already consistently hitting the ball hard into the outfield. I have seen many players who are able to consistently hit the ball into the outfield in rec league, but can no longer do so at the higher levels of play. This is because pitching gets better.

An expensive bat isn’t going to help a player learn how to hit a changeup or curveball, and it won’t help much with high velocity pitching either. Hitters with a long swing that works for slow pitching will need to make their swing shorter and faster to deal with tougher pitching. Switching to a lighter and smaller bat can help with that, but switching to a more expensive model can only help if it reduces the bat’s MOI (swing weight). I have seen entire teams using expensive bats unable to get more than a couple of quality hits per game against strong pitching.

There is a wide variety of bats available ranging in price from $20 for a closeout special, all the way to $400 for high end composite bats. I present my recommendations ordered approximately by price.

The 2 1/4″ Easton S500 with durable 7050 aluminum alloy is a great entry level bat for 7 to 10-year-olds for reasons I already mentioned above. It comes in larger sizes so can be used for small 11-year-olds as well who want a long, light bat at drop 13.

Easton Speed Brigade S500 Youth Baseball Bat

Also already discussed is this slightly more expensive Axe bat which helps correct some mechanics thanks to the axe-like knob:

2017 Axe Bat Origin Youth (-12)

Another premium one-piece aluminum bat is from aluminum-specialist Marucci :

Marucci Hex Alloy Youth Baseball Bat

Big barrel bats are mostly expensive at this age, though there is one low cost model that bigger-than-average 10-year-olds should be able to handle:

Louisville Slugger 2014 Warrior Sr League (-9) Baseball Bats

A model that my son has used very successfully since November 2016 (when he was 4′ 8″) is this big barrel version of the Axe bat (here’s my L144E review):

Axe Bat 2017 Origin Big Barrel L144E -10 Baseball Bat

(For a fancier looking version with higher quality grip tape, get the 2017 MB50 2 5/8″ barrel direct from the manufacturer and get 10% discount, using code JGOL10)

More expensive, but very effective in our league, is this big barrel from Louisville Slugger:

Louisville Slugger Senior League 2 5/8-Inch Catalyst Baseball Bat

While not used by anyone in my league, the following value priced, balanced, composite bat gets great reviews everywhere:

DeMarini 2015 Youth NVS Vexxum -12 Baseball Bat

The high-end bats suitable for summer play at the 7- to 8-year-old level are also suitable for the 9- to 10-year old level. The magic bat described at the start of this article is a good match for larger-than average 9- to 10-year-olds who prefer balanced bats and is likely to result in more frequent contact with the sweet spot:

Easton MAKO COMP -11 Youth Baseball Bat

An up and coming alternative to Mako that is beginning to show up in our area and getting rave reviews is the fat barreled Combat Maxum:

Combat Maxum MAXSL112 2 5/8″ Drop 12

Those who prefer a more end-loaded feel will like Easton’s XL1 line, relabeled the XL in 2015 for the youth version. I saw some of the bigger 10-year-olds hit the ball nearly 200 feet with the 2014 version of this model:

Easton MAKO XL COMP -10 Youth Baseball Bat

DeMarini has a slightly less expensive two-piece bat that also pleases fans of the end loaded style:

DeMarini 2015 Voodoo Overlord Youth Baseball Bat (-13)

What Bat is Best for an 11- to 12-year-old?

The 11-12 age range is more challenging to write about because of variety, both in players and in bats.

Players range in size from 4 to 6 feet tall, while experience ranges from novice to 7 years, including several years of travel ball or all-stars for some.

For players who are short and have less than 2 years of experience, the advice given for 9 to 10-year olds in the previous section is going to be more appropriate. It is also worth reading the 9- to 10-year old section for the discussion around which types of bats are appropriate for which types of players, which I won’t repeat in this section.

This section will also not be appropriate for players over 5′ 6″ tall. I will write a section for 13-year olds in 2017 that also works for tall 12-year olds, but at this point it’s too far outside my experience.

The recommendations in this section target the majority of 11- to 12-year olds players who have at least 2 years of playing experience and who are between 4′ 6″ to 5′ 6″ tall.

I’m skeptical of the value of expensive, high-end bats for kids aged 10 or below, as I’ve made clear throughout this article. However, starting at the age of 11, buying a more expensive bat makes sense for many players, for the following reasons:

  • Many players with slower swings drop out of youth baseball by the age of 11. Most of the players who remain will have swing speeds of at least 40 MPH.
  • As discussed previously, a high-end bat in the hands of a player swinging at 40 MPH can add up to an additional 12 feet to balls hit perfectly off the sweet spot. For those who swing faster the extra distance will be even higher.
  • Fielding is better. Hitters will reach base less often from errors than they used to. Given good fielding, there is ample evidence that hitting the ball harder increases the chance of getting to first base safely.
  • Pitching is better. Better bats can in some cases give batters more of a chance to make contact against tougher pitching.

The average 12-year old player (who is 12 1/2) is about 5 feet tall, while the average 11-year old player is 3 inches shorter. Because there is a limit to how fast a kid can swing a bat, players will do well to abandon their drop 13 bats in favor of a heavier bat. Kids below 5 feet tall will want to be in the drop 12 to drop 10 range, while bigger kids will range from drop 10 to drop 8.

A 30″ bat will be typical, or 31″ for bigger kids, with weight ranging from 19 oz. to 23 oz. Most players will struggle with 32″ bats. Even big 12-year-olds with the most expensive, low MOI bats often have difficulty controlling a 32″ bats, though occasionally you run across a player who can handle 32″. Increasing weight beyond 22 oz or choosing an end loaded style of bat will be a better option than going beyond 31″ for big players ready to swing a higher MOI bat.

Also worth considering at this age is having one bat for practice, and a different bat for games. Practice bats are often an ounce or two heavier or more end-loaded to help build muscles. Using a wood bat or one-piece aluminum bat (without jumbo-sized sweet spots) for practice is best so that players get the vibrational feedback from poorly hit balls needed to help improve their swing. Having a bat during a game that has a bigger sweet spot and features that help swing speed or pop may enable the player to get to get to first base safely off poorly hit balls more frequently than if they were using the practice bat.

The variety of bats for this age range is very wide, partly because 2 5/8″ or “fat barrel” bats are a legitimate option. The following recommendations are by no means an exhaustive list of the better bats. I have purposely chosen this set of bats to expose a wide range of styles.

The 2 1/4″ Easton S500 with durable 7050 aluminum alloy is a solid entry level bat for 7 to 10-year-olds for reasons I mentioned above. However, it is too light for most 11- to 12-year olds at drop 13. A drop 9 version was produced in 2014 which is appropriate for players of above average height and/or weight. Though Easton no longer makes this bat, it can sometimes be found at Amazon:

Easton 2014 S500 SL14S500 Baseball Bat (-9) or (-5)

As I mentioned in earlier sections, I have liked the Axe Bat Origin even better than the drop 13 S500 (see my review). It is more end-weighted and an ounce heavier so the 30″ version is definitely well suited to short and slender 11- to 12-year olds. It’s the bat my short son used and loved when he was 11 and under 4′ 7″:

2016 Axe Bat Origin Youth (-12)

Another older Easton model I like is the entry-level 2 ¼” aluminum drop 10 Easton Magnum. It has more of an end loaded feel so may actually have a similar swing weight. It is occasionally available for a very good price on Amazon, if it is available at all:

Easton Magnum Youth Baseball Bat (-10)

The 2 5/8″ Warrior from Louisville Slugger is an entry-level big-barrel aluminum bat that also uses the durable 7050 alloy. At drop 9, it is only appropriate for average sized 12 year olds or tall 11-year-olds.

Louisville Slugger 2014 Warrior Sr League (-9) Baseball Bats -9

However, for a little more money, the entry level big barrel version of the Axe bat is a fantastic bat that my son has been using since November 2016 with great success (here’s my L144E review):

Axe Bat 2017 Origin Big Barrel L144E -10 Baseball Bat

(For a fancier looking version with higher quality grip tape, get the 2017 MB50 2 5/8″ barrel direct from the manufacturer and get 10% discount, using code JGOL10)

The Anderson Techzilla bat is so interesting to me that I purchased the 30″, 21oz Techzilla 2014 XP model for my son to try out when he was 10. As I have mentioned many times throughout this post, the trend in recent years has been towards high-end, long-barreled composite bats that have a low MOI. The exact opposite of this trend is the Anderson Techzilla, which is so heavily end-loaded that it feels harder to swing than some solid-wood bats. It is also not made of composite, but rather double-walled aluminum. The trampoline effect for double walled aluminum bats is higher than single walled aluminum bats and is competitive with standards-compliant composite bats. Anderson is the only manufacturer producing such bats for baseball.

My smaller-than-average son could not get good hits with this too-heavy bat at first, when he was 10 years old. However, in November 2016 he is almost big enough to swing it at 4′ 8″, 75 lbs, and he is hitting some bombs when he’s able to swing it well. Having also seen some other players experiment with it, I believe that there are some players who will love this bat. A very good hitter with loads of upper body strength will be able to frequently hit balls to the fence with this bat, once the player gets used to the end-loaded feel.

Anderson Techzilla XP (-9) Youth Baseball Bat

Anderson Techzilla 2.0 (-9) Little League Baseball Bat

Two high-end bats from the 9- to 10-year-old ages also work well at the 11- to 12-year old level as well. The regular Easton Mako is a good match for small to mid-sized players who prefer balanced bats and often produces good results for poorly-hit balls in addition to well-hit balls:

Easton MAKO COMP -11 Youth Baseball Bat

The Easton’s XL1 (relabeled Mako XL this year for the youth version) is end-loaded. I see some of the league’s top sluggers hitting the ball very hard and far with the 2014 version of this model:

Easton MAKO XL COMP -10 Youth Baseball Bat

This section ends with one of the high-end, big-barrel bats that also happens to be moderately priced, the 2 5/8″ DeMarini Voodoo Overlord FT, a two-piece bat with a high-end aluminum barrel that is universally praised:

DeMarini 2015 Voodoo Overlord FT Youth Big Barrel (2 5/8-Inch) Baseball Bat (-9)

Tips for the Cost Conscious Bat Buyer

You can often get the same or similar bat at lower cost with little extra effort. Here are a few ways to do that:

Bats are at their most expensive in January through April when little league baseball is in full swing. Starting around early May and typically lasting through at least July, prices are reduced to move inventory out, especially in sporting goods stores devoted to multiple sports such as Big 5 or Sports Authority. Look for a similar seasonality pattern with online purchases. The bat my son used in 2015 cost $20, discounted from $70, because it was purchased in late July of 2014. He didn’t use it until he grew large enough to use it 9 months later.

There’s rarely a reason to buy the current year’s model over last year’s model. In most cases, year-over-year improvements are incremental. Getting the prior model may cost 50% of the current year’s model, or even less.

Bat makers warn that composite barrels will not perform as well if stored in hot trunks, used in cold (less than 60 degrees Fahrenheit), or used in batting cages. They are also more expensive and require break-in. In recent years, very light drop 10 to drop 13 aluminum bats also have similar issues as bat makers push the limits on thinness (heavier aluminum bats are more durable). So if you do decide to get an expensive bat, be sure to take good care of the bat so you don’t soon have to replace it.

If your kid likes the feel and sound of aluminum bats and hits well with them, then stick with one-piece aluminum bats. They cost less, and in some cases perform nearly as well as top composite bats on the field. Also, aluminum alloy bats usually have smaller sweet spots and more vibration. This provides more tactile feedback which some people believe helps players improve.

As I’ve repeated many times throughout this article, for kids age 12 or younger, buying an expensive bat only makes sense for a player who consistently hits the ball hard. If your kid is struggling at the plate, a lighter and/or smaller bat may help, but a more expensive bat probably won’t. So don’t buy an expensive bat until your kid consistently hits the ball into play.

Can You Really Hit Every Ball to the Outfield With the Magic Bat?

Of course not. It takes a lot more to be a good hitter than a good bat.

However, I covered a lot of material about hitting, the bat/ball collision, and bat technology. To help synthesize all this information, I will summarize why and how the “magic bat” (Easton Mako) does help.

All youth bats are required to perform at or below BPF of 1.15. This springiness factor of 1.15 is attained by many bats as this 2008 study demonstrates. So there has to be something else going on that can help players hit so many balls into the outfield with the Mako or other high end bats.

A large part of what makes Mako so effective is a bigger, better sweet spot. The larger the sweet spot, the better chance a batter has to hit the ball with the sweet spot. A bigger sweet spot is often, but not always, accompanied by a larger barrel. The youth version of the Mako is only 2 1/4” wide but apparently they have done a great job of making a sweet spot that covers much of the lengthy barrel.

The problem with many bats with long (or big) barrels is that the swing weight increases and it can sometimes be more difficult to swing well. The Mako bat has a light swing weight and is apparently easy to swing. Combine big barrel with easy to swing and you get far more contact with the sweet spot.

As I explained above, the Batted Ball Speed (BBS) will be lower for bats like the Mako that have lower MOI, as compared with high MOI bats of the same length and weight. That means the ball won’t be hit as far. However, that is only true for perfectly hit balls.

Let’s say you’re hitting the ball perfectly on the sweet spot (very far!) once every 20 hits with an end-loaded aluminum bat, and 3 other times you come close for a hit that doesn’t go as far but still makes it to the outfield. You then switch to the Mako and hit it perfectly on the sweet spot half the time you hit the ball and not too badly the other 10 times you hit the ball. You may then feel as if the Mako has more pop because you’re hitting it to the outfield 10 out of 20 hits versus 4 out of 20 for the other bat. However, the perfectly hit ball with the first bat went further because it has a higher swing weight.

So even though the Mako has a lower maximum hit distance, you may not even notice because you are hitting the ball with the sweet spot so much more often and are much happier with the results.

Easton likely also implemented techniques to increase BBS while still satisfying the BPF 1.15 test protocol. The BPF 1.15 protocol is widely considered to be a weak protocol in the sense that there are many ways for bat makers to increase BBS while still satisfying the BPF 1.15 standard, especially with composite bats and/or two-piece designs.

Using a light-swinging bat with a massive sweet spot may improve short-term results. But in my view, the jury is still out as to whether this helps, hinders, or has no effect on developing batter skill in the long run.

Final Words

The batter matters far more than the bat, especially at the youngest ages. Readiness at the plate, a good batting eye, and swinging only at good pitches are all required to get good contact. Good mechanics are also required, though at younger ages some kids are able to hit well despite mechanical issues.

Bats matter very little at the ages of 8 and below. But as kids get older, stronger, and more able to consistently hit the ball hard, higher quality bats make a difference for batted ball speed and likelihood of hitting the sweet spot.

At this point in time, the most expensive composite bats give the batter a greater advantage than less expensive composite bats and even the best one-piece aluminum alloy bats, though it is not clear by how much. The gap between the very best composite bats and the very best aluminum bats has been gradually widening, especially for the light-swinging style of bat, as composite bat makers figure out new and clever ways to increase actual performance on the field while still satisfying the letter of the law, the BPF 1.15 standard.

However, this state of affairs will not last. The goal of creating standards is to base them on scientifically sound measurements of actual performance on the field. Alan Nathan and other baseball scientists do not believe that the current BPF standard used for youth baseball meets this goal. In order to insure pitcher safety, new standards will have to be devised and implemented, and this will reduce the variation in bat performance.

In the end, bat purchasing decisions are a matter of preference, goals, and budget, just like any other purchase. Though a great hitter will hit well with most any bat that isn’t too heavy, some bats will feel more comfortable than others.

Go with the bat that feels most comfortable. It may not be the bat that theoretically hits the ball the farthest, or the one that is currently most popular. But feeling comfortable and ready to hit is a large part of successful hitting. A bat that can help with that is going to mean better results.

Author: Joe Golton

I’m a dad with a son who loves baseball. Professionally, I’ve been a software developer, investor, controller, and logistics manager. I now make my living from this blog, supplemented with occasional consulting gigs.

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