Massive barrel. Huge pop. Light-swinging composite barrel. Swing a bat like this and you’ll be hitting better than ever, right?
Uh, not really.
I recently interviewed Hugh Tompkins, Director of Research and Development at the company that makes the Axe Bat. I asked, “What are the biggest misconceptions consumers have about bats.” He listed two things:
- Perceived difference in how much pop different bats have
- Misunderstanding of what large barrels and low vibration actually do for the batter
Hugh Tompkins confirmed what I learned when researching my extensive youth baseball bat guide. In this post I focus on these consumer misunderstandings and how they cause many people to ignore bats that might actually be more appropriate.
This is not to say that light swinging bats with huge, composite barrels are bad in general. Some of them are quite good and some will be a great fit for certain players. But, as you’ll find out from this post, these bats are not nearly as good as you think. There are tradeoffs.
Perceived Difference of Bat Pop
Pop, or how “hot” a bat is, or more technically, the trampoline effect, can be measured in a lab. All bats approved for league play must adhere to the BPF 1.15 standard. This standard attempts to put a maximum limit on how much pop a bat can have. Wood almost always tests less than 1.10 while aluminum alloy and composite bats are typically between 1.10 and 1.15. Unfortunately, the testing protocol associated with this standard does not do a very good job, and will likely have to change within the next few years.
I’m going to skip discussing BPF 1.15 flaws in favor of just listing the effects of these flaws. If the standard were perfect and all manufacturers adhered to this standard precisely, all bats would be rated at exactly BPF 1.15 and all would have the same BBS (Batted Ball Speed, the speed of ball just after contacting bat) when tested with identical bat speed, no matter what the speed. There are several reasons that this is not true:
- Manufacturing variation forces bat manufacturers to target a lower BPF. Inexpensive bats have wider variation and therefore target a lower BPF than expensive bats, in order to be in compliance with BPF 1.15. In other words, an inexpensive bat with a target BPF of 1.13 may have an actual BPF between 1.11 and 1.149 for any given bat. Baden Sports has a slight advantage over other bat makers due to the engineered hitting zone of their bats, allowing them to manufacture bats very close to the 1.15 limit. I suspect that the most expensive bats from other manufacturers are also consistently produced close to the 1.15 limit, regardless of whether they are composite or aluminum alloy bats.
- Composite bats get “hotter” over time due to micro-fractures from hits. However, accelerated testing is required to receive little league approval for composite bats. In the last few years, manufacturers have been creating composite bats that are more durable and therefore do not improve as much over time. They do comply with standards and are legal for play. But they will still start below BPF 1.15 and become slightly “hotter” over time.
- The BPF 1.15 standard tests bats at a single speed of bat/ball collision. Sweet spots on bats can be engineered to satisfy BPF 1.15 at this speed, yet have a higher trampoline effect at faster speeds. This is especially true for composite bats.
So the BPF 1.15 standard does not ensure that all bats have the same pop. More expensive bats will in general have a bit more pop. But not nearly as much more as kids or their parents may believe. There are a number of factors that cause kids to believe a bat has more “pop” or trampoline effect than it actually does:
- The bat may have a louder or different sound that gives an impression of more pop.
- The bat may have a bigger sweet spot that increases the frequency that the ball is hit with the sweet spot (which will indeed have more pop than balls hit on other parts of the bat).
- The new bat may be lighter than the old bat and therefore the hitter is swinging it faster and more frequently contacting the ball square on the sweet spot, and therefore hitting the ball harder.
- The new bat may have a lower Moment of Inertia (low MOI: the weight is shifted more towards the handle). This makes the bat easier to swing and have a lower effective swing weight, so that a smaller hitter will swing the bat faster and with more likelihood of contacting the ball with the sweet spot, therefore usually hitting the ball harder.
- The bat may have a higher MOI (moment of inertia), or be end loaded, in the hands of a big player with good mechanics. This big player may not be able to swing his previous lighter bat any faster because there is a limit to how fast a person can swing. The ball will be hit harder by a bat with higher MOI if the two bats are of identical length, hit at exactly the same swing speed, and hit at exactly the same part of the sweet spot.
- There may be a whip effect caused by a flexible handle or two-piece design that causes the bat to have an extra speed boost just before hitting the ball.
- Many bats have vibration dampening technology thanks to a specially designed knob, carbon fiber end cap, or connecting piece between barrel and handle, or by other means. Some batters incorrectly assume that less vibration means more pop. In most cases, vibration dampening has little impact on pop.
Reviews for bats on Amazon or other venues often mention great pop. Be wary of such reviews, as you have no idea what this perception of increased pop actually means.
Misunderstanding of what Large Barrels and Low Vibration Actually Do for the Batter
The bigger the barrel, the bigger the sweet spot, right? Nope. So far as I know, there’s no correlation between sweet spot size and barrel length. However, there is certainly a perception that the sweet spot must be bigger, so bat makers have obliged by making bats with ever longer barrels.
“But,” you say, “I know that the sweet spot is bigger because the bat doesn’t vibrate no matter where I hit it on the barrel!” It may very well be the case that the bat does not vibrate no matter which part of your barrel contacts the ball. But with many bats, especially high-end bats, there are all sorts of tricks employed by bat makers to dampen vibration. That way, mishit balls don’t hurt. Many players assume that all balls hit without bat vibration are well hit. This is not true, especially when using bats that dampen vibration.
To be fair, there is ample anecdotal evidence to suggest that a player will unconsciously slow down his swing if he or she is expecting pain from vibration. There are numerous scientific studies related to the expectation of pain, but none that I could find examined whether repeated exposure to pain causes a person to unconsciously and automatically respond. In the case of swinging a bat, the question is whether a person will automatically reduce swing speed if expecting painful vibration.
In other words, there is a possibility that dampening vibration leads to increased swing speed thanks to reduced (expectation of) pain. Combined with a big barrel, it will cause some people to believe that a bat has an enormous sweet spot.
A Confusing Story about an Old Bat
I have had many discussions about baseball with a friend of mine, Grady Carson, who played baseball at the college level and is in his sixth year of managing a youth baseball team. He has reviewed and provided feedback for many of my baseball articles. He thinks a lot about baseball and especially hitting mechanics. He had an interesting story about what happened when one of his sons was without his Easton Mako.
While the Mako was out for repair, his son used an old aluminum bat that was purchased on sale at Target for $20 or $30 a few years ago. He immediately started hitting the ball harder with it. The bat was a little smaller and lighter, so it may have been a simple matter of extra swing speed. But the most interesting part of the story is how his teammates reacted. They saw how well he was hitting with it and some wanted to borrow it to see how well this “bat with great pop” could work for them.
One player got a hit his first time up to bat. But the sting was so bad that he said he would never use that bat again, despite his recent struggles with a Mako Torq.
Interesting. This teammate got feedback from having mishit the ball. He will never get that feedback again as he reverts back to using his high-end Mako bat, presumably mishitting balls frequently, without tactile feedback.
My takeaway from this story and others like it is that one piece aluminum (or wood) bats give you feedback and force you to improve as a hitter. If you train primarily with one piece aluminum or wood bats, I strongly suspect you will develop better mechanics faster than if you use a bat with a massive barrel and vibration dampening that allows you to mishit balls without tactile feedback.
I am not trying to start a crusade against big barrel bats with vibration dampening. I am trying to educate consumers as to what such bats can and cannot do for a batter. Ideally, I think players who are serious about improving their game should be practicing with one piece aluminum bats or wood bats with normal sized sweet spots.
In actual games, using a light, big barrel bat with vibration dampening is fine for some players (though others may prefer end loaded bats or sticking with a one-piece aluminum bat for both practice and games). You’ll want to match the length and style of the game bat as closely as possible to the length of the practice bat. The weight of the game bat should be the same or a little lighter than the practice bat.
This way you get the best of both worlds. Tactile feedback and a smaller sweet spot helps a batter to develop better mechanics. But come game time, a mishit ball may still go pretty far thanks to a larger sweet spot and slight bit of extra pop, helping out the team.
After years of using one-piece aluminum bats, my son recently started using his first two-piece bat, an Axe Bat Elite with composite handle and aluminum barrel. I just placed an order for the less expensive one-piece aluminum Phenom to use for batting cages and other forms of batting practice. I’ll report back in a few months after I see how well this works for him.
Update: I did write about my son’s experience using a one piece axe bat for practice and two piece for games. Turns out an adjustment was required for the two-piece bat, so it was important to take a bunch of warm-up swings with the two-piece bat before each game.