Magazine

High-Tech Homers


Daniel Dell doesn't look like he'd need help swatting homers out of the park for his various softball teams. But the 6-foot, 4-inch 310-pounder takes nothing for granted. His bat bag is stocked with an arsenal of nearly a dozen bats made of aluminum, carbon fiber, and other composites. Physicists and engineers have lost sleep over these bats. Enlisted by Wilson (AGPDY), Nike (NKE), Louisville Slugger, and the like, they're scrutinizing new materials and bat structure to get the kind of performance that will be worth $300 or more to hitters like Dell.

THE PHYSICS FACTOR

And the verdict? The new bats have "totally revolutionized the game," says Dell, a 27-year-old registered nurse in Norman Park, Ga., who spends $2,000 a year on bats. "They've taken guys who can't hit the ball out of the ballpark and turned them into giants."

High-tech bats have quickly become must-have equipment for nearly every slow-pitch softball player, from recreation league novices to elite sluggers. It all began about 10 years ago, when tiny DeMarini Sports of Hillsboro, Ore. -- now a unit of Wilson Sporting Goods Co. -- started crafting bats from thin double sheets of aluminum. Since then softball, like golf, tennis, and cycling, has been transformed by exotic alloys, fibers, and resins. Physics and computer modeling have also kicked in -- almost to a fault: The latest ?berbats have so changed recreational softball that some leagues have banned them.

What causes the balls to fly off these bats is a nifty bit of physics called the trampoline effect. When a pitched ball collides with the barrel of a bat made from thin layers of aluminum or composites, the barrel dents slightly, then springs back to form, adding to the velocity of the hitter's swing.

"SECRET SAUCE"

The revolution began a decade ago with aluminum. But metal alloys had limits: The rigidity of the bat increases at either end -- near the handle and the tip -- making it harder for batters to get a solid hit on the outer reaches of the barrel. So batmakers turned to composites -- typically carbon, fiberglass, and Kevlar -- and scientists began tweaking the bats' performance by changing the ratio of the different types of fibers, as well as their orientation as they wind around the bat. The trick is finding the perfect mix. Too much carbon wrapped around the barrel reduces the spring, making the bat too stiff, while an excess of fiberglass laid lengthwise would create too much flex. "Do we have the best bat that will ever be made? Probably not," says Matt Vacek, vice president of engineering at Miken Sports, which makes the hot $300 Freak bat.

The designers also tinker with the resin glues, aiming for something that can endure constant smacking by the ball. Early composite bats cracked, but newer resins reduced the problem. "They might be the secret sauce to all of this," says Marty Archer, president of the Louisville Slugger Div. of Hillerich & Bradsby Co.

High-tech bats have so enhanced players' power that some leagues have taken to limiting the number of home runs a team can hit, turning subsequent dingers into more modest doubles. Fear of being hit by softballs masquerading as missiles has led some pitchers to wear hockey helmets with face masks for protection. Dozens of leagues around the country have banned some bats.

To protect both players and the bat industry, the Amateur Softball Assn. of America last year created a performance standard that bats can't exceed. To measure a bat's performance, researchers fire a softball at a stationary bat from a cannon at 110 mph -- the speed of an average slow-pitch toss, 25 mph, combined with the speed of an elite batter's swing, 85 mph. To meet the standard, the ball cannot come off the bat faster than 98 mph. That's a step down from the 104 mph that high-performance bats were reaching prior to the standard, and comfortably above the 90 mph the best wooden bats can achieve. "One or two miles per hour can be the difference between a pop fly and a home run," says Lloyd V. Smith, a mechanical engineering professor at Washington State University, home to one of just three U.S. bat-testing labs.

The new standard has forced bat makers to adjust. "You've got to be creative," says Mike Zlaket, vice-president of the baseball and softball division of Easton Sports, the No.1 batmaker. It's trying to improve the way the handles of its bats flex to increase the whipping motion upon contact. Miken is tweaking its composite designs to increase the size of the sweet spot -- the area on the barrel that delivers the most power -- so hitters can rap singles and doubles even if they don't make solid contact. Louisville Slugger is focusing on durability in its just-launched $300 Catalyst. And DeMarini is attaching composite handles to aluminum barrels to improve balance. "We're up against the wall in terms of performance," says Jerry Garnett, DeMarini's marketing manager. "We can only make the bats so good."

New rules, and even bans, aren't likely to dampen batmakers' enthusiasm. In the past decade, bat sales have doubled, to $170 million, accounting for virtually all of the growth in the $443 million baseball and softball equipment business, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Assn. Better yet, high-end bats that sell for $300 cost as little as $100 to make. That kind of math is attracting new competitors. Nike, long an also-ran in the bat business, put a Stanford University mechanical engineer in charge of its bat team eight months ago. It'll have a new batch of alloy bats next year, and composite models in 2006. Just another batmaker lining up to help the world's Daniel Dells hit more balls out of the park without breaking heads or speed limits.

By Jay Greene in Hillsboro, Ore.


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