Batter up!

June 29, 2010

A friend of mine sent me the following interesting article on an effort to take a more scientific/analytical approach to the design and fabrication of wood baseball bats. Weirdly enough, one of the strangest elements of this article for me wasn't the attempt to bring science and technology to bear on this problem. I actually think that's inevitable. Rather it was the contention in this article that bats should be struck on the flat-grain instead of the end grain. WHAT??? When I was a kid we would regularly taunt kids who hit a bat held this way. Everyone knew that the bat would most likely shatter killing everyone within miles. Is nothing sacred? But I digress. Back to the wooden bat versus technology smack-down.

In general I find this sort of thing really fascinating - it speaks to the uneasy intersection that occasionally occurs between long-held traditions and emerging technical understanding. And it's another example when technology is only one of many considerations in the specification of a product.

These intersections can really grate on the engineers. In the instance of Baseball's major leagues alone - as those of you who are fans know - there is the delicious bedevilment that the bats must be made of wood. It's a decision made with almost complete deference to the aesthetics and tradition of the game (not withstanding some concern that composite bats used at the lower levels would actually be dangerous in the hands of free swinging MLBers). In a head-to-head comparison including ease of manufacture, durability, performance, cost and general safety wood would lose (say that three times quick).

Given their choice and absent rules and tradition to the contrary I suspect few if any few modern-day engineers would elect to use wood in this application-a notoriously quirky and fundamentally unpredictable material.

There is the delicious bedevilment that the bats must be made of wood. It's a decision made with almost complete deference to aesthetics and tradition.

In point of fact, with a few exceptions engineers have generally been successful in eradicating wood from most non-building related designs (tennis rackets, car bodies, golf clubs, airplanes - even pencils are increasingly hedging towards composites). It's not that wood is necessarily a BAD material. Quite the converse - wood's strength to weight ratio is superb and when cost is factored in you often can't beat wood. It's fairly plentiful - if responsibly managed it's fully sustainable and wood offers a plethora of ancillary technical benefits. Oh by the way - in general wood can be beautiful as well. The problem - from an engineer's point of view - is that wood is not particularly repeatable, predicable or homogenous. A fancy way for saying that the way in which wood performs under stress depends on a whole bunch of factors not always easy to understand or anticipate. And engineers tend to really hate unpredictability.

Of course wood has a host of other aesthetic and evocative benefits - as any of you who've ever heard the sound a baseball makes off an aluminum bat can attest. And in my opinion, in the right application, these should weigh as importantly as the purely technical considerations. I offer up wooden boats, roller coasters and even the MLB baseball bat as products where I'm happy to let tradition trump technology. I guess it just gives the engineers a slightly different canvas to paint on. Game on.