Copyright © Mike Epstein 2006. All rights reserved.
No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any Form or any manner, electronic or mechanical, including Photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and Retrieval system, without permission in writing from Mike Epstein Hitting, Inc.
What All Hitters Need To Know About Wood Bats
Transitioning from aluminum bats to wood bats has presented problems for hitters over the years. I regularly receive questions about this; too many, in fact, for me to ignore. Many come from parents whose son had a sub-par hitting performance at a "show case" in front of college coaches and baseball scouts. Faced with using wood bats, few players hit well. In my experience, there are two crystal-clear causes for this. Hitters fail with wood bats because they:
1) learn with the ultra-light, ultra-resilient aluminum bats, developing an upper body, hands-only approach and swing
2) do not adjust for the fundamental differences inherent in the characteristics of wood and aluminum
I will attempt here to shed some light on these differences and, ultimately, to advise you how to select a wood bat that can help you hit more productively.
Brief history of wood bats
In the "dead ball" era (pre-1920) most players were "placement" hitters, who used the muscles of their arms, shoulders, chest, and back, to slap, or club the ball. Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner, powerful men with great foot speed, beat out ground balls and ran line drives into doubles and triples. In Cobb’s best years, about 1/3 of his hits went for extra bases. Small men like Willie Keeler specialized in bunting and bat control. Keeler "hit 'em where they ain’t" 239 times in 1897 (.424 BA), but 5/6 of his hits were singles.
Unlike most of his peers, "Shoeless" Joe Jackson used a rotational hitting technique. Jackson’s lower body opened first, while his top half remained closed, creating tremendous torque, which then allowed the big muscles of his lower half to pull the small muscles of Jackson’s hands and arms through the hitting zone with lightning speed. Biophysicists have labeled this visible motion the "kinetic link."
In 1911, Jackson’s first full major league season, he hit .408. Military service interrupted his career in 1918 and the Black Sox Scandal ended it after the 1920 season. In his nine full seasons, he averaged 190 hits and 60 extra-base hits. His .356 lifetime BA was lower than Cobb’s (.367) but his slugging percentage of (.518) was a few points higher. In 1920, he hit .382 with 12 home runs and a .589 slugging percentage. Had he not been banned from baseball at the age of 31, his power numbers would have been even more impressive.
Babe Ruth said that he learned to hit from watching Joe Jackson. From 1920 to 1931, Ruth produced about 100 extra-base hits and drove in about 140 runs per season. His lifetime BA was .342. Rogers Hornsby, who weighed 175 pounds, learned rotational hitting by emulating Ruth. From 1921 to 1925, he produced about 85 extra-base hits and 115 RBI per season. His five year BA of .402 has never been equaled. Mel Ott, Hank Greenberg, Jimmie Foxx, Joe DiMaggio, and Ted Williams copied Ruth. Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays learned from Williams’ generation of great power-and-average hitters. Today’s great hitters learned from the previous generation. And so it goes. In short, baseball’s most dominant hitters have been rotational.
Rotational mechanics enable men of moderate size to hit with effortless power and is why 95% of baseball’s Hall-of-Fame hitters used rotational mechanics to generate maximum power with minimum upper body effort.
Over 60 years ago Ted Williams correctly said, "It ain’t the arrow, it’s the Indian." In other words, it’s all about the hitter and what he does with his bat.
It "Ain't the Indian, it's the arrow" approach
However, with aluminum bats, the fundamental human dimension Williams placed on hitting radically changed. No longer was the player the most important instrument in the hitting equation; the bat was.
For years, the College World Series was a slugfest, but many successful college hitters later failed in pro ball because they could not hit with wood. NCAA and high school rules now mandate -3 weight/length bats. In its first year of implementation, home run production, averages, slugging, runs scored, and total runs per game dropped over 25%. In my mind, this falloff was due to coaches continuing to teach a hands/arms technique and not keeping pace with the changes going on in their sport. The -3s rendered the true linear swing obsolete and is the principal reason why rotational hitting is coming back into vogue.
For this reason alone, amateur ballplayers of all ages should learn rotational hitting, because at some point, they’re going to have to swing a -3. I often ask players if they would go to the plate with one-half of a bat. They all say that’s ridiculous; they wouldn’t be able to hit the ball very hard or have any power. I then tell them they may as well because they’re only using one-half of their body. Ridiculous? Only to those who don’t take the time to think hitting through. Using the total body is essential when using wood.
The bottom-line question to ask ANY hitter is whether they can pump more weight in the weight room with their hands/arms or their legs. I’ve never met a player who didn’t say the legs are much stronger. Yet we don’t teach them how to use these powerful assets, thus depriving them of the success they might normally achieve.
I have written comprehensively over the years on the advantages of rotational hitting, torque, and the use of the total body in the swing. However, space does not allow me to elaborate on it in this article. (Detailed information can be found at http://www.mikeepsteinhitting.com.)
Metal bats have allowed hitters to succeed using upper-body mechanics in amateur ball, because metal bats have massive sweet spots, weigh less than wood, and have intrinsic metallurgical characteristics that provide for a "trampoline effect," (ultra-high off-the-bat resiliency) not available in wood. The lighter the bat, the easier it is to generate bat speed. The lightest wood bats have a -3 weight/length ratio. Most are heavier; a 34-inch wood bat weighs AT LEAST 31 ounces, usually more. In previous years, metal bats have had weight/length ratios ranging from -12s to -5s. If you’ve used both aluminum and wood, you know the difference.
As a result, "bat speed" became the ultimate goal of amateur hitters, because with alumi-num you could swing faster. And, with the space age metal bat, all a hitter needed was high swing velocity. The bat did the rest.
Does high bat speed mean that a player who can swing a bat 80+ mph is "guaranteed" power and a high batting average? Hardly! If a player can swing a wood bat upwards of 80 mph, and the bat is 35" and 35 ounces (minus 0), then, yes, I would say that is terrific bat speed and the player could be capable of outstanding power-hitting potential. But, what if the same player achieved that same 80 mph bat speed swinging a 31"-28 oz. wood bat? Would he be able to hit the ball as far and as hard with a bat four inches shorter and seven ounces lighter? Not likely. Herein lies the paradox of the concept of "bat speed:" Bat speed—in and of itself—can be a very poor indicator of power and hitting potential!
When I played in the major leagues (1966-74), nearly every major leaguer swung a 35" bat. Invariably, they weighed 32 ounces — and up. Owing to my longstanding relationship with Ted Williams, many ask what size bat he used. Ted swung a 35"-33 ounce bat. Personally, I swung a 35"-34 ounce bat. In contrast, Dick Allen, a terrific hitter of moderate size when I played, swung a 36"-38 ounce bat. And before Williams’ era, many players swung 36" bats. Some upwards of 40 ounces. Most were considerably smaller than today’s players. No one lifted weights or used "supplements." It’s interesting to note that up until 1995, 42 of the top 50 home run hitters in major league history weighed LESS than 190 lbs. How could they do this? In pre-aluminum bat days, it was all about using the total body, rotational hitting, and generating torque. But today’s generation of hitters come up swinging light aluminum bats with their hands and arms. Because they can. But this is changing, also. Because with the use of the TOTAL body, players can use slightly heavier and longer bats more effectively than before. But what a difference this can make for a hitter! Over the past eleven years this has helped change the complexion of major league baseball’s offense.
In their effort to capitalize on bat speed attributable to the lightness and resiliency of the aluminum bat, the bat manufacturers were able to sacrifice the one "key" ingredient in the power recipe: MOMENTUM. Momentum is a product of a bat’s velocity AND mass. Another way to put it is: MOMENTUM=MASS x VELOCITY. But the super-high resiliency of aluminum rendered momentum expendable; it wasn’t needed anymore—nor were good mechanics based on the laws of physics.
Another fundamental ingredient in the good hitting recipe is the length of the lever (bat) the hitter uses. For example purposes, we know it is far easier to move an object with a long lever than a short one. As far back as 2,200 years, Archimedes, one of the founders of mathematical physics, said "Give me a place to stand and rest my lever on, and I can move the Earth." Leverage is a powerful tool. If a bat is too short, the hitter loses the leverage required to promote his momentum. While it is true that it does take more physical energy to break inertia and move a longer lever than a shorter one, this movement can be greatly assisted through the hitter’s pre-swing movements, rhythm, and by the torquing of the upper and lower bodies in the swing. Using just his hands and arms, the hitter would have considerable difficulty breaking inertia with a longer, heavier bat, in the time frame normally conducive to high level performance.
Momentum is what helps generate a player’s power, and this includes mass, velocity, AND leverage.
(For me, it is fascinating to note that as players have become much BIGGER and much STRONGER during this aluminum bat period, the bats have become disproportionately SHORTER and LIGHTER. One would logically think it would be just the opposite. We can learn something from this.)
OK then, I hope things are becoming a bit clearer. With wood bats, the SIZE of a player’s bat is just as important as his bat speed. Yet, over the past 25 years we haven’t had to pay much attention to this because of the high resiliency of the aluminum bats. But as the aluminum bats ultimately devolved into -3s and the metal’s resiliency was reduced to preclude bodily injury, we collectively wondered where our power went. The -3 bats became too "heavy."
When the cream of the crop wood-bat Cape Cod Collegiate Summer League comes to an end, about 7-8 players come to our facility in Denver for instruction. These elite prospects, which tore up the collegiate ranks with their hitting during the spring, now find that even getting the ball out of the infield is difficult with wood. Many hit in the high .100s. Simply, wood is not as forgiving as aluminum; it takes a significantly different approach and swing to be successful. To effectively level the playing field with aluminum bats, adjustments must be made by hitters, because a -3 aluminum bat "feels" just as heavy as a -3 wood bat. After all, a -3 is a -3.
Rotational mechanics imply that we use the biggest and most powerful muscles in our bodies, our legs, to help generate kinetic energy and high bat speed. As players begin to couple their bat speed with a larger mass to increase their momentum through the contact zone, power numbers will continue to increase significantly over the coming years. As more hitters begin to use rotational mechanics and incorporate good lower body technique into their swings, the power and production will be there. I equate this to "effortless power—versus powerless effort."
Please don’t mistake what I am saying here. Bat speed IS important. Very important. But only if the player’s bat is the longest and heaviest he can personally use EFFECTIVELY. No "macho" stuff here; there’s too much at stake! The bat has to be the perfect compromise for all the criteria mentioned earlier.
It is astonishing how many bigger players (aren’t they all these days?), 6’2" through 6’6"—who have come to me for instruction—who bring 33"-30 oz. bats with them. And, they tell me that that’s the heaviest bat they can swing! Or the players that should be swinging a 35" bat, but can’t find one, because the aluminum bat manufacturers "currently" don’t make them in that size. These players shake their heads in disbelief at the end of my instruction program, because their game bats feel like toothpicks. Are they any stronger when they finish with me? No. They’re just able to swing a longer, heavier bat AT NEAR (OR EQUAL TO) the bat speed they could with their shorter, lighter aluminum bats. As a hitting instructor, this is singularly one of the greatest gifts I can convey. Nothing magical here. Rotational mechanics—coupled with the vital torque position—make this happen.
There’s also another very important issue to think about. And it’s not about bat speed, either. It’s about bat "quickness," the time interval it takes between launching your swing and making contact. To me, BAT QUICKNESS IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN BAT SPEED. Many refer to this as "quick hands," but in reality, what they see, is the lightning-quick response to the correct torquing (tight "linkage") of their upper and lower bodies. It’s why I continually tell players/coaches/parents at the seminars/clinics/camps I speak at, that "torque"—the separation of the upper and lower bodies—is the root of all bat speed, bat quickness, and power in the good rotational baseball swing. THIS should be every coach’s goal, not just bat speed. Maximizing a player’s bat speed is a product of the correct torquing of the body. Quick hands and high bat speed are reactive to this kinetic linking.
These bio-mechanical movements are for EVERY hitter, baseball and softball, small and big, and not just power hitters, because the whole idea is to hit the ball HARD. Power hitters will stay behind the axis more (to create a slight upslope consistent with their hitting style) than line drive "gap" hitters and singles/contact hitters, who need to incorporate a somewhat "flatter" plane to their swings.
Choosing a wood bat
To offset the superior resiliency of the aluminum bat, what must a hitter do to "level the playing field" with wood?
To compensate, the hitter must swing a wood bat that is 1"-2" longer and 1-2 ounces heavier than his aluminum game bat — AT APPROXIMATELY THE SAME BAT SPEED.
This becomes a real problem for hitters, because most have learned a technique only suitable for ultra-light, ultra-resilient aluminum bats. As a result, they look for wood bats comparable in size and weight. But if bats become too light (more than -3 weight/length ratio), the wood becomes too soft. Too offset this, hitters have gone to denser (heavier) wood and then "scalloped" out the end to increase the weight/length ratio. Any wood bat that is MORE than a -3 is a waste of money.
But in order to take advantage of my advice and to effectively use heavier and longer wood bats, a hitter must execute the three absolutes of rotational hitting. They are 1) the hips lead the hands, 2) matching the plane of the swing to the plane of the pitch, and 3) staying inside the ball.
Linear hitting, popularized by light aluminum bats, does not promote any of these foundational concepts, and therefore exacerbate the problems in transitioning to wood. Rotational hitting, however, does enhance production, with either wood OR aluminum; but not linear hitting.
Make no mistake here. If players want to hit the ball hard, they’ve got to have bat speed to do it. There are myriad players out there who already have a great head start with high bat speed. Just don’t neglect bat size, momentum, leverage, and bat quickness which should also be sought-after ingredients in the total swing recipe.
Why make such a tough thing as hitting—tougher?
Good luck, continued success, and "get a good pitch to hit!"