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Huge strides being made in reducing broken bats

It happens in nearly every game. A hitter swings and not only does the ball come off his bat, so does part of his bat.

Sometimes it's dangerous, the sheared-off bat hurtling like a misguided spear toward the pitcher, an infielder or even fans in the stands.

"Bats will always break," said Dan Halem, Major League Baseball's vice president for labor relations. "It is our goal to reduce catastrophic failures and make the game safer for everyone."

That's been MLB's goal since 2008, when bat breakages reached an all-time high, with approximately one per game.

Over the past four seasons, MLB has made a concerted effort to make bats safer through specific programs and regulations. In the process, there has been a steady decline in broken bats.

Constant for the past year, breakages currently occur at a rate of around a half-bat per game. Last season, the rate was .50 multipiece failures per game. The most up-to-date breakage information for this season shows a rate of .53 bats per game.

"I think we've made a lot of progress and we continue to make progress. The union and everybody has been involved," Commissioner Bud Selig said last month at his annual All-Star FanFest question-and-answer session. "You can't have enough emphasis on it. We've done everything we possibly can."

* * * * *

Compiling data, examining bats and watching video of multipiece failures have become everyday tasks for David Kretschmann, a consultant for MLB working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service.

That doesn't mean seeing such breakages is easy for him, especially if the bats jeopardize someone's safety.

"We watch everything week to week," Kretschmann said. "We have some good days and some bad days. But, it really has become a useful tool to go and rally to players and equipment managers and visit with teams to educate them on the best types of bats to use."

Consultants have been reaching out to players on a more consistent basis since 2009, and the biggest push is made in Spring Training.

For Scott Drake, a consultant for MLB and the vice president of operations for Timber Engineering Company, that means having players understand two basic principles: straight grain and high density.

"Once players and the equipment managers understand the basics, it is like a light bulb going off," Drake said. "We are finally starting to see the impact of all of this hard work."

To have an appropriate slope of grain -- or comparison between the grain of the wood and a straight line up the bat -- MLB and the Players Association have agreed that a bat's slope of grain for the handle and tapered regions must be no greater than three degrees, and it must be maintained on the edge and face of the grain surfaces. Also, a bat's entire grain, including the areas that are stained, must be sufficiently discernible to permit visual grading for the detection of defects.

Such regulations are especially important for maple bats, on which more slope creates a breaking point along which a large, sharp shard can result. Ash bats, on the other hand, usually sustain rupture breaks.

"In 2008, with all of the studies we saw, a major cause of the bat breakages was because of the wood in handles," Kretschmann said. "The wood substantially tipped over to the side, allowing the bat to easily break in half."

Consultants also try and educate players to stay away from low-density bats that have bigger barrels, big weight drops and no hallowed-up cup at the end, making them softer and weaker.

Many of those traits are seen in maple bats and can lead to potentially dangerous situations.

In 2008, when more than 30 companies began manufacturing maple bats and around 60 percent of Major Leaguers used them, according to Kretschmann, the number of multipiece failures skyrocketed. That's when MLB decided to bear down, examining trends, talking to players and creating stricter regulations, which immediately dropped the percentage of maple-bat users to about 50 percent in 2009.

"One of the biggest things we have stressed is that even a minor change can have a huge impact," Drake said. "You then get better, more consistent wood, which helps bring the numbers down."

According to regulations that bat suppliers must follow, bats with a density below .0219 pounds per cubic inch are not allowed. The barrel of a bat can be no more than 2.61 inches in diameter, with the handle's diameter no less than 86/100th of an inch.

MLB and the players union have also agreed on six types of wood allowed to be used. Those include the well-known white ash and sugar maple, along with true hickory, yellow birch, red oak and Japanese ash. Red and silver maple are not permitted.

"It really has been a joint effort between the Players Association and TECO to explain to players what it means to use a better bat," Kretschmann said. "With improved manufacturing and policies, players have switched to bats with better materials."

* * * * *

A few years ago, Carlos Gonzalez was like so many other players. He preferred a big-barrel bat with a skinny handle. Yet, the Rockies outfielder kept noticing something -- he was breaking a lot of bats.

"It seemed like every week I was getting ready to order more bats. I'd break three or four bats every series," Gonzalez said. "I even led the league one year in breaking bats, and that's something you don't want to lead the league in."

After talking with consultants the next year during Spring Training, he switched to a slightly heavier bat with more solid wood and immediately noticed the difference.

"I don't break bats anymore, maybe one every two weeks. It's been working really well with the bat that I'm using. It's nice to see that bats are not flying when you don't hit the ball on the barrel," Gonzalez said.

"They understand how hard it is for us to switch models. They just want to make sure we take our game to the next level. That means staying consistent with the way we're hitting and don't break so many bats."

Just like Gonzalez, 18-year veteran Johnny Damon also used maple bats for a good portion of his career, but the Indians outfielder decided to switch back to ash recently when he saw too many of his bats breaking in half during games.

Damon said he would hit balls on the barrel of the maple bats and it would still break in half or shatter, while the ash bats he used would just crack.

"It's a serious concern when you have that sharp object floating that could go any direction," Damon said. "I think it's a big concern, especially for the fans. A lot of times the fans aren't even paying attention. It's a big concern. The fewer the amount of players we have hurt on the field and in the stands, it's better."

While the new regulations help with the safety of everyone at games, that doesn't mean it is easy for players to switch from bats they have used for much of their professional careers.

White Sox designated hitter Adam Dunn, known for hitting towering shots, said he's had trouble switching to bats with thicker handles and smaller heads.

"It's really hard to address it because, again, you are messing with someone's livelihood," Dunn said of the changes. "It's so minute of a change, thicken up the handles, make the heads just a little smaller. It's something we do for a living, and I promise you that if you grab anyone's bat in here, and you tweaked it at all, they wouldn't use it."

Dunn has worked around the guidelines though and found that a cupped bat is the most comfortable for him. It is still a denser piece of wood, but is partially hollowed out at the end, with regulations stating that cupped bats can have an indentation of up to 1.25 inches in depth, two inches in width and no less than one inch in diameter.

And while switching bats was uncomfortable for Dunn and many other players in the beginning, they understand the problem and realize it all comes back to safety.

"When bats break, they just fly, and they're sharp. Someone can get stabbed," Gonzalez said. "It's dangerous. As long as we can make this game better, and it's safe, it's good for us."

For Halem and the rest of Major League Baseball, that means seeing the number of multipiece failures continue to decline.

"While the numbers continue to get better, we always have room to work on the issue," Halem said. "Consultants make recommendations not only for player safety, but for fans to not have to worry. It is all about safety. That is the one reason we do all of this work."

Johnny Damon, Adam Dunn, Carlos Gonzalez