Years ago, most players used ash bats. That soon changed, owing to Barry Bond’s triumphant display courtesy of a maple bat. Barry Bonds set a single-season home run record in 2001, and since then, the perception that maple hits farther owing to its harder, denser structure has stuck.
Last year, for instance, about 70% of players in the MLB used maple bats, 25% used ash, while the remaining 5% used yellow birch, according to the MLB Players Association spokesman Greg Bouris.
So, which wood is best for a baseball bat? Maple vs ash, or birch vs. maple?
No wood bat material is considered “better” or “best”. A lot of it boils down to personal preference – players know what they like and don’t like. Some players swear by one material, while some will pick and choose what to use depending on the situation.
Bryce Harper, for instance, won’t use a bat if it feels the slightest bit off to him. He also prefers swinging maple bats in the summer and ash during the winter.
Singles hitters who want more control may prefer traditional ash bats. They are flexible and lightweight, making it easy to create the whip needed to generate more bat speed.
Big hitters who want harder, heavier bats that generate lots of bat speed may go for maple, while hitters who want a harder wood that flexes more may opt for birch bats.
Wood Bat Materials Are Not Equal – Maple vs. Ash vs. Birch vs. Bamboo vs. Hickory vs. Composite Wood Bats
Wood bat manufacturer choices are only limited by their imagination. There are so many types of wood that make wood bats. And while there isn’t a “best wood bat material,” some materials are more popular than others due to factors such as durability, pop, weight etc.
So how exactly do these wood bat materials differ?
Maple (the rock maple or sugar maple type) is popular with pros for several reasons. It is a robust and dense wood that doesn’t have much give or flex. Its density correlates with its hardness and durability – denser wood makes the bat harder to break and transfers more energy upon impact, sending the ball much farther on hits.
Because maple is a diffuse-porous wood (close-grain), it holds together well under hard impact. The more you hit with it, the more the grains compact and hold together, often at the point of frequent contact.
It’s not all rosy, though – maple does have downsides.
- For starters, maple bats are more expensive than ash and birch bats because of their quality.
- The second is that maple is a lot less forgiving than other wood bat materials on mishits. Its rigid, sturdy makeup means that hitting off the bat’s end will likely result in one of two things: sting in the hands, or worse, a shattered bat. Maple bats do not flex as much as ash does. With ash bats, flex allows the shock produced when you hit off the barrel to escape. On maple bats, mishits will cause vibration to travel down the barrel into the handle, resulting in nasty hand sting. In extreme cases (not uncommon), mishits will break your maple bat. When a maple bat breaks, it shatters into two distinct pieces. Pieces may fly any which way, posing a safety risk for players on the field.
- Maple also has the smallest “sweet spot” than other wood bat materials at 1-2″ smaller so getting good contact requires experience.
- Lastly, maple wood bats are dried to leave little to no moisture. Getting rid of all the moisture makes them susceptible to moisture gain over time, which in humid climates adds about 0.5oz to 1oz or more in weight, depending on the weather.
For all its benefits and drawbacks, maple is excellent for players who want the most from their bat and don’t mind spending more money to get it.
Ash bats were a staple in baseball long before maple made it onto the scene. Many MLB records have been set using ash bats. For instance, Babe Ruth hit plenty of his home runs with an ash bat. When Henry Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s record, he did it with an ash bat. Ty Cobb and Pete Rose both got over 4,000 base hits swinging ash bats. The list goes on.
However, the percentage of players using ash bats is in decline, with only around 10% to 25% of players swinging ash in MLB games.
Between maple vs. ash vs. birch, ash is the lightest of the three wood bat materials. It also flexes more, letting players create more whip through the zone, thus generating more bat speed. The trampoline effect compresses the wood upon contact with the ball, such that the wood acts as a springboard. Consequently, the ball leaves with much more force than it would when hitting off maple.
Ash bat construction has been honed over the last 150 years. The suitable grades of wood are carefully selected and dried to get rid of excess moisture. The number of rings is also carefully picked out, with eight growth rings per inch in northern white ash bats being the sweet spot most players prefer.
Some players prefer 15 growth rings per inch since higher numbers mean denser, stronger wood.
When they break, ash bats do not snap as maple does. First, as they reach the end of their lifespan, ash bats start to flake and splinter. Certain things cause this:
- Ash bats are dried to leave as little moisture as possible. Its open grain structure (aka ring-porous wood) continues to dry over time, causing the grains to flake and splinter.
- The trademark or directly opposite it, is the part that’s most susceptible to failure. Always use your bat “label up” or “label down.”
- The springboard compression effect we mentioned earlier that separates the wood grains over time also causes the wood to flake and splinter.
Ash’s flexibility makes it more forgiving than maple on mishits and hits made off the bat’s end or near the stamp. However, breaking will happen when players hit inside pitches, unlike maple bats that snap into two on outside pitches.
Unfortunately, ash wood is currently under threat from the emerald ash borer, a beetle from northeastern Asia that somehow found its way to North America and is now present in 25 different states, e.g., New York & Pennsylvania.
The emerald ash borer beetle eats ash tree leaves, and when the female lays her eggs in the tree, larvae bore through the wood as they feed off it, ultimately killing it within 1 to 3 years. An estimated 50 million ash trees have died as a result, as local governments attempt to monitor its spread through insecticides and biological control.
Maple bats are currently more expensive than ash, but the threat from this beetle could push ash bat prices as high as maple due to scarcity.
Birch is becoming a lot more commonplace – For instance, Raleigh native and former MVP Josh Hamilton and Mark Trumbo both use birch bats. Would its growing use mark the beginning of the end for maple? Possibly.
Birch bats have their advantages since they offer the best of both maple and ash. They flex more than maple, but don’t flex as much as ash bats. Birch bats are closer in strength to maple and fall between maple and ash in terms of density. Birch is tougher than ash and won’t flake as an ash bat would.
Birch’s flexibility creates more whip through the zone, generating more bat speed as a result. Because it isn’t as dense or hard as maple, it is more forgiving with balls hit off the bat’s end, where the trademark is, or directly opposite the trademark.
Thanks to its grain structure, Birch holds together as maple does, which is great when making repetitive hits in the same bat area.
Birch’s downside is that it isn’t as hard as maple, so balls have slower exit speeds when compared to maple. However, for birch bats to harden from repeated impact, Birch needs a break-in period. Break-in shouldn’t take too long to do – somewhere between 30 to 50 hits should do the trick.
All these properties make it a fantastic choice for the newbie. And while Birch isn’t as popular as Maple or Ash, it’s showing to be a formidable wood bat material. What’s more, Birch can play in the MLB.
Technically, Bamboo isn’t a wood bat material but a type of grass. And since the inside of Bamboo is hollow, a bamboo bat is made by pressing several bamboo strips into long/rectangular billets. These billets are then fashioned into the shape of a baseball bat.
Some wood bat companies have begun pairing Bamboo with other wood bat materials. The bamboo billets are pressed around a maple or ash core to make composite wood bats.
Unfortunately, Bamboo wood bats can’t play in Major League Baseball and usually need to have BBCOR certification for use in lower levels of play.
To their benefit, however, Bamboo is solid and durable wood bat material, being even stronger than steel in tensile strength. As a result, bamboo bats can take lots of mishits without breaking.
Composite wood bats
Composite wood bats blend two or more wood bat materials fused to make some of the most durable wood bats you can buy. They are also some of the most expensive wood bats on the market.
Because they last longer, composite wood bats often come with a warranty to safeguard against breakage, a rarity for wood bats. Additionally, the fact that they’re so hardy makes them fantastic practice bats.
Like Bamboo bats, composite wood bats can’t play in MLB but are an excellent pick for wood-bat leagues that require BBCOR certified wood bats.
European Beech Bats
Beech isn’t a popular wood bat material, but neither was maple. European Beech is a potential game-changer. It is denser and packs more flex than ash, maple, or Birch. European Beech, in this case, is better since American Beech is slightly heavier.
Beech bats sound and feel different in the hands, and absorb shock, and hit exceptionally well.
Next big thing? Only time will tell!
If you’re not sure which wood bat material is suitable for you, check out reviews of the best wood bats. Should you want to try something new, pick something during the off-season or fall ball. It’ll be the perfect time to experiment.