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Going Batty
Tim Kurkjian
June 24, 1996
Forget the juiced ball—it's the bats that may account for all those homers, Special delivery in Texas, Mo better
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June 24, 1996

Going Batty

Forget the juiced ball—it's the bats that may account for all those homers, Special delivery in Texas, Mo better

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Best-Supported Starters
Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. At week's end these starting pitchers had been the beneficiaries of the best run support in the majors this season. (Run-support average is computed by a formula much like earned run average; it's the number of runs scored for a pitcher while he is in the game, multiplied by nine and divided by innings pitched.)

Pitcher, Team

Record

ERA

Run-Support Avg.

Kevin Gross, Rangers

7-4

5.38

9.00

Tom Gordon, Red Sox

5-2

6.04

8.89

Mark Gardner, Giants

7-1

3.53

8.77

Roger Pavlik, Rangers

9-1

5.01

8.28

Andy Pettitte, Yankees

11-3

4.30

8.13

Source: Stats Inc.

While speculation persists, without concrete evidence, that a juiced ball is responsible for the offensive explosion in baseball the past three seasons, six-time National League batting champion Tony Gwynn suggests another source for the power surge. "Everyone talks about the balls; no one talks about the bats," says Gwynn, the Padres' rightfielder. "I think they're the biggest reason."

Bat manufacturers began to notice a change in the orders they were getting from major league teams about four years ago. "Every year now, the barrels get bigger and bigger, and the handles get thinner and thinner," says Bill Steele, production supervisor of the professional bat division for Rawlings, which makes Adirondack bats. At the same time, most hitters are requesting lighter lumber. "Guys are looking for bat speed," says Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell. "Bat speed creates home runs. Who wouldn't want that?"

Back in the 1920s the average weight of a major league bat was 40 ounces. Five years ago the average weight was 33 ounces, and now it has dropped to 31, according to major league bat manufacturers. One of the heaviest bats currently in use is the 36-ounce model of Indians first baseman Julio Franco. "I can't swing those little bats," says Franco. "They're too light. I don't swing them because I'm not going for home runs."

It used to be that the biggest guys used the biggest bats. Babe Ruth usually used a 42-ounce hickory model. "I felt Babe's bat once," says Gwynn. "It felt like I was swinging a telephone pole. I don't know how anyone could get that thing around on a 95-mph fastball." Dick Allen, another legendarily strong player, used a 40-ounce bat when he was with the White Sox in the 70s. Now some of the strongest hitters in the game use 31-ounce bats, including Atlanta's Fred McGriff, Florida's Gary Sheffield and Seattle's Ken Griffey Jr. and Edgar Martinez. Bagwell uses a 32-ounce model. "It doesn't make any sense," says Indians shortstop Omar Vizquel. "The big guys should be using big bats. But it's the other way around."

The switch to lighter bats is due in part to the light, big-barreled aluminum bats that are used in college and high school ball. "I used a 30-ounce aluminum bat in college," says Bagwell, who went to the University of Hartford. "And I got used to a light bat there." After players get to the pros, they want that same feel in a wood bat. With a light bat, a hitter can wait longer, recognize the pitch easier and still have time to whip the bat through the hitting zone.

There is a downside, of course, to using lighter bats with thinner handles and big barrels: If a batter doesn't hit the ball on the good part of the barrel, not only is a base hit highly unlikely but also the bat will snap in two. "I've never seen so many broken bats in my life," says Phillies manager Jim Fregosi. Yankees coach Don Zimmer says he counted nine bats that broke in half during one game between the Yankees and the Mariners on May 14. Phillies strongman Pete Incaviglia used a 31-ounce bat a few years ago but went through about 12 dozen of them in one year before switching back to a 34-ounce model. In 1993, according to one former teammate, ex-Brewers outfielder Kevin Reimer broke 11 bats in one day: three in batting practice, four in the game and four more when he walked to the bat rack and angrily snapped them in half.

Mariners manager Lou Piniella says, "I used to take pride in taking two bats on a two-week road trip and coming back with both of them. Now, kids have six bats in the bat rack every night." Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner used bats that were nearly the same diameter in the handle as they were in the barrel. Another Hall of Famer, Joe Sewell, is said to have used the same bat in games for 14 years.

Nowadays a player like Gwynn, who uses a thick-handled bat, is a rarity. "In '94 [when he hit .394] I used the same bat all year," says Gwynn, "except when I faced a tough lefthander like Jeff Fassero, who could get the ball in on me. I didn't want to break that bat."

"Nothing is more personal to a player than his bats," says Rex Bradley, vice president of Hillerich & Bradsby, makers of the Louisville Slugger. "They're even more personal than his glove. Because if you don't hit in the major leagues, you don't stay in the major leagues."

Gwynn agrees. He has actually gone to the mill where his Louisville Sluggers are made. He has picked out the billets of wood for his bats. "A bat is a feel thing," he says. "[Teammate] Scott Livingstone and I use the same bats, same length and weight. But I pick up his bats and they just don't feel like mine."

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