Hitting may be a science, as Ted Williams is wont to say, but hitters aren't scientists. Does maple drive the ball farther than ash? "Definitely," says the Baltimore Orioles' David Segui, who swings maple exclusively. Hogwash, says Steve Baum of Traverse City, Mich., an inventor who makes and markets a wood composite bat that's not approved for major league use. "Given equal weight, equal length, equal centers of gravity and equal dimensions, solid wood bats all hit the same."
Apparently beauty is in the eye of the bat-holder. Segui's opinion, which is shared by many of his peers, is based on feel; Baum's is backed by data. Seven years ago he invented the Baum Hitting Machine, a device that measures the exit velocity of a ball struck by a bat. The machine is used at the Major League Baseball-funded Baseball Research Center at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, the lab that in 2000 conducted tests on balls believed to be juiced. (They weren't.) SI asked Baum to find out if the increasingly popular maple bats could be the difference between warning-track outs and game-winning homers.
Baum strapped a regular ash Louisville Slugger, a lacquered ash Slugger and maples made by Sam Bat and Old Hickory-all 34-inch, 32-ounce bats with standard model C271 design that's used by Ken Griffey Jr. and other major leaguers—onto his machine. The results: The bats performed virtually the same, sending balls pitched at 70 mph out at approximately 96 mph. In fact, plain ash had, by a shade, the highest average exit velocity, 96.78 mph. (Old Hickory was lowest, at 95.55 mph.)
Opting for the new bats, however, is like being a creationist—if a hitter believes in maple, science won't get him to put it down. It doesn't hurt that a certain Giants slugger vouches for maple's superiority. "Hell, yeah," says the Phillies' Mike Lieberthal when asked if Barry Bonds's home run record persuaded him to switch to that wood. "I'm watching everything Barry does."