More Injuries from Metal Baseball Bats

An article in today’s USA TODAY reports the growing number of head and brain injuries suffered by young athletes due, at least in part, to metal baseball bats. Take the examples of two families, the Sandbergs and the Schlesners:

They’ve each had a son on the verge of dying after being struck on the head by a batted ball and suffering a skull fracture that required emergency surgery. Gunnar Sandberg, 16, was in a coma for three weeks; Cole Schlesner, 15, spent four days in a coma and remained in a hospital for another six weeks.

[The families] both want to see improved safety measures in the youth game — Sandberg a return to wood-only bats, Schlesner the use of helmets by pitchers…. (from USA Today article)

Basically, they are for any change that will make the game safer for kids. Who can blame them? No one expects that a high school baseball game could end in a catastrophic, life-changing injury.

Although there are no hard data linking metal bats to an increase in injuries, there are plenty of anecdotes. Plus, bat manufacturers are quick to try to sell metal bats based on superior performance, but seem to back off when it comes to injury. They say that “exit speeds” off metal bats are only about 6 mph greater than those for wooden bats. On the other hand, those concerned with safety argue that:

  • Metal bats have a “trampoline effect,” the result of the bat compressing and bouncing back when hit by a baseball. Wood bats don’t compress as much because they’re not hollow.
  • Some metal-bat barrels are as much as half-an-inch wider in diameter than wood, increasing the size of their “sweet spot.”
  • Metal bats are lighter and have more of their weight on the handle, which makes them easier to swing faster.
  • In unregulated travel-team tournaments, such as the one where [Cole Schlesner] got hurt, there are no restrictions on bat performance. Before the 2001 season, the National Federation of State High School Associations required high schoolers swing bats in which the differential in weight (in ounces) and length (in inches) is no greater than 3. The previous standard allowed a differential of 5, meaning players could swing bats (such as the popular 34-inch, 29-ounce model) that provided ample plate coverage without sacrificing bat speed. (from USA Today article)

Cole Schlesner’s life was forever changed. he was taken to hospital by helicopter, had surgery to remove part of his skull, and spent time in a coma.

“When he awoke from his coma, he could not talk or walk and his right side was paralyzed. Despite up to nine hours a week of outpatient rehabilitation, he has difficulty walking and lacks full use of his right side. His cognitive development has improved to where he can function in school with some accommodations, but recently he has lost the ability to articulate some syllables and words. His father estimates the cost of his care so far at between $750,000 and $1 million, with 80% to 90% covered by insurance.” (USA Today)

Next Steps

North Dakota has banned metal bats, but other states are considering similar measures. A few individual baseball leagues have made the switch to wooden bats, but not many. There are some research studies being conducted–one at the bioengineering lab at Brown University–to objectively examine whether metal bats are significantly different from wooden bats in terms of their ability to cause catastrophic injuries.

These studies may not fully answer the questions though: researcher Dan Russell, associate professor of applied physics at Kettering University, admits that some of his work has been funded by bat manufacturers. There will, no doubt, be cause for skepticism if his studies show that metal bats are no more dangerous than wooden bats.

In the long run, money may end up helping to change safety regulations. When a larger percentage of metal bat profits have to go to pay the costs of injured children, the manufacturers may decide to take safety seriously. (Last year, manufacturer Hillerich & Bradsby was order by a Montana court to pay $850,000 to the family of a teen player killed by a line drive off a metal bat.)

Meanwhile, we like the advice of Cole Schlesner’s father, who “advocates youth pitchers using helmets, as his three other sons do now.” (USA TODAY)

USA Today article: “As Injuries Mount, Debate Over Metal Baseball Bats Continues”

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