2010's Year Of The Pitcher Can't Be Explained By Thinner Bats

Big bats were outlawed in 2010, but does that help explain why pitchers got the upper hand?

Last week over at Royals Authority, Nick Scott pointed out a little-noticed change to Major League Baseball’s rules in 2010, mandating that the maximum width of bats would drop from 2.75 inches in diameter to 2.61 inches.

 

Jeff Sullivan responded, “Smaller bats. It seems so obvious. Does the rule change explain everything? No, probably not. But it definitely seems like the kind of thing someone would’ve wanted to bring up at some point over the past calendar year.”

True. It’s surprising that we didn’t hear about this before (not loudly, anyway).

Still. I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions. But I did make a few New Job’s Resolutions last week, and one of them was to pick up the phone more often.

Which isn’t to say that Nick Scott didn’t get on the phone (or the e-mail machine). Because he did, contacting a physics professor in Australia who suggested that swinging strikes might increase by five percent with the smaller bats. And strikeouts were, in fact, up slightly in 2010, and significantly since 2008. Mystery solved, right? At least some?

Except I got on the phone, too, and talked to Daniel Halem, Major League Baseball’s Senior Vice President and General Counsel, Labor Relations. (Any changes to the playing equipment must be collectively bargained, which means labor lawyers get involved on both sides.)

So how many players were affected by the new rule governing the width of the bat?

Zero.

In 2009, not a single player in the major leagues used a bat with a barrel more than 2.61 inches in diameter. None. In fact, that explains why the rule was changed; if any players had been using barrels larger than 2.61 inches, the union would have objected and it probably wouldn’t have happened. According to Halem, the rule was changed merely to forestall the future manufacturing and use of such bats.

We’ll need to find another explanation for the Year of the Pitcher.

Granted, that wasn’t the only change in the rules governing bats. You might recall that the shattering of bats, and especially maple bats, became a real issue a few years ago. What you might not know (I didn’t) is that MLB has made some real progress in addressing that issue.

MLB hired a bunch of experts to look at the bats, and they determined that maple bats often fail because 1) the “slope of grain” is inadequate, i.e. not straight enough; or 2) they’ve got low density, as measured in pounds per cubic inch.

Beginning in 2009, all manufacturers were required to adhere to slope-of-grain standards, no matter the wood species.

Also beginning in 2009, all players joining a major-league team’s 40-man roster for the first time were prohibited from using maple bats with density lower than 0.0240 pounds per cubic inch.

Granted, that second rule shouldn't have made much difference, since the great majority of players in the major leagues were on a 40-man roster prior to 2009, and were grandfathered in with the low-density bats.

None of that seems all that consequential, does it? A few players were subject to “education” if they suffered a great number of “multi-piece failures” – broken bats – but still, how much could any of this have changed?

As it happens, quite a lot. According to Major League Baseball, MPF declined by 50 percent from 2008 to 2010. In 2008, there was an average of 1.0 MPF per game; in 2010 it was just 0.5 MPF per game. According to Halem, that huge drop was “due primarily to better slope of grain, educating the manufacturers, and educating the players on which bats are more durable, and which are less durable.”

Most of that decline (35 percent) came in 2009, and we shouldn’t expect a big drop in 2011, because there aren’t any new rules. Next year, though? According to Halem, the bats are “a topic we will discuss in negotiations.”

We tend to spend a lot of time and energy running down MLB’s efforts, and I’m not going to apologize for that because I’m paid to express my opinions and MLB does a lot of things that drive me a little bonkers. But fair’s fair, and it seems to me they’ve done a fantastic job on this one, especially considering the resistance of the union. Just possibly, some baseball player’s career (or life!) has been saved.

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