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Hitting with a Wood Bat

(Part 3 of a Series by Charlie LaDuca)
This article first appeared on HardBall Magazine's website in December, 2007

The trend in the MSBL is towards greater use of wood bats. This is especially true for the higher age divisions. Most players find it takes time to adjust to the switch from metal, and break a few wood bats along the way.

There are some important things you need to know if you hope to get some longevity from your wood bat investment. Pay attention to the label or trademark. It plays a vital role. It is strategically placed to reveal the strongest and weakest parts of the bat. This holds true for all solid wood bats whether they are made of maple, ash or another type of wood.

The surface of the bat on which the label is placed is the weakest part of the bat, as is the surface directly opposite the label. The bat is strongest on the two surfaces to the left and right side of the label. A good visual image is of a deck of cards. Compare the fifty two lines made by the edge of each card to the grain pattern on a bat.

If you hold the deck sideways, and hit a hard surface with the edge of it, it does not bend. It feels rigid and strong. However, if you hold the deck flat by one end, and slap it down on a surface, you will see that it flexes and bends upon contact. The bottom line is you want the ball to contact the bat on either side of the label for maximum durability and pop.

If you were lucky enough to hit with wood as a kid, you probably grew tired of hearing "keep the label” up. This is a truism, but there’s a little more to it. If you start with the label up, but roll your wrists prior to contact, the ball will not hit the bat in an ideal spot. Part of good hitting technique is to have the palm of the top hand facing upward as the head of the bat passes through the hitting zone. If the wrists roll prior to contact, the palm of the top hand will have rotated in the direction of the pitcher. If the bat makes contact, this tends to result in a ground ball.  Worse, the label is also facing the pitcher at the moment of contact, and this means the bat can break.

The true test is where you are leaving ball marks on the bat. It’s easy to see the marks you leave on a wood bat, so use this information to make an adjustment. 

This raises the critical question: How should you swing a wood bat to be successful?

I touched on the differences between metal and wood bats in a previous article (Selecting a Wood Bat), but let’s review. A metal bat manufacturer can manipulate the balance and sweet spot of its bat. Wood bat manufacturers can produce different models with different balance points, but to a much lesser degree than the metal guys.

There is a huge difference in the size of the sweet spot between the two, making metal much more forgiving than wood. You’re aware of the difference if you’ve ever been fisted with a wood bat on a cold day. The "hand full of bees” sensation is quite unique. The sweet spot on any bat is the area that creates the fewest vibrations. On a wood bat, this spot is located about 4½ inches down from the end of the barrel and extends for about three inches.

How to Succeed with Wood

The first adjustment a hitter needs to make when converting to wood is to be fully aware of the smaller sweet spot, and learn how to control this section of the bat. This is accomplished mechanically by keeping your weight back and your hands inside the baseball until you extend your arms to and through the ball. You must be much more mechanically sound to experience success hitting with a wood bat compared to metal. The forgiving nature of metal creates very bad habits in hitters. My personal observation is that many metal bat hitters jump at the ball extending or bar arming their front arm and dragging the barrel through the zone. This is a weak mechanical position and makes for a slow bat with little pop. This same swing produces very poor results when a using a wood bat. The heavier barrel weight of a wood bat turns this swing into a pop up or weak fly ball. You must learn to keep keeping your weight and hands back as you stride and put down the front foot. Start the bat forward with flexed arms and elbows close to your body, whipping the barrel down and through the hitting zone with authority.

You must also learn to lay off pitches that are not in the strike zone. Stay back and wait for a pitch that you can handle. A ball hit off the fists or off the end of the bat is usually an out when hitting with wood. Force yourself to pick up the flight and rotation of the ball as early as possible. Focus on the ball from the hand to the bat as if your life depended on it.

The fact that hitting with wood forces you to improve your mechanics is the very reason so many coaches are requiring their players to hit with wood even though they may play in a metal bat league. If you can master the techniques of hitting with wood and convert that swing to metal, you will be a force with which to be reckoned.

I would strongly encourage all players to get their hands on a wood bat and practice, practice, practice. Over a period of time, the added barrel weight increases your bat speed. You become stronger and quicker. The instant feedback you receive from contact on or off the sweet spot is a great training tool. If you’re new to wood bats, be patient. There is a learning curve that takes place. Initially you might get frustrated with your lack of success, but it won’t be long before you hit one on the button and the light bulb clicks. Stick with it and you will be rewarded with vastly improved skills at the plate.

About the Author

Charles LaDuca plays in the Chautauqua MSBL in New York. He is a former president of his league, is a teacher and a baseball coach. Through his company, Pro Bats, he is also a specialty manufacturer of wood bats. He can be reached through his website at www.probats.net .

Read Part I: The ABCs of Wood Bats
Read Part II: Selecting A Wood Bat

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Originally posted December 2007

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