The choice of materials used to construct baseball bats has evolved over the years, starting with solid wood, then to aluminum and now to composites. Major League Baseball only plays with wood bats, but just about every other league from youth softball to college baseball uses a combination of aluminum and composite bats. So is one better than the other?
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Aluminum bats were introduced in the 1970s, and performed similarly to wood bats at the time. It wasn’t until manufacturers began using aluminum alloys and more advanced designs that the aluminum bats began to really outperform wood bats.
Composite bats came onto the scene in the mid-1980s, but quickly disappeared because they didn’t perform as well as aluminum, and they didn’t produce that popular “ping” sound. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that composite bats–usually constructed of a graphite-fiber material and coated with an epoxy resin–became the go-to bat in softball. Since then, they’ve become immensely popular, challenging aluminum bats in both durability and performance.
Aluminum bats can be made of pure aluminum or aluminum alloys. They’re also made with single wall and double wall barrels. According to bat manufacturer DeMarini, the ball actually comes off a single wall bat faster, but the double wall bats have a much larger sweet spot.
Composite bats are made from a wide variety of materials. Some are 100 percent composite, while others have composite handles and barrels made from steel alloys, carbon or other materials. There are even bats that combine wood and composite materials. The best combination of materials is strictly based on personal preference.
Bat design and higher-strength materials have allowed for aluminum bats to become lighter, enabling players to get greater swing speeds. Thinner barrel walls began to create a trampoline effect, giving batted balls greater distance as well. Batted ball speeds (BBS) started going through the roof, too, leading some to even question the safety of aluminum bats. New York City has banned aluminum bats completely from all youth leagues.
Composite bats are even lighter than aluminum bats. They’ve also been credited with making hitters better, because they have a flexible handle, a larger barrel and a larger “sweet spot.” When fully broken in, the composite fibers begin to loosen, and the bats reach top performance–even outperforming aluminum bats. In fact, composite bats were banned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association in 2009 due to “performance improvements” that go “above the standards set by the NCAA.”
Aluminum bats are quite durable, but they also are known to dent over time, making them much less effective.
Composite bats have a reputation for performing poorly and even breaking in weather that is cooler than 65 degrees. Also, aluminum bats are ready to use immediately, whereas composite bats need considerable breaking in–150 to 200 solid hits–before they reach optimal performance.
Cost can be a potential drawback for composite bats and some aluminums as well.
Composite bats can be slightly cost prohibitive. They range in price from $200 to $400. A high-end aluminum bat can also cost upward of $400, but one can purchase a very good aluminum bat for around $100. Lower-end aluminum bats can be had for as little as $25.
What the Experts Say
A study was performed by the University of Massachusetts at Lowell Baseball Research Center to see if, and by how much, performance of aluminum and composite bats improved with use. They tested six “high performance” composite bats against one aluminum bat. Three of the composite bats broke before they even reached 100 hits, implying that maybe there are durability issues with some composites. But the study concluded that there was no significant increase in performance after a minimum of 500 hits with either the aluminum or the composite bats.
Daniel Russell, professor of applied physics at Michigan's Kettering University, used scientific methodology to show that batted balls come off high-end composite bats at faster speeds than other types of bats.
Just as every hitter is different, every bat is different too. Some bats are heavier at the top, some at the handle. There are single walled and double walled bats, alloy bats, one-piece and two-piece bats. Know what type of bat fits you the best before buying.