There’s nothing like stepping up to the plate with a wood bat in your hands. The feel of grain and pine tar is a traditional, timeless expression of baseball’s bold, rugged nature. The distinct “crack” as the barrel meets the ball is unlike anything in sports — the sound that has defined the game for well over a century.
Read on to learn how you can get the most out of your wood bat during every plate appearance.
WHY USE A WOOD BAT?
Hitting with a wood bat can help players develop better mechanics. While metal bats are used in league play almost exclusively up through the collegiate level, it’s a good idea for players to get familiar with wood. Consider having your young player take batting practice with wood, or get them involved in an off-season wood bat league.
Wood bats tend to be heavier than metal bats, so by using wood players will actually develop more of the muscles required to become an elite hitter. Wood bats also have a smaller “sweet spot,” meaning hitters will learn to develop a more precise swing in order to hit the ball as far as possible.
Finally, metal bats are more forgiving than wood, which can result in poor swing habits such as hitting off the handle or end of the bat. Hitting this way with a wood bat will, at best, result in poor contact, and, at worst, a broken bat. The bottom line: players will have to learn to make the proper adjustments or suffer the consequences and the sooner players learn the benefits of using a wood bat, the better.
GRIPPING A WOOD BAT
Players may find the bare wood handle difficult to grip. Thankfully, there are several ways to make a wood bat easier to use.
1. PINE TAR OR TACK
There are a few different options for applying pine tar and tack to your bat. In the old days, the only option to improve your grip was a sticky, messy and staining pine tar rag. Today, pine tar and tack may come in a plastic tube, wrapped in durable paper or even in spray form. You simply apply the pine tar or tack and throw it back in your bag. If you find that the handle is too sticky after applying pine tar or tack, try adding some rosin on top to lessen the grip.
You can apply the pine tar or tack directly on your bat handle, or you can put it on the barrel under the label and grab it as you need it. Some players prefer the latter to avoid putting too much directly on the handle.
“The pine tar stick worked for me,” said Brian Billigen, a Content Specialist at DICK’S Sporting Goods who played professional baseball in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization. “I’d put it below the barrel, and I would just tap it. If I overdid it, I would add some rosin to get rid of the ‘stick’.
“I’d also put a little bit on the bottom of the handle, right below the knob. I always thought it helped keep my bottom hand from rolling over.”
Using tape allows you to customize the grip to your unique preferences. You can find tape specifically designed for bats, but you can also use standard athletic tape. Tape will not make the bat handle any stickier, so you’ll likely want to apply pine tar or tack.
3. BAT GRIPS
You can also get a grip specifically made for a bat handle. These grips have become quite popular over the years and are typically easy to put on. They can improve your grip substantially, especially in wet conditions.
HIT WITH THE LABEL UP
The most important thing to remember when using a wood bat is to hit with the label facing up. You will probably come across this phrase often when researching wood bats. But what exactly does it mean?
The manufacturer’s label is typically placed on the weakest part of the barrel. When the bat makes contact with the ball, the label should be facing up towards the sky — if you were to look down at that moment, you should be able to see the entire label. This ensures you make contact with the straightest and strongest grains on the wood — the “stacked” grain. You can also do the opposite and have the label facing down towards the ground, but looking at the label is a good mental checkpoint for many players.
“Clear the mechanism,” Billigen says, quoting the classic line by Kevin Costner in the baseball movie, “For Love of the Game.” “I’d always focus on the label — that was my way of getting in the zone before I’d hit.”
CLEANING YOUR BAT
Excess pine tar, along with sweat and grime, can build up on the bat handle and interfere with your grip. To get rid of unwanted gunk, wet a soft cloth with rubbing alcohol and wipe the handle from top to bottom until clean. You can also start at the top of the barrel if you wish to clean the entire bat; some players like to remove ball marks and other scuffs to maintain a polished look.
BONE RUBBING YOUR BAT
You may have heard players talk about “boning” their bats. This technique is as old as the game itself. Back in the old days, players would rub their barrels with a dried-out bone. Why? The idea is that rubbing your bat barrel against a hard surface will condense the wood and make it stronger. Today, some players still use the traditional bone, but they may also use a wood rolling pin, a metal rod, a porcelain surface or even another bat.
Should you try it? Only if you use an unfinished ash bat, as ash tends to flake and splinter. Other types of wood, especially maple, are so dense to begin with that boning won’t do much to harden the wood. And if your bat has a finish, boning could rub it off — you don’t want that.
Still, if you want to try boning your bat, the simplest method is to hold the bat firmly and rub the bone (or whatever object you choose) as hard as you can around the entire barrel.
Billigen has an alternative to boning an ash bat.
“I would sand it a little bit. If you have chips and frays, you’re going to have different points of contact. I would sand it down so that I would hit off one solid piece of wood.”
The obvious downside to wood bats is that, well, they can break. It happens. But there are a few steps you can take to ensure your wood bat lasts as long as possible.
- Store your wood bat in a cool, dry place. Keep your bat out of places with excess moisture or extreme temperatures, like a basement or garage. Store the bat in a vertical position with the handle up.
- Tape the barrel for batting practice. There’s nothing more frustrating than breaking a bat during practice. Taping the barrel of your bat during batting practice can help prevent this from happening.
- Avoid hitting rubber batting cage balls. Batting cages are great for working on your mechanics. Unfortunately, the rubber balls are not so great for the life of your bat.
If you do go with the distinguished wood bat, just remember to care for it the way a classic should be looked after.