You've probably read all the stories about former players, former carpenters, former bat reps, or even former sawmills deciding to start their own maple baseball bat business. At RockBats, we have a different story to tell.
RockBats was founded by Roland Hernandez - a Research Wood Scientist from the USDA Forest Products Laboratory - the national research laboratory of the Forest Service located in Madison, Wisconsin. Read more about the Forest Products Laboratory at their website.
For over 17 years, Roland was a government researcher in the area of structural engineered wood products - primarily glued-laminated timber. His research involved (1) Utilization, (2) Analysis, and (3) Optimization of wood materials for the development of viable structural wood products. One utilization project involved taking small-diameter Ponderosa pine forest thinnings and making usable structural glued-laminated timber beams (click here to read that Forest Service report). Analysis projects involved interpreting laboratory test data, developing computer simulation models, and formulating reports and recommendations that could be implemented by the structural wood products industry. Optimization projects were the culmination of years of research - resulting in IMPROVED performance of structural wood products.
In one particular project, a high-performance glulam beam was designed and tested in the laboratory (click here to see that Forest Service report). That technology was used by Anthony Forest Products to create what is now called the "Power Beam" (see here). To this day, this is still the strongest all-wood glulam beam available in the wood products industry.
In addition to the 50+ research reports, Roland has authored several chapters in various Wood Engineering textbooks - Glued Structural Members chapter in the Forest Service Wood Handbook (2000 version), Wood Properties section in Mark's Handbook for Mechanical Engineers, and others.
Then came baseball bats
Having always been a baseball fan, the idea of applying his wood science and engineering background to baseball bats has always been intriguing. It was about 2000, when he decided to begin a business relating to wood baseball bats. However, rather than diving in with a lathe and some wood blanks, he decided to research what had been done for the past 100 years. Here is where his background in (1) Utilization, (2) Analysis, and (3) Optimization came in handy.
First of all, it was well known that the most common wood to use was White ash (Fraxinus americana), a strong wood that has good resistance to impact strength, and is the correct density to make desirable weight baseball bats. Ash has good wood properties, so it was no surprise that this was the most popular baseball bat wood in the past 100 years. Also well known was that players are supposed to hit "LOGO UP" with an Ash bat, so that ball contact is made on the edge-grain. Players knew that they had to hit on the edge grain to prevent "flaking". Flaking occurs on Ash because it is a ring porous species - repeated contact on the flat-grain results in the annual rings separating, as shown in the photo on the right.
Another intriguing rule-of-thumb was the practice of selecting Ash bats that had approximately 8 to 10 rings per inch. It was known that bats with these number of "grains" were stronger than other bats. Well, through independent research - and having the convenience of working at the national laboratory of the Forest Service, Roland dug up data that showed WHY it is desirable to select Ash bats having 8 to 10 rings per inch.
The graph shows rings per inch on the x-axis versus stiffness of White ash on the y-axis. This is data on wood blanks that were tested prior to the 1930's. Note that as the rings per inch increases, the stiffness of the tested wood drops. The red lines show a range of approx. 8 to 12 rings per inch, and the large dot is centered at 25 rings per inch. There is about a 20% drop between the data within the red lines, and the large dot at 25 rings per inch. The graph for strength shows a similar trend.
So, this data shows that the 100-year-old rule-of-thumb was pretty accurate... players WILL get good wood if they pick an Ash bat with approx. 8 to 10 rings per inch. However, note that this range could be expanded out to perhaps 8 to 12 rings per inch.
One new question arose; if ring-porous Ash bats need to be hit on the edge grain because the annual rings will "flake" if hit repeatedly on the flat-grain... then what about Maple bats? Maple is not a ring-porous species, it is a diffuse porous species. "Diffuse-porous" means that there are NO porous wood layers in each year of growth. So the question now was, do Maple bats NEED to be hit on the edge grain? The answer is NO.
This brings up the next logical question - if Maple bats do NOT NEED to be hit on the edge grain, then what would be the preferred orientation? Again, through independent research - and the convenience of working at the national laboratory of the Forest Service, Roland dug up data that showed which ORIENTATION is the strongest when testing wood blanks.
In the 1960s, several species of wood were tested for toughness (which is similar to impact bending - like a "karate chop" test). This was just a basic research report, but it was perfectly tailored for wood baseball bats... and was resurrected by Roland over 40 years later. In that report, results were convincing that wood is stronger when contact is made on the flat grain.
This is even true for Ash. So, the Ash handle of a baseball bat is stronger when impact is made on the flat-grain of the barrel. BUT, edge-grain contact is still advocated for Ash because the annual rings in the barrel will fatigue and separate after repeated hits.
Even MORE INTRIGUING with the data shown in this chart is that rupture on the bark side of the wood is stronger than on the opposite face.
Because of this independent research, RockBats WAS THE FIRST WOOD BAT COMPANY THAT ADVOCATED THAT MAPLE BATS BE ORIENTED FOR FLAT-GRAIN CONTACT... this was 2005.
Maple bats became popular starting in the mid-1990's, yet every single bat company that made maple bats during those years was placing their logo on the flat-grain, and advocating edge-grain contact - same as had been done for 100 years with Ash bats.
No one stopped to asked the question - "I'm using a different wood, should I be doing something different?"
If you have wondered, "should I still pick 8 to 12 rings per inch for Maple?" The answer is NO.
That same data for rings per inch was also available for Maple, and the data shows that there is NO considerable drop in stiffness (and strength).
In the data for Maple, that large dot that sits on the average line at 25 rings per inch shows that stiffness has less than a 5% drop, compared to the average stiffness between 8 to 12 rings per inch.
In short, you DON'T NEED TO COUNT YOUR RINGS ON A MAPLE BAT.
Then came the wood grading
Having worked with the structural engineered wood products industry, Roland was deeply involved in the development of standards and design methodologies for these wood products. It was a NECESSITY... these wood products hold up the roof over our head, so it was important to DESIGN these wood products to withstand design loads - and it was important to use correctly graded lumber to make these structural wood products.
In the wood bat industry, there were NO standards for the wood used to make the bats - not even at the highest level of game play. So, Roland set out to develop a wood grading standard of his own - this was 2002.
Wood bats don't have knots, so a wood grading standard for bat blanks was not going to be like a structural lumber standard - which limits the size and occurrence of knots on the board. A grading standard for wood bat blanks was going to be based on grading clear wood... and the #1 factor that controls the strength of clear wood is a property called "slope-of-grain". Basically, "slope-of-grain" is the angle at which a piece of wood is cut, relative to the grain direction growing in the log. For over 100 years, logs were SPLIT to make the staves that became bat blanks. This was the best method to consistently produce straight-grained bat blanks - because split blanks followed the grain, and this resulted in baseball bats with straight-grain.
Maple logs, however, do not split very well - so these are often sawn at a sawmill. When you saw a log, you are not following the grain 100% like when you split a log. Therefore, wood blanks that are sawn can have a "slope" to the grain. It is this "slope" that needs to be controlled, otherwise, the strength of the baseball bat is severely reduced.
Here are two photos showing the edge grain (left) and the flat grain (right). The edge-grain straightness has been graded for the past 100 years... the straighter the grain, the stronger the bat. What was NOT graded for straight grain was the flat grain face. For Ash wood that had been split, this was not a problem - because those blanks had straight-grain due to the splitting process. But when maple blanks are SAWN from log, the "slope of grain" on the flat-grain face is the one that went unnoticed.
Need to clarify, by SAWING maple logs, you can still produce top-quality maple blanks for baseball bats. BUT, you have to apply additional steps in your processing, which for Ash - was being taken care of by splitting the logs. If you are a sawmill and plan to produce maple blanks, you will need to grade your planks and cut WITH THE GRAIN.
Three wood science facts made this "slope-of-grain" situation escalate into the broken bat problem often associated with Maple bats... (1) maple was not typically split from logs, so this meant that a significant slope-of-grain could exist on the flat-grain, (2) wood is WEAKEST in the plane perpendicular to the rings, and (3) the impact bending strength of wood drops dramatically as the angle from straight-grain increases.
- The photo in the above right shows an ink spot that bleeds along the grain, and the red line is the center line that is down the middle of the round blank. Because this wood blank was sawn from a log, there was a slight angle between the straight piece of wood and the wood grain within it - this is called "slope-of-grain" on the flat-grain face.
- When wood failure occurs, it is usually along the radial planes of the log - perpendicular to the flat-grain face. Imagine how you would split a log of firewood - you split it into "pie" wedges, because those radial planes are the WEAKEST planes. When a wood bat splits apart like in the photo on the right, it usually splits along the radial planes - they do NOT break by the annual rings separating from each other. This is very important to understand!
- As the "slope-of-grain" increases, it severely drops the strength of the bat. Also, bats that break due to a high "slope-of-grain" will have the classic OVAL-SHAPED break like that shown at right. Bats that have perfect straight-grained wood do NOT break like that shown at right.
Why did Maple bats develop into a problematic "broken bat" issue?
Bats do not break by "slope-of-grain" because they are Maple, bats break by that oval-shaped "slope-of-grain" break because they have a severe angle of grain, with respect to the centerline of the bat. You could point to the fact that maple logs don't split very well (lots of waste), so manufacturers of bat blanks need to saw the logs into blanks. Sawing doesn't "automatically" follow the grain like splitting does - so if a sawmill doesn't take care to follow the grain, they will produce blanks with severe slope-of-grain.
Furthermore, there were no grading rules that bat makers could follow - so when purchasing wood blanks to make baseball bats, they were simply buying CLEAR WOOD (no knots) and that's it. Lumber grading standards were based on making furniture, and the highest grade for furniture was a CLEAR piece of wood that had no knots. Further grading CLEAR WOOD for straight-grain was unheard of.
So, in 2002, Roland developed a wood grading standard for his own RockBats that was going to target a limit for slope-of-grain in wood bats. The core technology for this system was based on a relationship called the Hankinson formula. It was well established in the wood science industry that the properties of wood significantly dropped as the angle of grain changed.
The graph here shows the Hankinson relationship for several wood properties, and the impact bending graph is highlighted. Note that at a 10-degree angle, the impact bending strength of wood is only about 35% of the strength of perfectly straight-grained wood.
When sawing logs to obtain maximum yields, 10-degrees is not that unusual of a result to have in a CLEAR WOOD blank processed this way.
What level did RockBats choose when creating their grading standard in 2002?
We wanted an "A+" grade for our RockBats, so we chose the point of 90% strength on the Hankinson chart. This is approximately a 2-degree angle for slope-of-grain.
More intriguing technology
With the wood science established, now came the engineering that went into the development of the first RockBats in 2002. Every ball player knows that a bat has a "sweet spot", that's the optimum point to make contact with the baseball. But, where is the sweet spot? and how do you determine it's location. Well, by the application of engineering and physics, RockBats were developed so that we are the only baseball bat company to test and identify the location of the sweet spot on the barrel.
We now had 3 technologies that we believed would make us the premier wood bat in the industry: (1) slope-of-grain grading, (2) flat-grain contact, and (3) sweet spot testing and identification.
Finally, someone with a wood science and engineering background stopped to ask the question... "what's the best way to design and manufacture a MAPLE baseball bat?".
As is the case with all companies, when you grow, you cannot do it alone. Our ownership group expanded from just Roland and his wife, Elaine - to a well rounded group of owners that each brought specific skills to the company.
Ben, Mike, and Charlie Zelazoski, of Zelazoski Wood Products, Inc. in Antigo, WI are now part owners of RockBats, LLC. This family-owned wood products manufacturing facility was founded in 1924 specializing in brush and broom blocks. When first contacted by RockBats, there was one copy lathe - and today, there are 3 lathes (one with CNC technology). As you can see by the photo, turning a piece of wood is only a small facet of what we can do. With the expertise in manufacturing, RockBats correctly approached the baseball bat business using wood science, and state-of-the-art manufacturing.
Mike and Christy Kingery came on board as the Major League connection. Mike had 17 years of professional baseball experience as an outfielder with the Kansas City Royals, Seattle Mariners, San Francisco Giants, Oakland A's, Colorado Rockies and Pittsburgh Pirates. Upon retiring as a Major League player, Mike returned to his hometown and created Solid Foundation Baseball School, Inc. to answer strong demand from local baseball teams and players. Mike has trained professional baseball instructors using hands-on instruction techniques he learned in the big leagues, helping players maximize their abilities and understand the basic fundamentals of the game. When RockBats develops a new baseball bat design, all prototype bats are placed in Mike's hands to be evaluated for its performance and feel.
Dave Bruns and Chuck Steinhauer. Dave Bruns joined the RockBats group as the veteran sales professional who will be handling all retail Dealers and expansion of RockBats into YOUR neighborhood sporting goods store. Dave has been an executive at many levels. His sales and leadership experience includes time with Procter & Gamble and Memorex-Telex, among others. Chuck Steinhauer is the business professional who is assisting RockBats with our expected exponential growth in the coming years. Chuck credits his ability to help busiensses survive and compete in today's market by "being on the technological edge and running an efficient operation".
After 17 years, Roland decided to leave his government job and pursue running his business full time - RockBats. He truly believed that he had developed THE BEST Maple bat in the industry - through wood science and engineering, there was NO OTHER bat company that could match the technologies that RockBats brought to the table.
RockBats may not have been the first company to make maple bats, but they were the first to do it right.
Long story short; research was conducted by the major leagues in 2008, and it was confirmed that "slope-of-grain" was the way to go for grading baseball bat blanks. AND, it was confirmed that Maple baseball bats are truly stronger when hit on the flat-grain face. SO, Bat Supplier Regulations were changed for the 2009 season to include the following technologies:
- The "slope-of-grain" grading for baseball bat wood was a requirement for all manufacturers - with a maximum allowed slope of approx. 3-degrees on both the edge and flat-grain face. This technology is most recognized by the ink spot that is now on every maple (and birch) bat in the major leagues.
- Flat-grain grain contact is now required for ALL bat manufacturers that are supplying the major leagues. Thus, the 100-year-old rule-of-thumb to place logos on the flat grain was now changed to the edge grain for maple (and birch) bats - to advocate flat-grain contact.
Just like in Roland's days of being a government research scientist, it took years of research before finally seeing results translated into implementation by the industry.
After all the new bat regulations were adopted by the major leagues, RockBats chose NOT to pursue certification for supplying bats to the major leaguers in 2009. Therefore, Roland contacted Milwaukee's professional team to conduct independent consulting - as a wood scientist. By grading and rating every wood bat received by the team, this resulted in that team having the fewest 2-piece broken bats out of all 30 major league teams. That year demonstrated the levels that could be achieved for increased safety and performance - due to the application of wood science in the clubhouse.
RockBats chose to pursue certification in 2010, and chose to ONLY work with Milwaukee's professional team that year. Much like Roland's scientific approach to conducting research projects, careful steps were taken to demonstrate the technology that RockBats had to offer. Bat shape re-designs specific to the player's needs, and commitment to quality for professional players was the goal. By mid-season, we had 12 professional players from Milwaukee's professional team order RockBats.
On June 26th, 2010, RockBats appeared on the front page of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
On June 29th, 2010 - 6 of 9 starters for Milwaukee's professional team went up to bat with a RockBat.
In the July All-Star game, Milwaukee's two position players that were invited to the 2010 All-Star game (Ryan Braun and Corey Hart) both used their RockBats. Corey Hart was also invited to the HR Derby, and had a tremendous showing in his first round performance. Read more about Corey Hart's Home Run Derby performance.
Overall, a great season.
In 2011, RockBats visited with major league teams during Spring Training in AZ. Our approach was to offer an engineering-based approach to supplying wood bats for professional players. Swing Weight Analysis, coupled with bat shape design, resulted in matching bats to professional players that offered optimum performance. We worked with the Colorado Rockies and by season's end, we had 10 players total who had tried RockBats - this included players like Tulowitzki, Helton, Giambi, Gonzalez, and others.
RockBats also grew in the international scene - with our international certification in place, we now have bats used by teams and leagues in Europe and Asia.
In the U.S., we have a growing list of leagues and teams that are switching to RockBats. As players learn more about wood quality and its importance to the performance of a wood bat - RockBats becomes the obvious choice.
Our trend of ADVANCING the state-of-the-art continues into 2012.