Editor's Note: Dr. Geier is Director of MUSC Sports Medicine and an orthopaedic surgeon. He writes a sports medicine column for The Post and Courier.
Little League baseball threw its players a curveball recently. Just after Christmas, the youth baseball organization issued a moratorium on the use of composite bats. Parents who presumably purchased the bats, which often cost more than $200, were outraged at the timing, and players, coaches and parents alike seem to oppose the decision for performance reasons.
Composite bats have titanium or carbon fiber cores sheathed in aluminum. They are lighter and therefore supposedly create higher bat speeds. In addition, the composition of the bats creates a trampoline-like effect when the bat hits the ball, especially with longer use over time. Many believe these bats allow players to hit the ball harder and farther. It also, in theory, could increase the risk of injuries to players hit with balls coming off of these bats.
On its website, Little League International never explicitly cites safety concerns as the reason for the ban. According to Patrick Wilson, the vice president of operations, "The moratorium is not a result of Little League changing its bat standards, nor was it influenced by any relationships with bat manufacturers. The decision to place a moratorium on composite bats in Little League's baseball divisions is based solely on the fact that scientific research showed that composite-barreled bats may exceed the performance standard that is printed on the bats, after the bats had been broken in. Until that research was in hand, there was no data to support an earlier decision."
Little League spokesman Steve Barr reiterated the performance issues with these bats in an article in the Wall Street Journal. "We are doing it from a performance standpoint. One of the reasons we wanted to examine this now and start drawing a line is the technology keeps improving from year to year. We felt that we had to get out in front of it."
Another curious aspect of the decision arises from the fact that not all composite bats are banned. Some bats have waivers allowing them to be used. This waiver list has created tremendous confusion. Numerous reports have described players standing in the on-deck circle with parents calling the bat company while the umpire searches through a list for that particular bat. With all of these issues swirling, from my perspective it seems that placing a ban on composite bats would be simpler and easier to accept if Little League claimed safety is the main objective.
The question about safety, though, is whether elimination of these bats will actually decrease injury rates. Little League International is basing this decision on a study that shows that some composite bats hit the ball harder and farther with increased use, not because they will decrease injuries. It makes sense that if the force of the ball coming off the bat increases, the risk of head, eye, and chest injuries from being hit with those balls would increase.
Opponents argue that there are no studies showing definitive evidence that a ban on composite bats, or other protective measures like softer balls and chest protectors, actually decrease injuries. In sports medicine, it is difficult to perform these studies due to high costs and lack of enough players and teams willing to participate in these studies. So we make what we feel are logical recommendations based on available data.
However, these simple measures likely do lower baseball injuries. Based on data from emergency room visits among kids 5-14 years old, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has made recommendations that could make dramatic improvements. It estimates that softer balls could prevent, reduce in frequency, or lessen the severity of 47,900 head and neck injuries, 3,900 facial injuries with batting helmets with face shields, and 6,600 injuries from sliding with safety-release bases.
From the standpoint of an orthopaedic surgeon interested not just in treating sports injuries but preventing them, I feel strongly that physicians, parents and coaches need to push for simple safety measures like safety-release bases, helmets with face shields, chest protectors for pitchers, and yes, at least consider preventing the use of composite bats. We might not eliminate every possible baseball injury, but we can make it a much safer sport for our kids.
Read more about youth baseball injuries and other sports medicine topics on Dr. Geier's blog at drdavidgeier.com.