TORONTO — Blue Jays pitching coach Bruce Walton was back at Rogers Centre on Friday after he was struck by a piece of a broken bat during Toronto’s game against the Seattle Mariners the previous night.
The scary incident brought the simmering issue of maple bat breakage back to the forefront.
Edwin Encarnacion’s bat shattered in several pieces on a first-inning groundout in the Blue Jays’ 8-3 win at Rogers Centre on Thursday. The barrel of the bat flew at high speed into the Toronto dugout and Walton managed to protect himself at the last second by shielding his head with his arms.
"It was just like someone swung a bat and hit me as hard as they could with the barrel of the bat," Walton said before Friday’s game against the Boston Red Sox.
Maple bats are quite popular but tend to be more brittle than traditional ash bats, often sending shards of wood flying in different directions when they break. On Thursday night, Encarnacion was left holding the handle while the barrel — with its sharp edges — spun violently in the air.
Walton suffered bruised forearms and was treated on the bench before leaving the dugout area. Precautionary X-rays were negative, a team spokesman said in an email.
"Honestly, we dodged something severe there," Blue Jays manager John Farrell said after Thursday’s game.
Walton said he was fortunate that he was able to react at the last second.
"It was coming straight at eye level," he said. "I knew it was going to hit me obviously. I didn’t know how fast it was going. I obviously didn’t know the speed of it."
He added that he can’t bend his left elbow all that well but his right arm is feeling better.
An MLB committee found in 2008 that maple bats were three times as likely to break in multiple places as ash bats. New bat production standards were in place for the 2009 season and the breakage rate dropped significantly afterwards.
However, Farrell said maple bats still regularly create dangerous situations when they break and he called for changes to be made.
"We see it every night where there’s near misses," he said Friday. "And people openly talk about it, they feel lucky. And you see it routinely."
Major League Baseball spokesman Mike Teevan said that MLB has worked with scientists and experts to study the issue extensively over the last few years.
"Our work has been exhaustive on it and the results have definitely shown great improvement on this issue," Teevan said from New York. "It’s unfortunate whenever an incident happens but fortunately there are fewer now than there were a few years ago."
Teevan added that a safety and health advisory committee continually monitors the issue.
"I know we track incidents like last night’s very closely so I think their work is ongoing," he said. "If the experts that we have come to them and were to tell them, ‘These are some things you should consider, these are some things you should adopt,’ I think they would definitely take it under advisement."
Low-density maple bats were banned last fall but that only applies to rookies and new major leaguers going forward. Manufacturers must follow slope-of-grain restriction standards and produce bats with a minimum handle diameter and maximum barrel diameter.
"There’s bats that sometimes break and fly in different directions and it’s always dangerous," Blue Jays catcher Jeff Mathis said. "But it’s part of the game and luckily nobody got seriously injured."
Walton was seated near the end of the bench closest to home plate. It’s a busy spot with players often walking in the area to pick up bats from the rack at the end of the dugout.
Bullpen coach Pete Walker replaced him on Toronto’s bench.
The shards of wood that spray through the air when a bat breaks can put pitchers, infielders, base coaches, umpires and fans at risk.
In 2010, Chicago Cubs outfielder Tyler Colvin was hospitalized after part of a broken bat punctured his chest. He was hit by a shard from a maple bat while on third base. Colvin was treated with a chest tube that prevented his lung from collapsing.
Last year, Rays pitcher David Price escaped injury after he took a blow to the back of the head from part of a broken bat during a game.