No Shortage of Opinions
***NOTE*** I wrote this post in September of 2013. Obviously, models have changed since then. However, there's still good information here that can help you with your purchase. Bat preference is like asking 20 guys what their favorite beer is - Good luck getting consensus.
One of the most frequently asked questions is, "What kind of bat should I get?" My answer has changed several times over the years. When you search the web for fastpitch softball bat reviews or top fastpitch softball bats and find articles you'll find there are no shortage of opinions. There are comments written by parents, coaches and players on many softball bat resellers web sites and softball forums too. Those comments typically range from, "I love that bat! Glad I bought this bat!" to "That bat is terrible. Don't buy it. Buy this bat instead."
You're in for a shock if you are new to the sport and have never shopped for a bat before.
Bats Are Expensive These Days
You're in for a shock if you are new to the sport and have never shopped for a bat before. They are topping out at about $349 today with small aluminum youth bats starting at $25. That's a big price difference. An inexpensive plain old aluminum bat is perfectly adequate for the youth recreational players (ages 5-12). The girls do not need a high-end composite bat at those ages, especially in recreational softball. They can even use an old bat you picked up at a garage sale.
When your daughter begins playing 12u travel ball, you'll quickly become aware of the difference in the bats. The sound of the bat hitting the ball will be the first thing you notice. The next thing will be the hardness and distance of those hits. This is because they are no longer using aluminum bats. They're using composite bats that are made up of a graphite and carbon fibers and hit the ball much harder and farther than aluminum bats. There's not any serious debate over the advantages of composite bats. They're better.
If you can pick up something that's cool or pretty, your daughter will be happy.
First Question - Aluminum or Composite?
As I mentioned before, in the youth recreational league aluminum bats are more than adequate. The average level of pitching that your daughter faces will be extremely low, not to mention slow and wild. Swinging bunts often result in home runs with the defense throwing the ball all over the field chasing the runner. Save your money if your daughter only plays at this level. The brand and model is not too important, so if you can pick up something that's cool or pretty, your daughter will be happy.
If your daughter plays 12u travel ball or older or for her high school, then you'll likely be shopping for composite bats. Pitchers will throw harder and the defense will be better. Hitters need the advantages that composite bats have in order to be successful. Even slappers can benefit from composite bats, whether they pound the ball into the ground to get the high hop or hit line drives in the gaps. For power hitters it really is a no brainer.
The Big 3 of Fastpitch Softball Bat Manufacturers - Louisville Slugger, Demarini and Easton
Second Question - What Brand and Model?
If you asked 100 coaches, parents or players this question you would probably get equally split answers between DeMarini, Louisville Slugger and Easton (aka "The Big 3") with a handful swearing by Mizuno or Anderson etc. However, before you buy one you need to make sure it will be legal to use in the leagues and associations (USSSA, ASA, NSA, etc.) your daughter will be playing in. Check the manufacturer, reseller or association's web sites or if you're buying it off the shelf, the bat should have this printed on it.
The sound of a softball off the Xeno bat is very distinctive, almost as if you think the bat is broken.
My opinion at this moment is based upon what I've seen and heard during the past several years. My daughter has used bats from each of the Big 3 manufacturers. She began with an Easton Stealth, then a Demarini CF5 and is now using a Louisville Slugger Xeno. She's using a Xeno because Louisville Slugger a sponsor for Ball State Softball. She loves the Xeno bat, so I'm sure I'll be asked to buy one for her for next summer's travel softball season. However, she never wanted to stop using the Stealth model until 2010 model broke 3 times in a 6 month period, which is when I discovered they will only replace a bat up to 3 times in a year. That's when she began using the CF5, which she said felt the same as the Stealth. She still has that bat and still likes it, but is now a Xeno fan.
My other experience comes from travel softball over the years, especially the last 2 years watching ASA Gold and Premier Girls Fastpitch competition in which the vast majority of girls went on or will be playing Division 1 college softball. In the last 2 summers I watched a lot of girls and teams use the Xeno bats. Some of the tournaments use low compression or restricted flight balls, where they can hit the ball in the sweet spot hard, but the ball just does not travel like it usually does. They sound like they're hitting bean bags. However, the Xeno bats seemed to get better pop and distance on those balls. The sound of a softball off the Xeno bat is very distinctive, almost as if you think the bat is broken, even with the low compression balls. In talking with coaches, players and other parents the general consensus is that Xeno bats hit those balls better, while each of the Big 3 bats perform equally with normal balls.
I would not take which brand of bats your favorite college teams, professional players or team USA uses either since they are almost always sponsored by a manufacturer, which in some cases comes down to which one gives them the best deal and has little if anything to do with their bats. And I am not aware of whether USSA, NSA or ASA tournaments are making frequent use of low compression balls or not, but I doubt it.
Third Question - What Size Bat?
I almost need to see a girl in person to answer this correctly. I like to see her swing, how coordinated and strong she is too. In the younger ages most girls need shorter and lighter bats, even the taller and/or bigger girls who are somewhat uncoordinated. A longer and heavier bat is good for girls who are athletic enough to handle it, which is not usually necessary until age 13 or so. I have seen small petite girls using shorter and lighter bats hit the ball 250', because they are strong and have great hitting mechanics with good bat speed and control. Most bat resellers or manufacturers have suggested sizes by age on their web sites that can be used as a reference.
The drop of the bat has nothing to do with whether it is balanced or endloaded.
Fourth Question - Balanced or Endloaded Bats?
Another thing to consider is whether to get an endloaded bat or balanced bat. In general balanced bats are for base hitters, while endloaded bats are for power hitters. The weight of the bat is evenly distributed in a balanced bat. The weight of an endloaded bat is heavier in the barrel of the bat. With balanced bats your initial bat speed is quicker to the point of contact, which allows for greater bat control. Bat control is about getting around on faster pitching or the ability to hit the fair balls with late swings, since you can quickly get the bat to the point of contact. Most slappers and base hitters should use balanced bats.
With endloaded bats your bat speed increases during and after the point of contact, which builds momentum through the ball during and after contact. This extra power can translate into another 10 to 30 feet or more to the distance the ball is hit. In order to get the maximum benefit from an endloaded bat, your daughter must be athletic and strong enough to maintain her bat speed using these bats. If an endloaded bat slows her swing too much, she should stick with a balanced bat.
When shopping for bats, they should be clearly described as endloaded if they are. Most bats on the market are balanced and will either be described as evenly weighted or balanced. If they mention nothing about weights, then you can assume they are a balanced bat.
Your daughter may be able to maintain her bat speed and control with a -10 drop bat that is balanced, but not one that is endloaded.
Fifth Question - What is Bat Drop?
The bat drop of a bat is the length minus the weight. A bat that is 32" long and weighs 22 ounces has a bat drop of -10, which is also the most popular drop size bat. The drop of the bat has nothing to do with whether it is balanced or endloaded. At some point if your daughter is continuing to play higher levels of softball, she will need to be able to cover the outside part of the plate. She may want a longer bat, but not a heavier bat, which will allow her to maintain her bat speed and control. A bat with a -11, -12 or -13 drop may be best for her (ex. 33" 20oz). If your daughter is athletic and strong enough to maintain her bat speed and control with a longer and heavier bat, she may want a -8, -9 or -10 drop bat (ex. 34" 26oz.).
That said concerning bat drops, you will still need to know if the bat is endloaded or balanced. Your daughter may be able to maintain her bat speed and control with a -10 drop bat that is balanced, but not one that is endloaded. If you are really unsure or inexperienced in choosing a bat, visit your local retailer who also has batting cages and ask them to try a few bats out. Most of them will be glad to let you do this, especially if you're looking at $300 bats. Make sure her swings look smooth, consistent and that she is able to hit faster pitches. Ask her how each bat feels when making contact. All these bats have warranties, which you can ask the retailer about or read about on the manufacturers web sites.