Renton-based Baden Sports is hoping to hit a home run in the major leagues and beyond with its Axe Bat
Everyone knows hitting a baseball isn’t easy.
Let’s use Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux’s perspective as an illustration of just how difficult it is. Maddux once said that when he was really in a groove, he didn’t see home plate as a whole entity, but rather in thirds. From 60 feet, 6 inches away from the plate, Maddux had the ability to place his pitch on the outside 5.6 inches, the middle 5.6 inches, or the inside 5.6 inches. And, of course, the batter — who didn’t know whether the pitch was going to be a 90 mph fastball; an 85 mph slider; or even a curve, a change-up, or a cutter — had half a second to decide whether to swing and where. As that example illustrates, any advantage a batter can bring to the plate can make a difference.
Enter the Axe Bat.
The Axe Bat, created by Baden Sports in Renton, is precisely what the name implies: a bat with an axe handle. I played competitive softball for 29 years, so I’ve had my hands on my share of bats, and the Axe Bat not only looks different; it feels different. The way it’s shaped, you can hold it only one way, and that way feels pretty good. That’s what the folks at Baden Sports are banking on.
Baden didn’t come up with the idea of the Axe Bat — that honor belongs to Bruce Leinert, a New York woodworker who also was a big baseball guy. Red Sox hitting legend Ted Williams also works into the mix. Williams was a strong advocate of using an axe in the off season to train and would cut down trees to hone his swing. Leinert made the same connection himself while out chopping trees. He contacted an employee at Baden Sports, saying he’d invented a bat with a new type of handle.
“He sent a bat to our guy, who kept it in his office for a month. Nobody knew about it,” Baden CEO Michael Schindler said. “In June 2009, we’re all in a meeting, talking about bats, and he says, ‘I’ve got kind of an interesting bat in my office. You want to take a look at it?’” In short order, Baden licensed the patent and started developing the bat.
Speaking of history, 150 years ago, when the first bats were being made, they were symmetrical because they were created on a lathe. Technology now allows for bats that fit the contour of your hand. “If we invented the game of baseball today, I don’t think a round knob would be considered. It’s just an irrational shape for the baseball swing,” said Jay Helmick, senior vice president for Axe Bat, a division of Baden Sports.
Making the Axe Bat the weapon of choice for Major League hitters is the ultimate goal for Baden Sports, but getting pro ballplayers to give it a try is no small feat.
“Baseball is a very traditional game with a long history, so it’s a bold statement to tell someone that their dad or their dad’s dad, or Babe Ruth, used an inferior product, when all the records were established using a round knob,” Helmick said.
Schindler concurs: “Every single player in the major leagues has been using the same gear since they were little kids, and all of them got to the major leagues by using a round-handled bat. So, the thinking is probably, ‘Wow, I’ve finally made it to the bigs. I’m making millions. Do I really want to take a chance with a different handle?’”
Slowly, the Axe Bat is getting in the hands of professionals. While processing orders on Axebat.com in 2015, the folks at Baden saw two from Boston Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia — 2008’s American League MVP. Pedroia’s hitting coach, Chili Davis, had recommended the Axe because of some hand injuries Pedroia had been experiencing. Pedroia started using the bat, and had a ton of success, and by the end of the season, six or seven other Red Sox players were using Pedroia’s bat. Those players included 2016 all-star Mookie Betts.
Betts has now become the first MLB player to sign a contract with Axe Bat.
“I think we’ve had over 40 major leaguers, since the beginning of 2016, use the bat,” Helmick said.
And it’s paying dividends for the company. In the last six months, Axe Bat revenues have climbed more than 300 percent.
“As we gain momentum, not only in the major league wood bat market, but also in the youth market, we’ll begin seriously pushing the Axe Bat,” Helmick said.
Baden believes that getting players on board at an early age is critical.
“We get the pleasure of seeing, day to day, consumer feedback about the improvement their kids are having with their swing. And that’s really fun to see,” said Helmick.
So what makes the Axe Bat special? Because of the handle orientation, bat barrels on their composite bats are engineered more like a golf driver.
They’re not limited to a barrel that has to be hit on all sides; they know where the ball is going to make contact, so they can do things with weight and durability to reinforce that hitting side of the bat.
“We’re finding pretty widespread advantages, specifically bat speed and barrel control,” Helmick said. “You might equate it to Usain Bolt running with shoes that give him blisters, and then changing (into) shoes that fit his feet, and he no longer has blisters. He will run faster with no blisters. Our handle, in addition to feel, gives quicker bat speed and better barrel control, because of that fit.”
Today, 95 percent of major leaguers still use traditional bats. But the Axe Bat is poised to make some noise in baseball circles. Using baseball parlance, the Axe Bat still has some wood to chop. But more players are discovering it every day.
“We’re just getting started, but we’re on our way,” Schindler said.