RENTON, Wash. — Players have been altering bats for decades in a bid to improve their grip — adding pine-tar or some specialized grip tape, maybe shaving the handle slightly to make it thinner.
Gradually, some players have started gravitating to a more revolutionary option offered by a company that set up shop deep in a warehouse in Renton, Washington. As the company’s name suggests, Axe Bat has developed a bat that fundamentally changes the shape of the bat’s handle so you hold it like an axe.
Some major leaguers like the feel. Others have turned to the axe handle as an option after hand or forearm injuries.
Red Sox right fielder Mookie Betts and Astros outfielder George Springer are the biggest proponents and the only two paid endorsers by the company. But there are many others — Jake Lamb, Dustin Pedroia, Carlos Correa, even Kris Bryant this season — who have used the bat handle at one time or another.
Each has a different reason for turning to this style of bat, whether it’s a desire to be better on inside pitches, to reduce hand and wrist pain, or simply wanting to try something different.
“I had issues with my hand with hamate surgery and I just noticed it never hurt,” Lamb said. “If you’re talking about hand health and my hand not hurting anymore, then yeah, I’m going to try out your product. That was the main thing for me.”
The history of Axe Bat dates to 2009 when a woodworker from New York named Bruce Leinart started reaching out to sporting goods companies to see if they were interested in his wood baseball bat designed with the axe-like handle. He found a willing ear in Baden Sports, the company that started Axe Bat.
The Axe Bat lab where the company has developed and refined its designs is tucked away in the Baden Sports warehouse about 15 miles from the Seattle Mariners’ Safeco Field. The company developed its first bat in 2012 and it has gone through roughly 75 iterations before getting to where it is today.
“Lots of testing with players. Lots of prototyping. Lots of iterations,” said Brent Weidenbach, director of product management. “Basically, the iteration process stated with taking the general axe handle concept which was maybe a little more oval in your hand and really opened up your hand quite wide, and we kind of refined it to work more along with a baseball swing.”
Axe Bat licenses its handle design to four MLB-approved bat makers: Victus Sports, Tucci Lumber, Chandler Bats, and Dove Tail Bats.
Springer first tried it because his teammate Correa had one. It was Betts who left Springer his first bat to use full-time during the 2015 season. In the two full seasons that Springer has used the handle, he hit a combined .271 with 63 home runs, 167 RBIs and was a World Series MVP.
“It takes a little bit of getting used to having a non-traditional handle on a bat but I got the hang of it and I love it,” Springer said. “I think it’s helped me control my barrel more and it’s helped me control my swing more and I’m going to stick with it.”
Betts was introduced to the bat because Pedroia was trying one out. Same with Chris Owings in Arizona, who saw the success Lamb was having and decided to give it a shot in batting practice one day and ended up getting a couple of hits that night.
“You know how it is. You get something you like, why change it?” Owings said. “I like how it feels and I’m probably not going to try and get any other handles beside that standard one.”
While it seemed to be a novelty initially, the idea is gaining more respect among major leaguers. The success of Betts, Springer and Lamb is a big part of the growth at the pro level. The bat has also made inroads at the youth and collegiate levels, mostly at the Division II, Division III and NAIA level.
Trevor Stocking, the company’s director of product marketing and the MLB liaison, said one of their advantages is they’re not presenting an entirely new bat to players.
Hitters can still have the same type of barrel and same wood they’ve used in the past, it’s just a matter of whether an axe handle or a standard handle is better for their swing. In that way it’s almost like a customizable driver used by golfers.
“Some of it’s about getting one of those guys — the front-office guys, the hitting coach or one of the good players on the team — to just say, ‘Just listen to this guy, just try this, what do you have to lose?’” Stocking said. “If you don’t like it, so be it. We can always find something different. My job is to get them comfortable. We’re not a bat company. That’s kind of the cool thing. We’re not going out there selling bats. ... My only job there is to help them with their swing.”
Jay Helmick, senior vice president of Axe Bat, sees a possible future scenario where a bat is constructed specific to a player’s swing.
“Three years ago was a little more challenging. A lot more explaining had to go into the pitch,” Helmick said. “Now you can name one of our 30 players who have used it and that will be enough for most people to try it.”