Monday, August 27, 2007

The Big Boys: Just How Interested in Your Wood Purchase Are They?

Small wood bat companies are as American as apple pie (and as Canadian as maple trees) -- see my entry, "Support Your Local Wood Bat Company." But the majority of bats sold in the Americas (wood and metal) are produced and marketed by the companies whose products you always find in your local sports outlets: Louisville Slugger, Rawlings, DeMarini (Wilson Sporting Goods), Nike, Easton, etc.

How committed are these companies to wood? DeMarini, the company that gave us multi-walled aluminum bats, carries two composite wood bat models ($130 a pop); Easton carries a line of six northern white ash and three maple models; and Rawlings puts out about twenty products under their "Big Stick" moniker -- a few maple offerings, but mostly northern white ash. Mizuno also carries a line of wood bats (at reasonable consumer prices), including several youth models. And Nokona's surprisingly broad range of products, while not cheap, have certainly gained a great deal of attention since Vladimir Guerrero won the 2007 Home Run Derby swinging a Nokona Wrecking Crew 271.

But by far the biggest and most influential company in the bat world is Hillerich & Bradsby, who trade under the name Louisville Slugger. 60% of major league players use their products. They carry 50 models for the general baseball consumer. The company has noted that while they sell about 90,000 wood bats to professionals annually, they sell 660,000 to amateur and youth players. H&B own their own lumber supply in the forests of Pennsylvania and New York and up until a few years ago supplied much of the wood to all bat makers in the country.

Besides their consumer selections, they also carry a huge line of 150 different models for professionals players. You can go to their pro homepage, but you can't get inside without an Association of Professional Baseball Players of America ID number. H&B uses their best wood for the pros, but they now carry two special models for consumers, Derek Jeter's P72 Black-Smith (ash) and Ken Griffey's C271 Black (maple) that they guarantee is pro quality.

So what makes the most sense? Buy your bats from a big company like Rawlings (who has about 25% of the pro market) or Hillerich & Bradsby? Lots of amateur players are crossing over to wood using DeMarini's composite bats. Nokona and Mizuno, unlike other big sporting goods associations, do not seem to have invested in metal bats at all. I like their wood offerings and hear good things about them from kids out on the field.

No matter what, the search for just the right bat should not be limited by a trip to Dick's or Sports Authority. In many cases the smaller companies like BWP Bats, Zinger Bats, Superior Bat Company, Dbats, XBats, HBats, Badger Bat Company, and NYStix offer excellent customized product at better prices than retail chains.

There are so many variables that go into making bats: barrel size, wood type, handle diameter, length, swing weight, balance point, finish, the size of the knob. It's probably not very smart to want to swing the same bat as one's favorite players. You need to experiment, and you need to take your time. One good thing about wood for today's serious player is that you can buy four or five nice bats for less than the cost of one metal Stealth™ or Exo™. This is true for Little Leaguers too. Any bat company worth their beans makes several different models for younger players. There's no question that wood will feel different when you first start using it. You're going from a -12 to a -3 or -4. The bat will weigh 26-ounces or so vs. 19-ounces. But over time you'll start to understand what the older kids do: that it's all about what feels right to you.

My Conclusion
I had thought that I would do a hard core critique of the corporate bat companies out there since most of them carry metal units too and spend most of their marketing dollars on these. Some of these companies have also brought a lawsuit against the city of New York trying to stop the NYC high school metal bat ban. I'm not sure about the quality of wood many of these big companies are using -- at least for their amateur customers. I'm not sure how committed most of them are to marketing their wood bats. It seems clear, though, that Hillerich & Bradsby are indeed committed and that we should all be indebted to them (even if they are helping fund the fight against the NYC metal bat ban). Louisville Sluggers are the standards by which all bats must be judged. They have more history, more R&D experience, and certainly more satisfied customers than any other company out there. Rawlings, too, B&H's biggest competitor, may be looking to protect their share of the metal market, but there are many young players happy to swing their Big Sticks.

However, I still also heartily recommend investing in small and local bat makers. Not all of these companies turn their own bats, but they want to see happy customers and they take pride in their offerings. If you're a serious player (or a parent serious about your child's play), take some time to go out of your way at baseball tournaments and the batting cages to talk to people swinging lumber with strange branding. You never know what you're going to learn.

Some of the finest youth hitting I've ever seen came off the early model version of Akadema's Amish-543 back in 2002. That bat was turned in Amish country about 70 miles from our home here in Philadelphia. We learned about Akadema at our local indoor baseball club. The way the ball jumped off that bat was astounding. I watched my 14-year-old son, Sam (now 19) hit a 360-foot shot to straightaway center in his first at-bat in 8th grade (he had decided he would see what he could do at the plate with wood). The kid went on a tear for three games. Then, in a tight contest as he stood in the on-deck circle his coach walked up to him, took the A-543 out of his hands and said, "You're hitting with metal from here on out." Sam didn't hit with such zest for the rest of the season. Bats are funny. They have this way of getting into our brains and our souls.

See you on the field...

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