Busting Out for a Visit to Axe Bat Headquarters
If a tree falls in the woods and there’s no one around to hear it, does it still make a sound? Assuming it was chopped down, that was the question of the day as I toured the empty headquarters of Axe Bat.
As I contemplated digital content ideas to keep the BASE by Pros machine churning while quarantined during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, an idea hit me. Perhaps I could score myself an exclusive behind the scenes look at Axe Bat, one of our BASE by Pros partners, under the guise of much-needed content for our blog. “Hey, it never hurts to Axe,” I thought. Of course, I’d take any excuse to simply bust out of the house for a few, but this truly seemed like a fun adventure! Plus, I was missing baseball and jonesing for a good baseball discussion. So, I ran the idea by Coach Brent Lillibridge who got me in touch with his contact there and we were off.
On Wednesday, May 13th, I loaded my 12 and 15-year-old baseball-loving boys into the truck and headed south to Renton, Washington – home of Baden headquarters, the umbrella company of Axe Bat. Just a few blocks north of the Ikea furniture theme park, the giant Baden Sports sign came into view on our left. With their offices essentially closed for the foreseeable future as well, I texted my contact from the parking lot and moments later was greeted at the door by National Account Manager Rusty Trudeau. We shared a smile, introduced ourselves exchanging the typical, awkward, social distancing wave in place of a handshake, and he welcomed us in.
We waded through a small sea of 10-20 cubicles. A dartboard, Edgar Martinez plaque, and Duke basketball mini-hoop were just a taste of the eye candy adorning the cubes. Though the facility was empty, I envisioned a typically fun, bustling, athletically-minded culture driven by extremely knowledgeable people. Nowhere was this more significantly represented than the presence of Beardo the Geeky Garden Gnome perched atop a cabinet with a football taped to his “Live Long and Prosper” hand. A wall of sports balls caught my eye as well. Basketballs. Soccer balls. Volleyballs. The ultimate assortment of Baden balls for any sports enthusiast.
As we entered Rusty’s office we encountered framed sports pictures and plaques on the walls, baseballs and softballs resting on a corner table amidst a photo of his daughters, and a handful of circular bins with a ton of bat handles protruding into view – bats with the most uniquely-designed end caps you’ve ever seen.
The homepage at AxeBat.com displays the headline “Revolutionary Design, Proven Performance”. As we took our seats across the desk from Rusty, we looked forward to hearing all about this.
Starting with a little history, Rusty pointed out that the unique design concept that would one day become the signature of the Axe Bat began in the backwoods of New York with a gentleman who was a big Ted Williams fan. While reading Williams’ book, The Science of Hitting, he was intrigued by the concept of delivering the bat to the ball in a manner consistent with delivering an axe blow to a tree. “You wouldn’t want to roll your hands, right, because the blade would dip into the tree,” Rusty explained. With this concept in mind, the gentleman went about designing a training tool by first turning a baseball bat as normal and then hand carving the axe handle.
In 2009, the inventor began shopping the patent around. While presenting the concept to Baden Sports, it resonated with Rusty as he was a former high school baseball coach and couldn’t help but remember the age old drill of swinging at tires as if hacking into a tree. Though the concept piqued Rusty’s interest, he felt the market for bat-specific training aids was rather small and had much loftier goals in mind!
A week later a demo model arrived at Baden and Rusty’s team began the process of finding out how solid the patent was. Once they confirmed it was strong, they started going after approvals. They started at the top with Major League Baseball where they would have to change the way their rules read to allow a non-symmetrical, round-handed bat into the game. It was a challenge, but they succeeded, got the approval, and soon had NCAA approvals as well. And of course, once the big dominoes fell, others had to follow suit, including USA Softball, USSSA Baseball, Little League, Babe Ruth, the list goes on. They all have separate approval processes in licensing and literally had to change their rulebooks to allow axe-handled bats. It was a process that took a few years, but finally they were able to move forward.
The next step was determining if they had a viable product – one that would truly be accepted by baseball and softball players. “Baseball doesn’t change easy,” Rusty pointed out.
He shared how he met with Former Seattle Mariner Jay Buhner early on, prior to obtaining the patent, and let him take some cuts with it. “I don’t know if you remember Jay, but back in the day, Jay was one of these guys. Oh, yeah, he was a spinner,” Rusty shared as he held one of the bats there in his office, imitating Jay’s batting stance and the way he would rotate the bat in his hands while waiting for the pitch. Obviously Axe’s unique design didn’t work with that approach, but nevertheless, he hit with it and, ultimately, informed Rusty and his team that they really had something there.
With Jay’s nod of approval, they continued their march, further refining the wood handle and even moving into Little League and high school bats.
With talk of the refining process, Rusty pulled one of George Springer’s game-used Houston Astros bats from his pile and compared it with another, pointing out the customizations that are done for specific MLB players. For the most part, the standard Axe handle bat is used throughout the Majors though, of which there were about 100 players last season using Axe bats, including Los Angeles Dodger Mookie Betts (formerly with the Boston Red Sox).
As I observed the more refined handle, I noticed the lack of knob on the palm side. All 30 MLB teams agreed to extend fan safety netting this offseason, so I had to ask if grip loss on Axe bats resulting in flying bats had any effect on that. I was intrigued to hear Rusty explain that Axe bats actually offer more control than their traditional counterparts. He pointed out that the ulnar nerve runs through the base of the palm and traditional knobs tend to pinch this nerve on swing follow-through causing a reflex which can result in a releasing of the bat.
In addition to less bats thrown, Rusty pointed out that fewer Axe bats are broken as well. Since the handle design requires the bat be held a certain way, the ball makes contact with the bat in a consistent location. With that in mind, bats are oriented so that the wood grain connects with the ball at the strongest angle possible, thus resulting in fewer broken bats. This was an important selling point when approaching Major League Baseball as they had largely transitioned to maple bats at the time and maple breaks in a much more pronounced way, as opposed to the previous ash bats which tend to simply splinter more often than not.
I also found it interesting that in their talks with MLB, Rusty and his team were careful not to overly promote the bat’s potential in offensive numbers – homeruns, slugging percentages, and whatnot. Though they’d done their homework and firmly believed in the Axe Bat’s offensive potential, baseball was coming off the steroid era and they knew the last thing baseball needed was more homeruns. Instead, they focused on the previous two selling points, less pressure on the ulnar nerve and fewer broken bats, as well as potentially their greatest selling point, keeping players in the game through fewer hamate bone injuries.
In the same way a traditional knob pinches the ulnar nerve, hook of the hamate fractures have put numerous players on the Injured List. Lowering the knob (or the customization of removing it altogether) on the lower palm where the hamate bone resides, helps alleviate stresses in that area resulting in fewer injuries.
With that, MLB was sold on the idea and other organizations soon followed suit.
According to Rusty, the toughest demographic to crack has actually been high school players. My immediate reaction was, “Dad?” knowing how hard it is to break with baseball tradition and understanding the influence fathers have on their sons. Rusty definitely agreed, but pointed out “High school kids today know more than us. You know, just ask them,” he joked. “The challenge with Axe, even though we have data now that proves that exit velos or higher launch angles are more consistent, we can’t do anything about between the ears.” He continued to share that when you introduce something drastically different, when failure presents itself, that unique quality is the first thing to blame. Since baseball is a game of failure, the Axe Bat handle is often an immediate scapegoat.
BASE by Pros places a strong focus on winning the mental game and I believe this actually aligns with that since high school is where we truly start separating those with elite talent. Since it all starts with one’s mental approach, we can see why the Axe Bat is perhaps more accepted at higher levels since those players are more likely to focus on the process when faced with adversity versus relying on easy excuses.
As we continued our conversation, Rusty elaborated on the comparison of the Axe Bat to others. Are they simply average bats with a cool looking handle? Far from it. “Our challenge has always been to make sure that our barrels are equal to any of our best competitors because if we’re equal, we’re going to win all ties because of the benefit of the handle.”
With that, his eyes lit up as he elaborated that their barrels are not simply equal to, but better than their competitors since they are able to engineer a bat from scratch that takes advantage of a consistent hitting surface. While some would say the barrel would wear out faster, Rusty points out that their lab technicians are able to design a barrel that maximizes the rating put on every bat without compromising durability. Since they’re not building a bat for 360 degrees of contact, they’re able to reinforce it through 2/3rds of the barrel. “So there are a lot of cool things that we can do, much like a golf driver face….the driver face is always the same surface that hits the ball all the time, right? It’s the same concept with the metal in the composite carbon fiber bats that we build,” Rusty explained.
Having soaked up a ton of information about the design concepts behind this revolutionary bat, we exited Rusty’s office to visit the area where the Axe Bat magic comes to life. Located in the far corner of the Baden warehouse, we passed giant aisles of Baden sports gear for as far as the eye could see!
As we walked, I commented how the Northwest was becoming a bit of a hotbed of revolutionary influence in the baseball industry with companies such as Axe and Driveline located here. I could sense Rusty felt honored to then share that Driveline used Axe Bat handles on all of their training bats and that the training segment of baseball had become a pretty big deal for Axe.
Finally, the giant batting cage came into view where guys are constantly testing and measuring swing data with HitTrax. My boys were excited to hop in the cage and take some cuts, so I threw soft toss as the boys tried out various Axe bats as many of their favorite Mariners had done in the past.
From there, Rusty was kind enough to offer a peak behind the curtains into the super secret Axe Lab where cannons fire baseballs into barrels measuring bounce speed and other ridiculously high-tech things happen. We were especially excited to see the 2021 line of Avenge bats laid out at multiple stations in various states of completion. Plus, the batting gloves hitting shelves in 2021 looked incredible as well. Though empty, I couldn’t help but envision a bunch of Bill Nye types in lab coats meticulously looking over bat compositions with the focused eye of Ken Griffey Jr. to a backdoor slider. Unfortunately, our super secret access prohibits me from elaborating on what we saw in this private area of research and development, or even admitting we were allowed in there, so I didn’t just type any of that.
As we made the long march down the warehouse aisles to finally head home, we stopped for a moment as Rusty shared one final thought that truly exemplified his passion for their product and the potential inherent in every Axe Bat.
“I can sit here and sell your boys on the benefits of Axe all day long and I could tell them that, you know, whether they’ll believe me or not and walk away and go, “Dad, Rusty was full of it,” it’s true. Whatever rate these two are going to improve at the game of baseball, if they’re in a round-handle bat and they’re swinging, they’re going to improve at this level,” Rusty shared as he angled his hand with an average slope, “I’m convinced they’re going to be here,” he insisted, steepening his hand’s angle. “Now again, that level of improvement may be depending on your athletic ability and how good you’re going to be anyway, but you’re still going to be better with an Axe handle in your hand.”
With that, this dad was sold. And the boys? Well, they definitely seem a lot more interested now, but I think we’ll have to wait for the return of baseball for their final verdict. Hopefully, I’ve instilled in them the importance of keeping an open mind and not rushing to judgement, but rather trusting the process. Only time will tell.
~ Jody Bossert
BASE by Pros Marketing and Digital Media Producer
A few final images…