FORT MYERS, Fla. — Daily visitors to the spring training site of the Twins quickly learn the perils of dawdling over breakfast. The most popular players often hit the batting cage pavilion before 9 a.m., so those enjoying their bacon and eggs a little too long risk missing Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and others taking their early cuts.
Salesmen for bat companies know the routine, too. On a sunny, crisp March morning, one sales rep set three shiny new ash bats against a wall outside the Twins clubhouse and greeted players as they passed to and from the pavilion. Shortstop Alexi Casilla stopped, picked up a two-toned model and pumped it a few times.
“You like more barrel?” the salesman said. “Maybe the 343 is for you.”
News of this encounter almost ruined Paul Johnson’s lunch. Johnson is the vice president of MaxBat, the Brooten, Minn., company that counts Casilla among its major-league clients. (The company is named for founder Jim Anderson’s son, Max.) Johnson was relieved to learn Casilla walked away without buying any bats or changing allegiances. “He’s one of my guys,” Johnson said.
That scene used to be more common in spring training a decade ago, when bat companies sprung up like saplings.
When Jim Thome reached the majors with Cleveland in 1991, if players needed bats, they basically had three options: Louisville Slugger, Rawlings and Cooper. “Remember Cooper?” Thome said. (The Canadian-based company is now called KR3.)
Bat companies proliferate
Then, all of a sudden, it took a scorecard to keep track of everybody.
“You couldn’t even count how many bat companies there were,” said Twins right fielder Michael Cuddyer. “Before the rules, it seemed like every single person with a woodshop made bats.”
Ah, the rules.
Several years after Barry Bonds made maple bats the rage — bats that, if not made properly, shattered in ways rarely seen before — Major League Baseball increased the licensing fees and insurance requirements for bat companies, first in 2004 and again in 2009.
Now, manufacturers wishing to have their bats certified by MLB must carry an umbrella liability insurance policy of least $10 million — double what baseball required before 2009 — and pay an annual $13,000 administrative fee, according to Dan Halem, MLB’s senior vice president and general counsel for labor. Halem would not comment on insurance premiums, but Johnson said they range from $12,000 to $40,000 a year. Johnson estimated MaxBat pays about $12,000.
That’s not all. Manufacturers must prove they sold at least 15 dozen bats to major-leaguers, and submit bats to a certification company to ensure they meet MLB standards for grain and wood quality. The latter requirement brought complaints and a strongly worded dissent from one manufacturer.
“It’s probably not worth it for many manufacturers to get certified unless they have major-league clients,” Halem said. “It’s hard to get major-league clients. They’re very picky about their bats. If you only have one or two clients, it’s not worth going through all the stuff we’re talking about.”
In 2002, the high point of bat company proliferation, Halem said 48 manufacturers received MLB certification. This year, it’s 31. The best-known is the oldest, Louisville Slugger, which according to its website supplies bats to 60 percent of all major-leaguers, Marucci, Rawlings and Old Hickory own the next-largest market shares.
Myths and misconceptions
Bats manufacturers do not give away their product. Johnson said a “bat deal” means a player might receive a discount in exchange for a testimonial or a promotional consideration. MaxBat has no such arrangements with its major-league clients, which include Philadelphia’s Jimmy Rollins, Jayson Werth of Washington and Jason Kubel of the Twins, but does have a few with minor-league prospects Johnson declined to identify.
Generally, major-league teams purchase bats for their players, though there is no stopping a player interested in trying something new from buying a dozen himself. Costs range from around $350 per dozen to moe than $1,000. MaxBat charges $1,140 per dozen, Johnson said. Cuddyer said Twins players place their bat orders over the winter with equipment manager Rod McCormick, who deals directly with the manufacturers.
Most minor-league players, even some high draft choices, use bats purchased and provided by the organization, commonly called “pro stock.” (MaxBat began supplying pro stock for the Twins last year.) Twins third baseman Danny Valencia, a 19th-round draft choice in 2006, said he relied on pro stock until he was called up last June. “That’s how it is for a lot of guys,” he said. “I guess it’s part of paying your dues.”
Even Joe Mauer, the overall No. 1 pick in 2001, used pro stock. “I wasn’t really particular,” he said. Beginning with his first major-league camp in 2002, Mauer asked around for suggestions and experimented with various brands. “It took me about a year in the big leagues fto igure out what was the best kind for me,” he said.
Players go through dozens of bats in the course of a season, and sometimes pro stock runs low. “It never got to the point where, like in high school, when you struck out, you dropped the bat and let the next guy use it,” Cuddyer said. “I know there were times when I used a batting practice bat at the end of a road trip.”
Ash vs. maple
Mauer swings a 34-inch, 32-ounce ash bat made by Rawlings. White ash and hard maple are the most popular types of wood used for bats. Maple is denser and sturdier than ash, and also more expensive. Some players prefer the “give” of ash when a ball is well hit. Mauer said he tried maple, but stuck with ash “because I just like the feel of it better.”
Justin Morneau prefers hard maple from BWP, a Pennsylvania company. As befitting a big man, Morneau’s bats are among the largest in the Twins clubhouse — 35 inches long, weighing between 32-1/2 and 33 ounces. Cuddyer, who uses a 34/32 Rawlings ash model with a tapered knob for games, said he would have “no chance” swinging Morneau’s lumber.
Players can tell even the slightest difference in a bat’s weight, length and balance. In a 12-bat shipment, Cuddyer said players usually find five or six “gamers,” with that perfect feel. The rest might be used for batting practice, or given away.
Cuddyer likes maple for batting practice, because of its sturdiness. “Ash gives a little, and I like the feeling,” he said of his game bats. “I don’t get the same feeling with maple.”
Curiously, Thome switches between ash and maple. His Louisville Slugger bats feature a large barrel and a thin handle, 34-1/2 to 35 inches long, and 32 ounces. He loves the feel of ash, but used maple to crush the home run that nearly hit the top of the flagpole at Target Field last Labor Day.
“They’re both very good,” Thome said. “When you square it up on an ash bat, you know it. You feel it. Maple is a little stiffer.”
MaxBat used to make maple bats exclusively, but added ash and birch (which combines some of the best properties of ash and maple) to better serve its pro and amateur clients. The Twins pro stock contract is big for MaxBat, which also supplies the Orioles, Dodgers and Royals organizations. Johnson is a Twins fan who named his twin boys Torii and Hunter, after a certain ex-Twin who swung MaxBats for a time.
“I’ve got seven kids, all boys,” Johnson said. “That’s why we have to sell a lot of bats.”