The next time you see a big-league hitter at the plate, check out his bat. Is it black, which, when used at night, makes it more difficult for outfielders to read the swing?
Is it made of maple, the timber made trendy by Barry Bonds?
Is it 34 inches, 31 ounces, the most common size used by major leaguers?
Does any of this matter? Well, only about as much as a violin matters to a violinist.
Hitters like to say, “It’s not the arrow, it’s the Indian.” They may even believe it. But in a business where failing 70 percent of the time is considered successful, hitters crave every edge they can get. Most are on a never-ending quest for the perfect arrow, a quest that comes with a special set of secrets and superstitions.
The worst-kept secret about big-league bats: They’re not all created equal.
One of the first perks that comes with reaching the majors is being able to order your own bats. This means more than seeing your name burned on the barrel. You choose the length, weight, diameter of the barrel, diameter of the handle, color and company.
But rookies beware: Don’t think for a second that first shipment–12 bats to a box, $40 to $65 each, paid for by the team–will be anything like the bats delivered to Nomar Garciaparra. There are rules to follow when it comes to getting good wood. Rule No. 1: Star players are treated like stars.
“We have a priority list of players”, says Chuck Schupp, the head of the pro bat division for Hillerich & Bradsby, which makes Louisville Slugger models. A lot of it is based on personal relationships. If someone is loyal to us, we’ll take care of them. If I turn on the TV and see a guy who has signed with us using three different (manufacturers’) bats in a game, he’s not going to get the priority of someone who uses our bat 100 percent of the time.”
Sometimes loyalty isn’t enough. “I get bad wood, and I know Chuck Schupp. I thought he liked me,” says Carlos Pena, the Tigers’ second-year first baseman, who is hitting .232 with his Louisville Slugger. Not knowing how much Schupp values loyalty, Pena says, “I’m changing bats all the time, looking for that lucky bat.
“It’s all about status. If you hit well with bad wood for a couple of years, they’ll start to take care of you.”
Not coincidentally, Schupp’s Louisville Slugger “A” list includes many of the game’s top hitters, among them Garciaparra, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Jason Giambi, Carlos Delgado and Ken Griffey Jr.
Easton also gives priority to some of the game’s finest hitters, a list that includes Eric Chavez, Bobby Abreu, Sammy Sosa and Luis Castillo.
Angels shortstop David Eckstein is a loyal consumer of Louisville Sluggers but maintains it doesn’t help him get the good wood. “Look at Nomar. What’s he use, three hot softball bats for a whole year?” Eckstein says. “I don’t get that kind of wood. Most guys don’t. Give me a bat that would last like that, and I wouldn’t have to worry.”
Told of Eckstein’s beef, Schupp chuckles and offers a logical explanation. He points out that Eckstein prefers a big barrel, and Garciaparra is a smaller-barrel guy. “The wood is going to be better in a small barrel,” Schupp says. “It’s not a Nomar/David thing; it’s a nature thing.”
Even the stars sometimes go the extra mile to ensure their spot on Schupp’s “A” list. A-Rod visited the plant in Louisville where his bats are made, a trip that Schupp wishes all his clients would make. It was worth it, says Rodriguez. “I think that once you do that it makes a huge difference in putting a face to a name. It really helps with the wood they send you. I’m really lucky. Chuck takes good care of me. He gives me the best wood I’ve ever seen.”
There is another way to ensure good wood: Make the postseason. Bat makers ship out new orders before the playoffs and World Series, complete with post-season logo and dates. Eckstein certainly noted a difference when the Angels reached the World Series.
“It was funny. In my first at-bat, I hit a line drive that I thought was a sure base bit, and it carried all the way to (Barry) Bonds in left field,” Eckstein says. “I went up to the Louisville guy and said, ‘See, you get me the good wood, and now I’m making outs. Those little bloopers aren’t falling.'”
If you think Eckstein is hard to please, consider the pickiness of Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki. He stores his bats in a case to keep moisture from reaching them. Suzuki’s bats are custom made by Mizuno master bat maker Isokazu Kubota. Mizuno makes bats for 180 major leaguers, including Mike Piazza, Troy Glaus and Hideki Matsui. “It’s a sense of feeling,” Suzuki says. “Because of the thin handles I prefer, to keep the bat in balance I need a better quality of wood. When I can see the ball stay on the bat just a little longer, I know it’s a good bat.”
When Ichiro’s teammate Edgar Martinez gets a new box of bats, Martinez immediately pulls out his high-tech scales and weighs every one, recording the weight to a tenth of an ounce. Martinez has been known to drive bat makers batty by ordering a 31.2-ounce bat. Schupp says that’s not easy; it’s tough enough to make a bat to half-ounce specs.
But who can argue with success? Martinez, a .317 career hitter, keeps three 30- to 32-ounce bats in his rotation and decides which one to use based on who’s pitching, the time of year and how he’s feeling. The faster the pitcher, the lighter the bat. If he’s facing a power pitcher in the late innings of a late-season game, he turns to the lightest bat he has, even if it’s just a tenth of an ounce lighter.
Schupp, however, is used to the demands of the hitters. He is like the good-natured sales clerk at the return desk. He deals with all 220-plus big-leaguers he says use Louisville Sluggers. If something isn’t right with a shipment, Schupp is likely to have a message on his bat hotline. For several years, players have been going toward bigger barrels with smaller handles, which are easier to break and more difficult to make. “We try to do what the customer wants, but they’re getting harder to make the way they want them. They get so finite in their orders,” Schupp says.
At least he knows a hitter’s bat will be taken care of. When Schupp says, “Yes, we make bats for pitchers,” he sounds like a grill master who has to cook for a vegetarian. It has to be done, even if the effort mostly will go to waste. But pitchers actually get good wood. Because they favor smaller barrels, their bats are made from a heavier billet–the cylindrical piece of wood from which a bat is shaped. The heavier the wood, the better the bat. No wonder there are so many stories of slumping position players finding a few hits after borrowing a pitcher’s bat.
Hitters want good wood for more than adding distance. Eckstein, for one, is more concerned with the durability of his bat. He says his bats frequently start flecking and chipping after one or two batting practice sessions, and usually he’s looking for a new game bat every two weeks. Even though he has been approached by other bat makers, he sticks with Louisville Sluggers. “Louisville has so many players, and there’s such high demand, it’s not really important to them to make a quality bat,” Eckstein says. “But at the end of the story, I’ll still end up using Louisville just because I’ve always used them, and I hate change.”
So check out Eckstein the next time he bats. He should be waving a Louisville Slugger CS43, the quality of which only Eckstein knows for sure.