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The baseball bat is a brutish creation, a blunt instrument created to pummel a round ball. Never has anyone accused it of being some sort of technological marvel. It exists in almost the exact form it did when baseball first started a century and a half ago because even its earliest incarnations came pretty close to perfection.
Today's version looks about the same as it has for decades – maybe a little shorter and lighter, some with cupped barrels, all with the same round knob on the handle, save for a single bat of those used by the 750 major leaguers. It belongs to Boston Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, and the man who helped make it a reality sees a future where all bats share the same handle as another humble tool: the axe.
"I think it's only a matter of time before the axe-shaped handle is the standard," said Hugh Tompkins, the director of research and development for Baden Sports, a Seattle-area company that created the Axe Bat, which this year received permission from Major League Baseball for in-game use. "The round-handled bat will be like a rotary telephone."
The Axe Bat replaces the knob with an oval-shaped handle that tapers into a curved, angled bottom. While Jimmy Rollins' furtive and occasional use of an Axe Bat two years ago marked its debut in major league games, Pedroia has spent a month using it as his lone bat, and the results are promising: Over the 28 games since he switched, he is hitting .353/.386/.504. His 42 hits over the past month are tied for the fourth most in baseball. And it's all with a bat that grew out of a simple question: Why does the knob – the one piece of the bat known to hurt players, particularly those who grip it on the lower edge of the palm and put their hamate bones in danger – still exist when it imperils those it's supposed to help?
In 2006, a New Yorker named Steve Leinert obtained a patent on the axe handle for a baseball bat, a concept Ted Williams hit on decades earlier in his book "The Science of Hitting," in which he compared a baseball swing to that of an axe. "Try it for yourself," Williams wrote. "Get a bat and swing it against a telephone pole. I do this with doubting young Washington players. Where is the wrist position at point of impact? Square and unbroken, that's where, just as when you hit a tree with an ax."
The axe handle felt more comfortable to Leinert, and he shopped it around to manufacturers. He met rejection after rejection, companies frightened off by something so novel, until Baden, whose main products to that point were balls, fell in love with the Axe Bat and agreed to license it for 20 years starting in 2009.
"You put it in your hand, and it just fits," Baden CEO Michael Schindler said. "It's made for your hands. The old knob just isn't. If you mess with this for a while, the old knob starts to feel odd. There is no doubt in my mind it's a better product. When you have 150-plus years of tradition to buck, it just doesn't happen with the snap of a finger."
It took five years for MLB to climb onboard, and even now Baden isn't making the bats for Pedroia because it doesn't have a license from the league. Victus Sports, a small New Jersey-based company, produces the axe-handle bats for major league players, something Pedroia learned by happy accident.
After doing one-handed drills with a small training bat with an axe handle that Red Sox hitting coach Chili Davis showed him, Pedroia went online and ordered a bat from Baden. The day after he received it, the Victus representative doing his spring-training rounds happened to see Pedroia carrying the bat to the cage for batting practice and asked if he liked it.
"Yeah," Pedroia said, "I wish it was certified."
When the Victus rep told him the company was making a certified axe bat, he ordered some. Hand surgery ended his 2014 season, the third consecutive year in which he underwent a procedure on his hand or wrist, and whatever might help mitigate another sounded good to him.
"I like them," Pedroia said. "It feels good in your hand. And then I read up all the studies they did on injury prevention. Supposedly, the way the grip is set it increases bat speed. Just grabbing it feels comfortable. You don't feel like you have to turn it before you swing. I like 'em."
Whether the Axe Bat is revolutionary or just a novelty depends on whether its claims of health and increased performance prove true. A 2014 study by a UCLA professor paid for by Baden claims "the axe handle bat puts the wrist in a more neutral position at the onset of the swing. Also, by eliminating the impingement caused by the back protrusion of the round knob, the same amount of wrist flexion moves the barrel a greater distance. These two factors combine to provide the hitter with 15-20 degrees of additional bat whip and a larger window of opportunity to accelerate the bat. This additional whip can be used to generate greater bat speed at the point of contact with the ball."
Better performance and better health? If both prove true, the question about axe-handled bats – the ProXR is a similar knob whose selling point is ergonomic superiority – is why they're not far more prevalent.
"I'm not sure a lot of guys know about 'em," Pedroia said. "It's usually the traditional models. And a lot of guys are afraid to try something new."
About 20 major leaguers in Japan use axe-handle bats, Schindler said, and the usage from youth to college has grown significantly. The University of Memphis baseball team uses metal Axe Bats exclusively – and gets to benefit from their asymmetrical barrel, which has a thicker wall on one side because the handle necessitates hitting in one area.
Tompkins, an industrial designer with a background in mechanical engineering, sees the metal Axe Bats more like golf drivers than traditional baseball bats. And with wood bats, hitters can benefit by placing the strongest grain of the wood on the area where they're likeliest to make contact.
"I wanted to design a handle that is specifically for the mechanics of a baseball swing," Tompkins said. "The only reason the original handle is shaped like that is because the limitations of the equipment 150 years ago. We're no longer limited by the equipment."
All that's standing in the way of the axe handle now is the imagination and open-mindedness of players. Pedroia is an MVP and a four-time All-Star. He knows how difficult baseball is. However his bat is shaped, he'll swing it if it works. And for now, he's happy with an axe to grind.