BOSTON – In the middle of August 2016, Houston Astros center fielder George Springer sent a text message to Boston Red Sox reliever Matt Barnes. They were childhood friends and had played together at the University of Connecticut, so Springer didn’t mind using Barnes as a conduit to ask his Red Sox teammate Mookie Betts for a favor: “Leave a bat.”
The Red Sox were finishing a series in Baltimore. The Astros were headed into town to play the Orioles. In the bat-obsessed culture of Major League Baseball, players are swingers in more than one way. The bat they love one week they’ll happily ditch the next. While some are monogamous, other hitters prefer polyamory with their bats, giddily testing out a wide array in hopes of finding one with some hits in it. And at that moment, Mookie Betts’ 33½-inch, 30½-ounce bat was chock full of them.
Little did either know the Axe Bat model MB50 would play a front-and-center role in both of their ascents to the top of their profession – and in the can’t-miss American League Championship Series, which begins Saturday at 8:09 p.m. ET when the 108-win Red Sox host the 103-win Astros. Springer will lead off the game. Betts will lead off the bottom of the first inning. Both will swing the unique bat, which replaces the classic knob with an axe-shaped handle, because Betts knew Springer, liked him and agreed to leave behind a bat that day in Baltimore.
“I could’ve said no, but I’m not that kind of guy,” Betts told Yahoo Sports on Friday. “He’s a good friend. Obviously you want to go out and win and do everything you can. But sometimes you’ve just got to help a friend out. It may come back to haunt me, but I definitely don’t regret it.”
The week of Aug. 14, 2016, had been perhaps the best of Betts’ AL MVP runner-up season. It started with a 4-for-6, three-home run, eight-RBI day against Arizona. Two days later, he homered twice and drove in five against the Orioles. The day after that, he went 2-for-3 and scored three runs. Before he left town Aug. 17, Betts handed a bat to a clubhouse attendant for safekeeping and told him to deliver it to Springer when he arrived.
On Aug. 18, Springer debuted Betts’ Axe with a 1-for-4 night. Finicky types might’ve balked at using it again. Springer stuck with it the next night, hammered a leadoff homer as part of a 4-for-5 showing, went 3-for-4 with another homer and a double the day after and hasn’t stopped using it since.
“It just felt different,” Springer told Yahoo Sports. “I felt like I had more control of my swing for the first time. It could all just have been placebo effect – I tried something new and it worked. I don’t know.”
The genealogy of the MB50 started in 2015 with Dustin Pedroia, the Red Sox’s MVP-winning second baseman, who was the first major leaguer to use the axe handle after the league certified it for in-game use. Players initially regarded the bat as a novelty, though they were intrigued by the claim that it would mitigate the broken hamate bones that stem from knob-handled bats. Springer’s teammate, Carlos Correa, was among the first players to try one, long before Springer became a convert.
“I’d kind of made fun of him for it,” Springer said. “Like, who uses an axe handle? Just as a joke. And I actually picked his up before I got Mookie’s actual bat. I tried it. I was too scared to swing it in a game, but I liked the feel of it.”
One problem with Correa’s bat: It was too big for Springer. Pedroia’s bats are among the smallest bats in MLB. Betts, who like Pedroia is listed at 5-foot-9, said he saw one lying around, picked it up and tried it. It felt good enough that he first used it in a game on Sept. 18, 2015. Before the 2016 season, Betts asked to slightly tweak the size, and Victus, a bat manufacturer that licenses the patented axe handle from the Seattle-based Baden Sports, delivered a batch of MB50s to the Red Sox’s spring camp in Fort Myers, Florida.
One of those eventually made its way to Springer. It looked like a typical maple bat and not the shiny, gray showpiece Betts wields these days. The Victus logo shines like a holograph. The handle is covered with a custom, red Lizard Skin grip stamped with Betts’ name and his No. 50 – with three stars inside of the zero, an homage to Betts’ love of bowling. Springer’s bats are more varied. Some have red barrels, others black, orange, tan. Occasionally they’ll show up outside of the leadoff spot, too.
The MB50’s lineage doesn’t end with Pedroia-to-Betts-to-Springer. Like any good evangelist – Betts and Springer are the Axe Bat’s two paid endorsers – they occasionally offer it to their teammates. In mid-September, Astros outfielder Josh Reddick was struggling. Whenever he did, Springer lent a hand.
“How long’s it been since you swung my bat?” he asked Reddick.
Reddick said too long and pledged to use it that day against Arizona. First at-bat: Home run. Next day: Another home run. Reddick has used the Axe in one of every seven or so plate appearances this season. He is hitting .359 with it and .222 with knobbed bats. While the notion of using a smaller bat than his 34-inch, 32-ounce main piece rubs Reddick the wrong way – “I need a man’s bat,” he said, “not a child’s bat” – nobody will quibble with the numbers.
Betts’ career OPS is 110 points higher with the axe handle. Springer’s is 32 points, and his strikeout rate is 6 percent less than he had with a knobbed bat. Comfort is paramount, and however weird the Axe may look, both have stopped swiping left and right on Bat Tinder and settled down.
“It feels right in your hands,” Springer said. “It feels balanced. It feels how you want it to feel. I can’t really explain it. I can go through a box of my bats and tell which ones I’m gonna swing in a game.”
Springer is astute enough to look for others who may be using it, and he spotted something awfully interesting while watching the Red Sox and New York Yankees play in the AL Division Series. In Game 3, as Boston was saddling the Yankees with the most lopsided playoff loss in their history, the game’s standout wasn’t Betts or J.D. Martinez or Andrew Benintendi. It was a career utilityman playing for the first time this October. And on the night Brock Holt hit for the first cycle ever in the MLB postseason, guess whose bat he was using?
“I only give it to a select few,” Betts said. “You’ve got to be in a circle to get it.”
It now includes the 2017 World Series MVP (Springer), the likely 2018 AL MVP (Betts) and the man who did something that’s never been done in baseball’s 116-year playoff history (Holt). And as the two best teams in baseball face off, as Chris Sale and Justin Verlander go head to head in a dream pitching matchup, perhaps the circle will widen just a bit more, another hitter ready to find love with the MB50.
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