Baseball players are famously creatures of habit, whether it be a batter’s walkup ritual or the pre-inning deep breath a pitcher takes before stepping on the rubber or the good-luck shin guard a guy has worn since college. Most players seem to know what works for them and try to echo those exact circumstances each and every game in hopes that it will keep a streak going or end a long slide that won’t go away. So it’s not surprising that new equipment trends take awhile to gain steam in Major League Baseball.
But as players continue to look for ways to improve performance, evolving their equipment choices seems like a small price to pay. Some players swear by it, but like anything else, the axe-shaped bat handle has had its trouble catching on - despite being endorsed by two of the game’s most exciting young players in Boston’s Mookie Betts and Houston’s George Springer.
Boston’s fingerprints are all over the axe handle bat and it’s rise in popularity. All-star second baseman Dustin Pedroia was one of the first players to use the bat on a full-time basis, according to Yahoo! Sports, but Boston’s ties to the axe handle run much deeper than that. After all, it was Red Sox hitting legend and Hall of Famer Ted Williams who wrote in his 1971 book titled The Science of Hitting that the act of swinging a bat is comparable to swinging an axe. In fact, according to Stack.com, Williams chopped down trees in the offseason with an axe in order to stay in shape.
In his book, he wrote, “Get a bat and swing it against a telephone pole. … Where is the wrist position at point of impact? Square and unbroken, that’s where, just as when you hit a tree with an axe.” It was a similar experience for New Yorker Bruce Leinert that inspired the original creation of the Axe Bat in 2006. The angled bat handle allows natural extension of the wrist, as opposed to forcing the wrist into an unnatural angle that eventually can lead to injury.
Pedroia underwent season-ending wrist surgery in 2014 and was introduced to an iteration of the axe bat during the recovery process. According to Yahoo! Sports, it was former Red Sox hitting coach Chili Davis who first introduced the model to Pedroia, who used it as a training bat because it hadn’t been approved by the league yet. “I like them. It feels good in your hand,” the 34-year-old said at the time.
Davis thinks Pedroia deserves as much credit as anyone for the bat’s rise in popularity around the league and with the Red Sox in particular. “(Victus and Baden) owe a lot to Dustin Pedroia because he really pushed that bat here with some players and he liked it and started telling guys about the bat,” Davis told MassLive.com last year.
The bat handle was certified for in-game use in 2015 and that’s when Pedroia took advantage of the change in league rules. Per USA Today, he began using a Victus model of the bat May 25, 2015, although he said he still switches back and forth between the axe handle and a regular bat knob. Over his final 50 appearances of that season, he posted a .300 batting average with an on-base percentage of .355 and slugging percentage of .462 - despite nagging hamstring and knee injuries. In his first 43 games of the 2015 season, he posted a slash line of .281/.357/.415. Most importantly, he seemed to avoid further aggravation to his surgically repaired wrist.
Betts, who Pedroia introduced to the axe handle, has also struggled with wrist and hand issues throughout his career. He said that’s part of the reason he switched to the Axe Bat in 2016. Betts is now one of two paid Axe Bat endorsers, along with Houston’s Springer. Boston’s 25-year-old MVP candidate dealt with left wrist and thumb ailments toward the end of last season and even prematurely exited Game 2 of the ALDS due to discomfort in his left wrist.
It’s not very surprising that a guy as explosive and dynamic as Betts is going above and beyond when it comes to protecting himself on the field. “I think there’s a bunch of health benefits and I guess scientific things that go behind the bat speed and all that the Axe knob is supposed to improve so I figured I’d use it and get any advantage I can get,” Betts said in 2016, according to MassLive.com.
A bat handle is not the reason Betts leads the league in almost every relevant offensive category even with the seven games he’s missed this season due to various injuries. But his success over the last few years certainly has other guys taking notes. In fact, Springer credits Betts for his introduction to the axe handle bat. Per an ESPN report, Springer said he asked Red Sox reliever Matt Barnes, his close friend, what makes Betts so spectacular at the plate following a two-game series against Baltimore in 2016 in which he went 4-for-7 with two home runs.
According to ESPN, Betts credited the axe handle for his increased offensive efficiency, which prompted Springer to ask if he could borrow one. Betts obliged, reportedly leaving one of his bats behind in the visitor’s clubhouse for the 2017 World Series MVP who was visiting Camden Yards with the Astros later that week. Springer promptly went 9-for-18 with two home runs in that four-game series against the Orioles and that was enough for him to employ a version of the bat full-time after using Betts’ for awhile.
Altogether, usage league-wide has increased in recent years, mostly due to testimonials provided by guys like Betts and Pedroia or injuries that inspired players to give it a shot. Sometimes it’s a combination of both reasons, as is the case with Atlanta Braves shortstop and former No. 1 overall pick Dansby Swanson. He missed two weeks earlier this season with inflammation in his left wrist and upon his return to the team recently, he decided to use the axe handle bat in a game for the first time. Swanson, who was reportedly inspired by teammate Kurt Suzuki to give the bat a chance, eventually hit a two-out, walk off single to complete a six-run, ninth-inning comeback in his first game back with the Braves.
With a game like baseball, where the focus seems to be on tradition and sticking to it, it’s always nice to watch new trends emerge and gain popularity - especially when a guy like Mookie Betts is serving as the ambassador.