Bat technology has had five years to catch up to the NCAA's BBCOR standards, which were instituted for the 2011 college season to better balance performance and safety in bats.
Previously, bat companies had engaged in a long-term struggle that emphasized performance over durability in metal/aluminum bats, but now the BBCOR standards have put a cap on performance.
"It was an arms race," Baden Sports' director of research and development Hugh Tompkins said. "It was, who could engineer the hottest bats . . . Once (the NCAA) started regulating barrel performance, you had to start limiting performance. You couldn't just make it as good as engineers can make it."
Now, the challenge is how to stand out in a marketplace where theoretically, bats are created equal. At Baden Sports, which manufactures everything from backyard games to inflated balls for basketball, football and volleyball, its baseball division was looking for a way to stand out in the crowded bat market.
Enter the Axe Bat, which the company began marketing in 2013.
The round handle and knob of the bat is an anachronism, a relic of the fact that bats in the 19th Century were made on lathes, which make cylinders. Now that bats are made with more sophisticated technology, the handle of the bat can be any shape, and Baden's R&D department found the axe shape is a better fit for hands and improves bat control.
"The barrel-performance arms race was petering out," Tompkins said. "How could you differentiate yourself? With us, we've got a biomechanically superior handle. You get to better performance through the player, not the barrel.
"The spinoff of the handle is what we call one-sided hitting. The axe handle's benefits are purely biomechanics, because of what a round handle and round knob, what those do to your muscles and bones, with the tension required to grip the bat. Our improved performance comes through helping a hitter's swing be quicker to the ball, with more bat speed and more bat control."
The Axe handle means a hitter will always be hitting on the same face of the bat, which meant Baden would have to design its barrel differently. That helped its engineers, as Tompkins said, because they knew the direction of impact. "If you know about it, you can plan for it, you can engineer for it, you can design for it."
For 2016, Baden has introduced the new HyperWhip composite cap, with an asymmetric, angled tip that takes weight away from the part of the bat that isn't involved in hitting, shifting it for improved balance. The axe-shaped handle also features Endogrid technology to help take the sting away from a hitter's swing, with material built into the handle that dampens vibrations. The new Mantic alloy in the barrel provides better durability with the same performance Baden has engineered into all its bats.
While the bats feature one-piece construction, the top three inches of the barrel of the bat are made of the carbon fiber HyperWhip composite cap, which is sloped. The bat needed two years of testing to get the balance and durability right with the cap sloped at the proper angle to benefit the new directional-hitting approach of the Axe Bats. The new bat's balance point is about one-eighth of an inch closer to the hands than it was in the company's two-piece composite bat while maintaining a large sweet spot.
The wooden Axe Bats, by Victus Sports, were introduced in 2010, and its roster of players continues to grow and include some of the game's best hitters. Players using the Axe Bat include Red Sox teammates Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Dustin Pedroia, Astros shortstop Carlos Correa and White Sox shortstop Jimmy Rollins, among others.
College programs such as Memphis and Division III powerhouse Marietta (Ohio) are using the bat as well, among others.
"Baden as a parent company has been around more than 30 years, and it's competed with the likes of Wilson and Spalding, and it's always done so through innovation," Tompkins said. "We thought about getting into bats for some time, but we didn't want a 'me-too' bat. We needed a compelling reason to get into the market, and when the Axe bat came along, we realized quickly that was the product. It's innovative and differentiated, and we've also looked at the fact that it could be transformative."
Hitters have fallen behind pitchers in recent years as velocity increases, contact decreases and strikeouts have reached record rates. The Axe Bats and one-sided hitting could be just the technological advance that gives hitters a fighting chance.