Tuesday April 15th, 2014

The folks at Axe Bats, a Baden Sports brand, say the round knob at the bottom of a baseball or fastpitch bat does nothing for you. In fact, it gets in your way, forcing players to choke up away from it, hang fingers over it or pretty much do anything to get around the knob. While using a lathe 150 years ago necessitated having a knob, technology has advanced past that, Hugh Tompkins, Axe Bats’ director of research and development, tells SI.com.

Tompkins says the advancement leads straight toward an axe.

Recounting how Ted Williams said that the perfect swing was that of an axe, with the wrists square and unbroken, Baden developed the new handle idea. Two years ago the company released a fastpitch bat with an axe-shaped handle and on April 10, with an entirely redesigned line of Axe Bats in the marketplace, Baden unveiled a new report from biomechanical expert Dr. Vijay Gupta outlining the scientific benefits of the non-round handle. Gupta used NCAA Division I athletes in his study.

With the Axe Bats, the non-round handle is designed to fit with the natural 11-degree angle of your wrist for a flush contact point all the way down the palm. With no flaring or protrusion on the backside, the angled and oval bottom—the shape is based on hand studies unrelated to baseball, Tompkins says—achieves the greatest amount of grip force while exerting the least amount of muscle force.

“Because of the angle of the knob, it puts the wrist in a neutral position when you first grip the bat,” Tompkins says about the almost straight line on the back of an Axe Bat. “With a round knob you have to flex.”

The Gupta study shows that with the wrist in neutral, batters get an extra 15 to 20 degrees more whip on the swing, allowing for increased acceleration on the bat before contact, which, in turn, leads to more power. A player can use less energy gripping the bat tightly and still keep his hand on the handle, even during the point of contact—high-speed cameras used during the study showed the bottom hand actually bounces on and off a round-handled bat upon ball contact.

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In a find even the Axe Bat folks weren’t expecting, the study showed that the round knob caused hitters to lose contact with their palm and send fingers hammering against the knob. In that situation you lose power as your grip releases and the bat smashes against your hamate bone, a common break in baseball players, and the force can involuntarily cause hitters to lose their grip on the bat and send it flying. That hammer effect didn’t occur with the Axe Bat, Gupta writes.

Along with the benefits Tompkins touts for power, speed and safety, the Axe Bat, with its asymmetrical shape, forces the hitter to make contact with the face grain of the wood each time, giving it an optimal hitting zone and making it less likely to shatter.

With a variety of composite-style Axe Bats now in use from T-Ball leagues to major Division I colleges—San Jose State and Memphis exclusively use the bats, and a host of other colleges have them available—the hard maple version is approved for MLB and has been used off and on by Jimmy Rollins of the Philadelphia Phillies.

Tompkins says he knows that he’s challenging baseball tradition, but says he finds it “exciting to take something that is 150 years old and was based on the limitation of a machine and say, ‘Hey, we are not limited to this any more.’”

Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, design and gear for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.

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