The Business of Performance Bats

Recently the SFIA (Sports & Fitness Industry Association) estimated that the total sales of performance bats in the U.S. totaled over $190 million, which is a 9.7% increase over 2014.  It is an industry with increasing prices and enough marketing lingo to fill Fenway.  When the dust settles, it becomes quite difficult to differentiate a new model from the old or the differences between manufacturers.  Most parents and players have given up trying to understand the differences between them all.  It’s a helpless feeling when you drop hundreds of dollars on a yearly basis not knowing whether the bat will work out our not.  My goal is to ease that feeling by arming you with the information that will allow you to make an informed bat purchase and gain a better understanding of how they are developed.  This is the business of performance bats.

Let’s start by taking a look at some of the areas involved in designing bats.

Materials

In the early days of non-wood bats, aluminum was the choice of manufacturers to produce higher performing and more durable bats versus traditional wood.  Many uninformed parents today think that aluminum is the only choice because it is what they swung when they were kids.  The industry has changed quite a bit in the past 10-15 years.  While many performance bats are still made of aluminum, players also now have the choice of composite or hybrid bats that provide different features.  Many players think that the word “composite” is an actual material.  Composite bats can be made up of multiple materials including, but not limited to:  carbon fiber, graphite, fiberglass and aramid fibers (AKA Kevlar).  All of these materials possess their own unique qualities (performance, vibration reduction) that are taken into consideration while designing a bat.  The simplified process of building a composite bat involves using multiple layers of specified material (a layup) with resin (essentially glue) to form the barrel’s shape, using an industrial oven to cure the preform within a mold, sanding the raw barrel, painting it and applying graphics.  Sounds easy enough, right?  Sort of.  Remember those layers of material used to build the bat?  They aren’t just spun up like a roll of your favorite Christmas wrapping paper.  The separate pieces of material are strategically placed at different angles.  The way each layer is placed (along with material) will decide the level of performance and durability of a bat.  It’s the bat engineers job to produce maximum allowed performance, while also having the highest durability possible.  Oh and by the way, performance and durability have an inverse relationship, in most cases once one goes up, the other goes down.  The design freedom that composite bats allow make them a very attractive option.  They are often the most expensive bats in a line due to development and material costs.  Most composite bats are usually marketed as “hot out of the wrapper”, but many times this isn’t true (depending on how it is designed).  As you hit a composite bat, the fibers will start to “loosen up” and fire back with higher performance on impact.  This is what led many governing bodies to force a redesign of composite bats after they found out many early generation models were exceeding performance limits once they were broke in (more on this later).  Lastly hybrids are most commonly a mix of both aluminum and composite materials.  The standard hybrid will use an aluminum barrel with a composite handle for better vibration reduction.  Hybrids can have different combinations of materials in the handle, barrel and end cap.

Development

After a new design is talked through extensively, first round prototypes are created.  This starts the beginning of what could be a very long iteration process depending on the results of performance and durability testing which could take months or even years.  At this point many of you are probably wondering why companies just don’t design the highest performing bat possible with good durability and put it out on the market.  Aside from working around competing technologies already patented, here is a list of constraints that engineers must work within while designing bats:

Cost of Goods Sold (plus duty, taxes, freight, association royalties)

If manufacturer A plans on selling their top of the line BBCOR bat for $399.99, depending on their business margin requirements, they may target a COGS (Cost of Goods Sold) of let’s say $110.00 + $7.00 for taxes, freight & association royalties.  Making a 60% margin, they would sell the bat $187.20 to retailers.  The retailers in turn make the rest of the profit after the final sale to the player.  The engineers must keep the design cost within $110, which will include the bat materials and aesthetic features (knob medallion, any multi-piece bat transition material), cosmetic paint & decals (bat graphics) and coating (matte, semi-gloss, high-gloss)…ect.

Regulatory Limitations

BBCOR, USSSA, USA Baseball (new rule for 2018) and ASA all require that bats not exceed specific rules set in place for player safety.  This means that a bat’s performance is capped depending on what sport or level it is made for.  Any bat found in violation of the rules will run the risk of being banned by the association.  These bats are run through a series of tests before they can be certified by governing bodies.  Many of these tests take place at the Sports Science Laboratory at Washington State University run by Dr. Lloyd Smith.  The testing of these performance bats are e.  If you are interested in learning more about the testing procedures and bat science in itself, take a look at Dr. Smith’s Sports Science Lab website https://ssl.wsu.edu/.  Along with the Sports Science Lab, you can find official BBCOR and ABI (accelerated break-in) documents from the NCAA here:  

BBCOR Protocol  http://www.ncaa.org/sites/default/files/BBCOR%20Protocol-Effective%201.1.14_1.pdf

ABI Procedure  http://fs.ncaa.org/Docs/rules/baseball/bats/NCAAABIProcedure.pdf

Without getting too heavy into the science aspect, just know that all bats must be designed to perform under the specified regulation.

Weight

Many engineers will tell you that when they are designing bats, weight is often their biggest challenge.  Barrel shape & length, connections, wall thickness (aluminum), layup (composite), end caps, knobs, barrel technology and handles all play a part in determining the weight of a bat.  Making all of the parts work together in harmony is the real challenge.  Especially when trying to make different drop weights ranging from -3 to -12 depending on the sport and age group.  For example, a high performing composite bat with low durability could be in need of a layup change to improve durability while at the same time lowering performance.  The manufacturer also wants to add a new composite end cap that frees up weight, then they add more weight with a newly designed connection piece and finally wants to increase barrel size, which would add weight.  Confused yet?  Don’t worry, you’re not alone.  Unfortunately it can often get more complicated than that.  Depending on manufacturing tolerances, most finished bats could be +- .5 oz  or more to the stated weight before the grip is put on.  With overseas manufacturing, all bats can have various shell weights.  This can be significant because if you’re standing in a Dicks Sporting Goods picking up bats and you see 8 of the exact same BBCOR bat on the shelf, do yourself a favor and try at least a few of them out.  The variance in weight difference can result in a large MOI (Moment of Inertia – sometimes referred to as swing weight) spread.  MOI is how a bat’s mass distribution is measured.  For example, you could have two BBCOR bats with identical weights, one that is knob loaded and the other being end loaded.  The end loaded bat could have a MOI of 9800 while the knob loaded bat would measure at 9000.  The difference between those two bats may separate a power hitter that prefers more end load vs a gap guy who likes a balanced feel.  For reference, an advanced hitter should be able to feel the difference at around 100 MOI points.  I personally think that it would be good for bat manufacturers to do a better job of educating players about MOI and possibly even listing the MOI of every bat sold at the risk of causing a potential retail nightmare.

Durability & Performance

I will start by saying this, high performance bats are going to fail at some point.  It’s not a matter of if, but when it happens.  That’s why every manufacturer has a warranty included with each bat.  Now I’m sure some people may be upset with this reality, but when every company is trying to keep up with the performance Joneses, the limits are consistently pushed and durability can often be the sacrificial cow.  Now I’m not saying it’s okay when a bat fails after two weeks of BP, but the cold hard truth is that we have to be ready for it. *steps off soapbox*.  As I was saying earlier, these two have an inverse relationship.  When one goes up, the other usually goes down.  Finding the right balance between high performance and high durability is what every manufacturer strives for.  With aluminum, it’s a matter of thickening or thinning out portions of the bat walls to decrease / increase performance or durability.  As stated above, composites deal with changing the angle of each material layer, number of layers, resin and heat time among others that make up the bat.  End cap material and stiffness also can have a profound effect on bat performance & sound.

Mass Manufacturing Overseas 

When you produce anything in large quantities, there are bound to be some defective outliers throughout the process.  It also doesn’t make things any easier when most of these bats are designed in small labs in the USA and manufactured overseas.  The transfer of knowledge from the USA to overseas factories doesn’t always line up.  No matter how perfect a design is here, they will have to iterate through issues with bats being made overseas.  Large composite factories usually have their own internal research and development teams that work alongside teams from major bat manufacturers.  This helps work through problems that are sure to surface.  The lead time for bats made overseas can range from 2-5 months depending on factory circumstances and capacity.

Developing high performance bats is an expensive business and not every company has the funding to staff large R&D teams or the time to wait for full development from scratch.  What many players don’t know is that many of the composite and aluminum factories will design their own bats, license them out to small bat manufacturers and allow that company to put their name on it.  Licensing products isn’t anything new, but I am willing to bet that most readers assumed that each company designed its own bats.

Marketing

The bat business works in a similar fashion to the automobile industry, the newest models are always a year ahead.  For example, the newest bats that will be released this year will be 2017 models.  Many companies will launch their newest line coinciding with the NCAA College Regionals, Super Regionals and World Series in May-June.  This gives each manufacturer the opportunity to showcase their newest products in the hands of elite college teams on television if they have product deals with some of the revolving top 35 NCAA programs.  When looking at new models, bat marketing has pretty much become alphabet soup.  There are an absurd amount of technological acronyms and embellished manufacturing terms invented which each new year.  Look I get it, it’s their job to be able to tell a story across a line of bats, show how it plays into the overall company theme and I have no problem with that.  What I do have a problem with is manufacturers not being more up-front about “new technologies” vs current or older models.  I understand that not every parent or player will care that a new composite resin with less viscosity was introduced to to increase durability.  For those who do, like me, it would be nice to really understand what was happening versus listening to all of the wordsmiths.  I don’t expect them to announce trade secrets to the world, but more technical information wouldn’t hurt.  

 

My advice is to do your homework.  Understand that many models carry over from one year to the next because it is too expensive and time intensive to develop a new model every single year.  Just because graphics change, doesn’t mean the bat did.  When the new 2017 models launch in the next couple of months as the College World Series begins, check back here for updated research.

There are a lot of areas that I didn’t cover or just briefly touched on, but I think this was a good start.  If you think this article was helpful in any way, then consider sharing with other parents or teammates interested in what goes on behind the scenes.  I have some great ideas planned for the site and look forward to sharing them with all of you.  If you’d like to learn about anything specific, reach out to us on social media, which you can find at the top of the page.

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