Legendary Louisville Slugger released its MLB Prime bat for the 2013 season, conceptualized in response to pro player feedback; it was developed to be the hardest bat ever manufactured. This potentially disruptive innovation is representative of the company’s historical commitment in producing the best bats on the market through listening to its customers.
A tradition since 1884, when professional baseball player Pete Browning told Bud Hillerich what he wanted in the first bat that the company ever manufactured to today’s Bobby Hillerich, Director of Wood Bat Manufacturing, responding to their ‘Voice of the Customer’ event in 2003. “Twenty pro players were asked non-leading questions and through these in-depth interviews,” said Bobby, “We discovered that what they wanted was a harder bat.”
This came as no surprise to Chuck Schupp, Pro Bat Sales Director aka ‘Bat Man.’ When he talks with a player, “one of the first things that he wants to know is how hard is the wood.”
The focus group provided the directive, but it was then up to Louisville Slugger to determine the parameters in which to build a better bat. “How it looks,” continued Bobby, “how it feels when you hit it, and the sound that it makes—these were the tangible metrics that we could measure and improve upon.”
It was a process that would take years with much experimentation and testing of prototype bats in the field. Bobby first started with sourcing better timber for the bats. Not loudly, but quietly, he leveraged logger relationships built over 129 years, obtaining veneer quality logs in Maple and Ash, literally the highest quality, hardest, top-grade wood available. Amish-style craftsmanship was then employed to hand-saw square billets (as opposed to round machine-cut billets)—again, for harder wood to be turned into bats.
The game changer
The biggest technology advancement was in vacuum drying the wood. “Originally, timber for baseball bats was air-dried. From my great-grandfather’s time until the late 1970’s it was chopped down and set out for a year to dry,” Bobby explained. “This evolved into kiln drying at low temperatures, and now comes along vacuum drying. It’s the game-changer, as it extracts the moisture differently, making the wood lighter and harder. It actually shrinks the cells, creating a denser wood on the surface as well as inside the bat. This is the reason that a MLB bat produces a sharper, clearer noise than ever before when it’s hit.”
The vacuum drying process was also much faster than kiln drying. It only takes 4 to 7 days compared to 4 to 6 weeks in the kiln. This allows the Major League quality wood to be produced for baseball players at all levels. It’s the first time that wood of this quality has ever been sold retail.
Next, Louisville Slugger investigated a great process known as bone rubbing used to close the grain, create a harder hitting surface and help prevent flaking. There were players that were passionate about it, but it wasn’t feasible from a quality control aspect due to the inconsistent and rather small surface contact made on a bat per pass (roughly 1/8th of an inch whether achieved by hand or machine). They looked, instead, for a way to produce an effect similar to bone rubbing and ended up creating one that surpassed it. Their proprietary 360-degree compression technique provides 500 pounds of consistent pressure around the barrel, providing the consistency required with no soft spots. “It adds another layer of density to the wood,” says Bobby.
The final component, according to Rick Redman, VP of Corporate Communications, was locating the hardest finish for the MLB Prime bats, “it took five years, again with field testing and feedback from players, to find a new finish partner.” First, filler closes the grain and cavities, and then each bat is topped with three layers of a water-based topcoat. The MLB Prime finishes are the hardest on the market, 9H on the 21-level American Society for Testing and Materials hardness test (previous hardness of Louisville Slugger bats was 6H).
Ready for Prime Time!
Some of the professional players who swung bats with aspects of the MLB Prime innovations (but without the MLB Prime branding) in 2012, feedback include Josh Hamilton, Joey Votto, Derek Jeter, Buster Posey, Curtis Granderson, Ian Kinsler, Jay Bruce, Alex Rodriguez and Evan Longoria. About 200 MLB players were recently swinging pink bats with MLB Prime innovations utilized in them on Mother’s Day (to raise awareness and funds for MLB charities against breast cancer). It was Louisville Slugger’s eighth year for pink bats, but the first time with all the MLB Prime up-grades.
We expect to see more of the MLB Primes on the field. “Once you try it, you’ll fall in love, just like I did,” says Brandon Phillips of the Cincinnati Reds. With the quality of the wood, vacuum drying, compression and the finish, Rick Redman says, “you have the hardest bat ever produced. Every company has a good, better, best product strategy—our best is Prime.”
Chuck Schupp put it most eloquently. “The marketplace is very competitive. There are 28 bat manufacturers at the pro level. We must always strive to have the best service and the best products. You can’t fool the customer. At the end of day, it has to work.” He sees more and more players becoming knowledgeable about wood bats, earlier in their careers. They are well versed, so that it was up to Louisville Slugger, in his words, “to build it right.”
Louisville Slugger is a company that had long earned its reputation in the Major Leagues through the quality of its products and its customer service. Their customization is unrivaled, having produced over 8,000 bat models over the decades. Variations have included barrel size and shape, handle size and shape, knob size and shape, taper size and shape, cupped, and not cupped. They have always worked with players to create exactly what they need and want. It appears that with MLB Prime they’ve hit it HARD right out of the park.