It’s forgivable if you haven’t noticed what we’re about to tell you about as the Minnesota Twins have played poorly on this June slate that’s been largely dotted with home games. The Twins came into June 15-36, with the expectation that they might be able to cut into that won-loss deficit with 17 of the first 20 games of the month coming at Target Field.
Instead, they’ve gone just 6-12 so far, with three games against the Phillies left in that 20-game stretch.
But June has been particularly kind to Kurt Suzuki. Coming into Sunday’s game, he’d hit .326/.341/.512 in the month of June. Reel that back to mid May, and Suzuki had hit .297/.325/.446 over a 22-game stretch. That’s 77 plate appearances, which isn’t too shabby of a sample size. And maybe it usually wouldn’t mean anything. Suzuki, after all, hasn’t been an offensive juggernaut in his big league career since being drafted in the second round in 2004 out of Cal State Fullerton.
At least not as one might have expected with that draft status and an 1100 college OPS that led him to be dubbed Kurt Klutch back in his days with the Titans. Heck, Suzuki performed well enough offensively for an entire half to be the Twins’ only offensive All Star in 2014 when they hosted the game. That year, Suzuki hit .309/.365/.396 before the break, not only earning the only All Star bid of his career to date, but also a two-year, $12 million extension with the Twins with a vesting option for 2017.
To say things haven’t went well since is an understatement. Suzuki hit just .253/.313/.362 over the rest of the 2014 season, good for a .675 OPS that, as disappointing as it was, was still a far cry from what he did in 2015 (.610) and had done through the first two months this season (.559).
And while a .647 OPS heading into Sunday’s game wasn’t necessarily something to write home about, Suzuki had caught fire and there had to be some sort of reason, right?
Have a look at this picture:
Notice anything strange or unusual? This is the plate appearance where Suzuki pinch hit for Juan Centeno on Saturday, and ultimately hit a home run on a 102-mph fastball from Aroldis Chapman. Suzuki was the back half of a super friends back-to-back home run binge with Eduardo Escobar against Chapman, who had to that point given up zero home runs as a Yankee and just once before in his career had given up a pair of home runs in any outing ever.
Figure out what’s odd about that picture? Check out the knob on Suzuki’s bat. If you aren’t familiar yet, that’s OK. That’s called an Axe Bat, and it’s from Baden Sports, a company near Seattle whose product was profiled by Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports. You can read the profile here — please wait until you’re done with this because he’s 10 times the writer I’ll ever be — but the long and short of it is that the new handle resembles that of an axe as opposed to the traditional knob of the bat, with an oval shape and a tapered handle that gives it more of an oval look from beneath rather than the traditional round shape.
Dustin Pedroia is probably the highest-profile player to use an Axe Bat, but the list continues to grow and currently contains or has contained the likes of Jimmy Rollins, Mookie Betts, Jake Lamb, Avisail Garcia and Carlos Correa.
So how did I figure out Suzuki was using the new bat? By sheer, dumb luck actually. After every game, the team’s Coordinator of Retail Sales and Authentics emerges from the clubhouse with a bucket of items. Typically they’ll be broken bats or any sort of memorabilia needing to be authenticated, ostensibly for historical purposes or perhaps to be sold in the team’s pro shop as game-used items for a man cave, home bar, personal collection or something of the sort.
Following Thursday night’s game, a black bucket had been left outside the clubhouse for a brief moment as the woman retrieved another item or two, and so I happened to see a bat with the design I had recalled from Passan’s article last season. With curiosity fully piqued, I asked the woman whose bat that was, and she simply grabbed it out, looked for a marking and replied, “That’s Suzuki’s.”
Interesting. So I tweeted out this…
…and went about my business in the clubhouse collecting video and audio from the team’s 4-1 loss that night. By the time I got upstairs to wrap up my game story and upload everything, I had a tweet waiting for me from Matt Peterson of Baden Sports — aka the original company Passan mentioned in his article.
Peterson and I exchanged emails, and he provided with me with an incredible fountain of knowledge. Here is the info that Peterson shared, which is all quite fascinating:
- The Axe Bat has three key design elements: an angled knob, an oval-shaped bottom that transitions to round at the top, and a flush backside. The shape has been designed to follow the natural contours of your wrist and palm. It greatly reduces the negative resistance caused by the traditional round handle, and reduces the risk of hand and nerve injuries commonly associated with the baseball swing (e.g., hamate fractures).
- An academic study conducted by a biomechanics expert at UCLA using Division I baseball players concluded the Axe Bat, when compared to a conventional bat with a round knob and handle, delivered:
- Better bat control and grip stability
- More efficient power transfer
- More space to accelerate the barrel in any direction (i.e., more whip and bat speed)
- Reduced risk of hand injuries (e.g., hamate fractures) and less hand fatigue, allowing longer, safer training
- Another study, published last month on Baseball Prospectus, showed that players swinging the Axe Bat achieved greater exit velocities as measured by a HitTrax system. This was an independent study conducted at a training facility in North Carolina.
- The Axe Bat (www.axebat.com) is being developed by Baden (BAH-den) Sports. It’s a family-owned company headquartered near Seattle and has exclusive rights to the Axe Bat patent.
- Baden has licensed the Axe handle design to Victus Sports, an MLB-approved wood bat maker.
- Baseball bats have had round knobs and handles for generations, not because that’s the best shape for a bat, but because that’s how the means of mass production (wood lathes) required bats to be made. We’re no longer bound by that old technology and can cut a handle that best fits the swing. Axe Bat handles are cut on a CNC mill.
- The inventor of the Axe Bat is Bruce Leinert of Dover Plains, N.Y. Bruce made the first version of the bat in his woodshop. His inspiration came while chopping down a cedar tree with an ax near his family farm.
- Ted Williams compared the mechanics of the swing with the swing of an ax in his book, The Science of Hitting. He describes the wrists at contact as being “square and unbroken, as they would be at impact when an ax is swung on a tree.” He includes this illustration. That also was part of the inspiration behind the design.
- Suzuki is the latest player to swing an Axe Bat in a regular-season game. He saw the concept at spring training, but didn’t use a bat in a game until May 6. He used it for a few games, then went back to a round handle while ordering more. He picked the Axe Bat back up in his second at-bat on May 31 and except for one at-bat – a strikeout in his final at-bat on June 5 – has swung it exclusively since. In all, he is 17-for-49 (.347) with two doubles, a home run and eight RBI with the Axe Bat. He is hitting .193 (17-for-88) with his round-handled bat.
Ironically, Target Field is the first place where the Axe Bat was used in an MLB game. Pedroia used one late last May against the Twins, with singles in his first two at-bats and even a two home run game later in the series against Phil Hughes. That was all Pedroia needed to see to use them for the rest of the season.
That’s a lot to drink in, quite frankly. But I managed to catch up with Suzuki briefly prior to Friday’s game, and he was extremely enthusiastic about the new bat and the success it had spawned.
Suzuki said he had heard of the bats dating back to his Oakland days, and that the reps were around during spring training this year when he finally decided to give it a shot. “This spring training, I saw the guys there and I just was curious. So I took one in batting practice and swung it, and asked them if they could make me a sample,” Suzuki said. “They did and sent it out to me. I was kind of messing around with it in BP a little bit, and eventually I used it in a game.”
Suzuki concurred with the May 31 date floated by Peterson as when he really started using the bat on a full-time basis, and that pretty much coincides directly with the best hitting he’s done in that time frame.
For a player with Suzuki’s service time, a decision or change like this isn’t to be taken lightly
Ultimately, even with the improved results, Suzuki said it comes down to feel. For a player with Suzuki’s service time, a decision or change like this isn’t to be taken lightly. But as he used the bat in BP and grew more comfortable, it became clear that it was worth a shot.
“I think it’s just the feel of the backside,” Suzuki said. “I think it’s called a zero-backside knob. So it’s obviously not like a full knob. It’s just the front. It kind of eases on the callous. It’s just that feel. Baseball players, you know, can get into that feel. Some bats might feel great one time, and two weeks later it’s not going to feel good. It’s just kind of that the feel felt good, so I used it.”
Suzuki said it only took about a week or two in BP before he felt good enough to use it in a game. He only had one of the bats however, so he still had to go back and forth between new and old until he could get some more made. “They take a little longer to make because of the handle,” Suzuki explained. But once he was replenished with an ample supply — he ordered more on Friday as well, he said — it was full steam ahead with the new bats.
For now, the change is what you’d call permanent. At least whatever permanent means in the game of baseball
Suzuki said beyond the feel of the bat, better results also feed into it. If you start hitting better, you start feeling better and the system continues to feed itself. But for now, the change is what you’d call permanent. At least whatever permanent means in the game of baseball.
“For now, yeah,” Suzuki said about if he’ll keep on using the Axe Bats. “I just ordered a few more (Friday). I broke one last night. Andrew Miller broke one last night. But I got a couple more coming. I’m just going to keep using it.”
For those interested, Suzuki said it is an S318 model, 34 inches long and he’ll vacillate between 31.5 and 32 ounces based on feel. Sometimes, Suzuki said, he’ll use a lighter bat earlier in a game if a starter maybe doesn’t throw as hard, and make an in-game change if a reliever is bringing it a bit more.
Funnily enough, the bat that I saw in the bucket? It was the one Miller broke, on an 84-mph, 1-2 slider in the eighth inning of Thursday’s game. Suzuki had to switch bats, and two pitches later he struck out swinging on the high heat.
No, the whiff didn’t come with a traditional handle bat, so not all stories have a perfect ending. But so far, it’s hard to argue against the results with Suzuki’s new weapon of choice.