Yasiel Puig may or may not have been swinging a Birdman in yesterday’s opener. The Cincinnati Reds slugger — according to Birdman Bat founder Gary Malec — is “one of those guys who’ll you see go back and forth” with bat models over the course of a season. Last year, several of the minus-twos and minus-threes Puig wielded were supplied by Malec’s Bay-Area company.
If you’re not a player yourself, “minus-two” and “minus-three” are likely unfamiliar terms. How bats are manufactured, regulated by MLB, and typically purchased are probably also foreign to you. Frankly, there’s a decent chance you haven’t even put any thought into those things. You simply know that players swing bats, and sometimes those bats propel baseballs far distances.
Two members of the Birdman crew — Lars Anderson and Cody Silveria — were pleased to inform me that Puig’s longest 2018 home run came off the barrel of one of their bats. Ditto the ball Puig hit with the highest exit velocity, and San Francisco Giants outfielder Chris Shaw’s first big-league homer. More importantly — at least in terms of the purpose of this article — they explained how the bat business works.
With continuity and flow in mind, Anderson’s and Silveria’s voices aren’t differentiated within the text of this interview. The conversation itself took place during the Winter Meetings.
Anderson and Silveria: “There are currently 35 licensed bat companies — Birdman was licensed in January 2018 — and to get certified you have to go through a process. You pay a fee. You do a blanket insurance policy. You send two test bats to the TECO test lab in Wisconsin. Then you’re sent to a test course — this is one 12-hour day — where they show you how to do the slope-of-grain test, which is the ink dots you see on all major league bats. This is to make sure the safety of the wood is good.
“The wood comes from different places. The biggest supplier of maple — split-wood maple —is New York. The birch comes from Canada. That’s basically because of climate. It’s a little warmer in New York, so the maple grows denser and is more prevalent. In Canada, it’s vice versa. Birch does better in colder weather.
“Birch is actually a relatively new wood [for bats]. Maple is fairly recent, as well. It used to be all ash, and before that it was hickory and oak. Last year was the first year that birch surpassed ash in popularity. Maple and birch are now the top two.
“Birch tends to last better than maple. It’s like ash, except it doesn’t splinter. It’s a great hybrid wood. Birch has that flex, so if a player doesn’t like that, he’s going to stick to maple. It’s kind of like a graphite shaft versus a steel shaft in golf.
“There are rules on density of maple. If you signed your first MLB contract before 2012, you’re allowed to use low-density maple, which is more shatter-prone. You’ll see bats explode. If you signed your first contract after 2012, you have to adhere to the density laws. MLB currently allows five colors: black, gray, brown, burgundy, and natural.
“The manufacturing process is pretty straightforward. It starts as a 37-inch round billet. Each profile — each bat model — has a certain weight that correlates with that round. Gary writes the G-code for each bat program, then we plug it into a CNC machine, which is basically a 3-D printer for bats. It cuts the general shape of the bat — it leaves it fairly rough — and that takes about five minutes. From there we sand them by hand. We have two CNC machines, so we could knock out upwards of 150 bats a day if really wanted to.
“Again, maple is the wood species that most players prefer, and the lengths and weights are pretty standard. It’s mostly a minus-two or a minus-three. The weight can’t legally be more than 3.5 ounces lighter than its length, i.e. a 34-inch bat has to be 30.5 ounces or heavier. It also can’t be above 35 ounces. In other words, you can’t have that heavy Babe Ruth bat, which was about a 36 length and 40-something ounces.
“Hunter Pence’s bat is 34.5 inches and 32.5 ounces. His is the biggest pro bat we’ve made. Yasiel Puig mostly used a minus-three last year. He likes his light. And he’s switched from having swung maple. He picked up Rich Hill’s bat, which is birch, and just fell in love with it. Now Puig swings birch.
“What’s really changed is the models. Not that long ago there were just a handful of bats you could choose from. Now it’s specialized. You can take the head of a 271 and put it on the handle of a 243, with a knob of a 66. You have these Frankenstein bats now. Preferences differ from player to player. For instance, Puig’s model has this huge taper. That model is becoming more popular.
“Puig orders the same model from us, but he uses different models — he’ll use different companies — all the time. He’s one of those guys who’ll you see go back and forth. But most everyone is going to stay in the same range. It’s not like guys are swinging wildly different bats. Anyone doing that probably doesn’t really know what he wants yet. He’s probably a younger player.
“Back to weight… Alfonso Soriano used to swing this massive 36-ounce bat. Those were more prevalent 10 years ago. Then they started getting smaller and smaller. I think a lot of that is from the emergence of data and what we know about the physics of swing velocity. Lighter is righter. Bat speed improves exit velocity. That said, players do like to feel weight in their hands — they don’t like to feel like they’re holding a toothpick — so it’s really about comfort level.
“What’s comfortable can also change over the course of the season. Puig was using minus-threes last year, and toward the end he was ordering minus-twos. Some guys like to have a bunch of different models in their bag. Marco Scutaro might have 20 different models in his, some from different companies, while I think Kevin Youkilis swung one model his whole life.
“Superstition is involved. If you’re having success, for whatever reason, there’s no way you’re going to change what you’re swinging. I’ve seen guys almost cry after breaking a bat. And some bats… I mean, you can just feel something when you pick it up. It might be, ‘This bat is going to last forever.’ But it could also be, ‘No, this one isn’t going to work. It’s not going to be a good marriage.’ When you pick up a bat, it has to ‘yes’ in your hands. It can be the same weight, the same model, and for some reason it just doesn’t say yes. Other times, it does. It’s hard to explain why, but it’s true.
“Last year, the Dodgers’ clubhouse manager called us and said, ‘You have to send more bats [for Puig] really quick. He loves this thing.’ The clubbies are the ones who make the orders — this is for big-league guys — and the team is paying for them.
“Our fully customized bats cost around $175. That’s pretty much mid-range for the 35 companies. There are also tiers. You can buy one for closer to $100, but for fully customized — you pick the cut, you pick the colors, the engraving, the sticker, everything — that’s $175.
“Guys coming up through the minors have different purchasing dynamics. A lot of top prospects will have their bats paid for by their agents. Other guys have agents who won’t pay for bats. Some players don’t have agents. And some have deals with bat companies. If Vladimir Guerrero Jr. approached us, we’d probably give him a sweet bat deal; he wouldn’t be paying anything.
“The irony of that is, when Vladimir Guerrero goes up to the major leagues, he’ll go to the clubhouse manager to order his bats. The clubhouse manager will call us, and the team will be paying for his bats. That’s a good deal for both sides, because it streamlines the process. The player gets what he wants with minimal effort, and we get our regular price for the bats. MLB teams can afford that.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.