July 3, 2020 | by | @BatDigest
We’ve been writing about baseball and fastpitch bats for a long time. Since everyone else seemed to be writing about the decade in review, we thought we could look through old emails, traffic reports, and links to see what were the most significant things in the last decade about bats. Not surprisingly, we found 10. In no small measure, these ten events of the previous decade affect how we think about bats today.
Of the weirder, more embarrassing, moments from the last decade that shape what we think about bats today is the mysterious treatment of the 2017 and 2018 DeMarini CF Zen in USSSA.
You will remember the bat was released in September of the previous year (2016) and not banned until around February of 2017. Why it took USSSA 5 full months after approving the bat to claim the 2017 version in a drop 10 and 8 was illegal has never been explained.
The rumor is other manufacturers forced USSSA’s hand to reconsider because they (the competitors) were getting destroyed in the “box” office. We’ll never know.
In any event, by March of 2017, the CF Zen was officially illegal. DeMarini took the bat back in droves to retool it by inserting a dampening ring inside the bat (and an orange end cap). That 2017 bat has since been complained about endlessly—as if it was DeMarini’s fault that USSSA was inexplicably incompetent. Even still, the CF from that year and ever since ranks out as the top USSSA bat by a wide margin in terms of performance, feel, and popularity.
To add to the bewilderment, the 2018 version of the bat suffered a similar fate. Until it didn’t. That is after the 2018’s CF Zen release—which by all accounts was the same retooled 2017 Zen, which was approved—2018, also got banned a few months into the season. A few weeks later, USSSA and DeMarini made some statements to the effect of ‘hold your horses,’ we’re doing more testing. It was determined the 2018 CF Zen USSSA was legal and so, still too, was the retooled 2017 CF Zen.
When it’s all said and done, the treatment of the CF in USSSA over the last few years has been an interesting one to follow. Despite it getting clobbered by USSSA and several online reviewers not happy with how the thing played out (and the bat’s durability), it still ranks as the most popular bat in its niche by a considerable margin.
Will the end of the 2020s see a new horse on top of the USSSA ranks? We will see.
In the middle of the decade, Dick’s Sporting Good’s main competitor announced it would be closing its doors. Sports Authority had suffered too many losses—mainly from the online Amazon.
Although not entirely baseball and softball bat-related, Sports Authority closing its doors was evidence of a broader trend in the industry. In short, people are much more comfortable buying a bat online in 2020 then they were in 2010. In our last report, no less than 50% of all performance bats are purchased online. At the beginning of 2010, it was more like 20%.
Sports Authority was the most notable sporting goods store to go by the wayside. But, lots of mom and pop, brick and mortar type stores have stopped selling bats entirely. If you don’t live in a big city or thereabouts, it’s doubtful you can find a store within a reasonable distance that has any amount of real selection. The failure of these small and big shops puts more demand online—and for the first few years of the decade, that was a good thing. We saw several small vendors jump in the fray to take advantage of the online bat sales growth.
However, enter Amazon.
Who sells the bats on Amazon?
At the beginning of the decade—and through most of it—most bats on Amazon were sold by the storefronts of vendors. That is, places like JustBats or Baseball Express used a store on Amazon to sell their bats. As well, bat sales on Amazon, we’re mostly ho-hum.
By the end of the decade, however, Amazon sales directly the vast majority of bats on Amazon—and that market has grown considerably.
This shift affects the dynamic major online retailers have played with bat manufacturers for a few decades. As we see it, it poses a real risk to online vendors and the storefronts of significant manufacturers over the next ten years. In particular, as Amazon becomes the primary distributor of baseball and softball bats, manufacturers become more dependent upon them for success.
That idea surely keeps bat sales forces up at night. If Amazon continues to take over the online bat sales, there will be a lot of growing pains for the industry.
At the end of 2020, this change in distribution channels might be the single most significant change we see in the bat world.
The spinning handle on Easton’s flagship bat has more of a story than was initially appreciated. The idea, if you fell asleep from about 2015 through 2018, was a bottom hand with the ability to rotate could give a player more speed on their swing. In a laboratory, it was likely correct. In real life, it never got off the ground.
The spinning handle was just one, and likely the most visible, attempt in the last decade at redefining what a bat should do. But the sentiment continued throughout the decade as bat’s tried to improve their handles, fill themselves with air, or rotation or barrel performance one side of the plate or another. It also explains the explosion of emphasis on bat design and custom looks too.
Gadgetry has and will always be a part of the bat R&D. But, what might be under-appreciated in the bat world now containing one with a spinning handle is a subtle admission that barrel performance isn’t that differentiating. If your barrel was that much better than why the need for gadgetry? The answer, of course, is that barrels and performance aren’t that much different. Don’t get us wrong. There’s plenty of terrible bats out there and several great ones too. The idea that one company or barrel or brand has cracked the code while others have not is just not plausible.
That reality has shaped bats considerably in the last half of the previous decade. We expect much more of it in the next ten years.
Combat didn’t die in the traditional sense. It’s still alive in Easton (as the parent company was the same) and in JustBats as they bought the rights to sell the Combat name in bats out of bankruptcy.
(As a side note, the confusion has been multiplied by a factor of 10 as JustBats for 2020 repainted the Combat Maxum of year’s passed into a B2 design. We get about ten questions a week on that. No, the B2 never was a BBCOR bat. Yes, it’s the same as the Maxum from previous years. No, I’m not sure why they did that).
Combat, you might remember, was a Canadian company—our only non-wood bat Canadian company—that built baseball and softball bats. They had a near-religious following and made ridiculously sized barreled bats.
The bankruptcy of their parent company put them on the chopping block. The void that created allowed for smaller companies, like Dirty South Bats and their full composite bats, to reap benefits. Others filled that void as well. (See #4).
Combat wasn’t the only bat company to go defunct in the 2010s. More than a few did like RIP-IT. But, no company with that level of market presence ever fell so quickly from the market. At the time of their disappearance, Combat was the 2nd most popular brand in USSSA (behind DeMarini) and had a serious BBCOR following. Then, the next day, poof. All but gone except for a warehouse full of inventory sold in bankruptcy to JustBats.
Last year our bat surveyed showed that DeMarini’s CF Zen in the USSSA space is a clear favorite. Almost half the bats in the USSSA game are DeMarini, and the vast majority of players in that space think it is the best bat. In today’s market, no single model stands as a more significant and dominant force.
A few years back, before USA bats changed everything (see #2), Easton’s Mako in a 2 1/4 USSSA bat dominated. No single bat in any particular niche, even the CF Zen today, has ever owned the market quite like the orange 2 1/4 Easton Mako did in the pre-USA Little League space. There was no question what was the best youth baseball bat then: The Orange Easton MAKO.
We don’t think we’ll ever see a bat dominate like the 2014 to 2017 Easton MAKO in the 2 1/4 ever again. The 2015 version is purely legendary. The 2010s marked the end of an era of single bat market dominance. It was a perfect storm of distribution, marketing, and maxing out a performance certification from day one by smoking the competition and never looking bat.
Although late in the 2010s, a very notable event is the appearance of a few earnest players in the baseball bat space. The consolidation of significant powers and the loss of Combat created at least some of this void. In particular, TRUE and StringKing bats will round out a few barking for market share with the Dirty South Bats and Victus Vandals of the world.
There isn’t much to say other than let’s wait and see. But, at the end of the 2020s, it is quite possibly one of those companies we mention above will stand where Marucci does today—who ten years ago stood where they do now: pretty much nowhere.
In 2010 there were very few outside the wood bat space who had ever heard of Marucci. From 2002 to 2012 or so, they were almost only wood bats.
But, in the last ten years, they’ve gone from a virtual no name in the amateur bat space to a household name. They are one of the best aluminum bat companies around (if not the best). In terms of sales, they top the list in almost every category. They make the 2nd most popular USSSA bat as well as one of the most popular and highly reviewed BBCOR bats on the market.
There appears to be no looking back.
Of all the success stories amateur baseball bats over the last ten years, Marucci’s rise to the top is bar-none the most compelling.
THE most significant landscape change in the bat space during the 2010s was Wilson’s acquisition of Louisville Slugger’s bat brand for $70 Million. In 2000, or thereabouts, Wilson acquired DeMarini for something like $18 Million. In the next decade, they bought Slugger.
Wilson is the leading supplier of baseball and fastpitch bats in the country. Although their R&D remains separate, much of the sales force behind Slugger and DeMarini has combined. The economies of scale have helped both brands as DeMarini dominates the USSSA space, while Slugger took advantage of the USA change more than any other company. BBCOR bats remain competitive, but bats like the Meta, Omaha, CF, and Voodoo are on the shortlist of most popular high school bats.
By our latest survey, Wilson owns at least half the market in the amateur baseball and fastpitch space.
If Wilson’s dominance is a good thing depends on who you ask. As there are fewer companies to offer bats, then price control becomes more manipulable and, for us consumers at least, more expensive. For consumers, competition is always a good thing. The insane price points of bats seen in just the last 4 or 5 years (almost double what they were to start the decade) might align with the lack of significant competition at the highest levels.
No matter the way you slice it, the acquisition of Slugger consolidated the bat industry like no other acquisition ever has, and today, there is less downward price pressure than there ever has been.
Despite any price gouging that takes place, the acquisition of Slugger might have been the best thing that ever happened to it (at least in recent years—Babe Ruth swinging Slugger was probs a bit more “best”…). Pre-2016, the company built with a wood bat infrastructure trying to compete against companies raised in the aluminum and composite world. To boot, they were getting beat in the wood bat space, for the first time in literally forever, by Marucci.
With that type of infrastructure and unable to compete in R&D, Slugger had almost no chance to produce a bat that could compete in the top echelon of aluminum and composite bats. (Although, of course, that Omaha from 2014 is a monster). They lacked the resources (and they admitted as much) to compete. Throw in a newsworthy lawsuit settled in the 2010s about their bats disabling someone, and they were ready to sell.
No doubt, too, Slugger has used their newfound Wilson resources brilliantly. The Meta defines the BBCOR space and their foresight to offer a drop 11 USA bat from day one (with a reasonable amount of inventory) put them on the map for the long haul.
In the long run, we feel confident the competitive balances will take care of themselves through a free market. Companies like TRUE and StringKing seem to be on to something by offering better price points on bats that appear to meet the performance standard like anything else. We’re hoping this will keep the upper echelon with better price checks. Still, at this rate, the 2020s might see our first $1000 baseball or fastpitch bat.
No matter how you look at it, Wilson’s acquisition of Slugger in 2016 was the single most substantial landscape change to the bat space in the last decade.
The 2nd most significant change in the bat space in the previous decade (and the most significant for Little League) was the new USA Bat standard. So little has been written about this that could be said, but we’ll try and keep it brief.
To start, we don’t think it just a coincidence that a local Little League was sued for 14 Million dollars because of a bat ‘hotter than wood’ and USA and Little League implementation a USA Bat standard that replicated wood. Surely this is not the ONLY lawsuit these folks dealt with in this realm–this was just the most public one.
Was it for safety reasons?
Obviously yes. Obviously. Obviously. But no attorney worth their weight in cow dung would have advised them to say they are making the change for safety. Remember, they just settled at least one lawsuit a few months previous by claiming they weren’t negligent, and the bats are safe. To turn around now and say it was a change about safety would have been a terrible legal move opening the door to way too much liability. If you don’t like that answer, then welcome to American jurisprudence.
Were there reasons besides safety?
Imagine owning 1/3 of the youth baseball bat space in the world. Then, imagine seeing bats allowed in your tournaments that are certified by another, competing, baseball body (USSSA). Then consider having the thought that you can make your certification standard and make money from that directly.
Then think, the only thing surprising about the USA Bat standard change was that it took USA Baseball this long to do it.
Another fascinating angle within the USA Bat change was the industry uproar.
When the announcement happened—and we remember the day—the industry hemmed and hawed and freaked. We were at the ABCA when they all had a meeting with these folks. People were losing their minds. Manufacturers and Vendors said the change was so terrible and they’d take the brunt of it. Parents would revolt. Kids would quit their league. Cats and Dogs would be living together.
Then, come 2018 or so, what happened?
Well, everyone in the bat industry got richer. A lot richer. People were buying USA bats that didn’t even need USA bats. Parents in USSSA and BBCOR leagues were showing up with USA Bats and had no idea. We don’t have the exact numbers, but we do have traffic numbers for what people were searching for. We believe that during those first months something close to 5 times more USA bats was sold than were supposed to be sold.
It was like printing money.
Was it a total dupe of the unsuspecting public?
Not really. We don’t believe in most conspiracy theories and have a hard time getting worked up by them. USA Bats has taken a lot of heat for the change but they were perfectly in their right to control the performance of bats in games they are liable to keep safe. Letting another governing body hold to those reigns could be seen as irresponsible.
In some ways, though, it was the perfect storm. The lawsuits, the market penetration, the demand for new bats, and the shift to online bat research and buying contributed dramatically to the hundreds of millions of dollars that changed hands during the implementation of the USA Bat standard.
The BESR standard changing to BBCOR circa 2013 stands as the most important event to happen to aluminum and composite bats in the last ten years. Some might argue the USA standard was more significant. But USA is fresher in your memory. USA standard affected a lot of players, no doubt. But BBCOR effected what is likely half the entire amateur baseball market and set in motion the price points and distribution models you see today and will likely see throughout the 2020s.
First, the lid was off on manufacturers using a composite bat that would perform better once worked in. So, it would pass the test with flying colors, get operated in by the player, and be rocket launcher in just a few short weeks.
ABI or accelerated break-ins were the new norms for testing. Change one, check.
Second, the NCAA and high school baseball games changed considerably. The College World Series games in Omaha went from mimicking football scores (21 to 17) to that of a scratch golf tournament. The offensive production was so bad they changed the seam height on the baseball to help the ball get out of TD Ameritrade park with greater ease. Change two, check.
Third, with a standard reset in 50% of aluminum and composite bats, it opened the door for companies like Marucci to get it on the ground floor. BBCOR rolled out so quickly that BBCOR leaders like Slugger and Rawlings caught up in an instant. Without the BBCOR standard getting implemented like it was, Marucci would not be who they are today–one of the most potent aluminum bat companies in the world. Change three, check.
Pay For Performance
Fourth, the high stakes bat performance race was officially on. BBCOR price points hit a sort of market tipping point. Huge barriers to entry and massive R&D expenses pushed pricing into never before seen levels. Players and parents were willing to pay for the next big breakthrough in bat tech that added distance to their swings. Ever since everyone has been in a race to find the next big trick to outperforming their peers.
The BESR to BBCOR change didn’t just adjust the standard of high school and NCAA baseball bats. It defined an entire industry by challenging engineers and their financiers to produce something better—something that would pass the test but still give the player an advantage. That type of cutthroat thinking, seen only previously in the slow pitch space, bled into ASA and USSSA fastpitch world, then the USSSA youth baseball space and, in the last two years, USA bats. The sentiment that fueled the race between BESR and BBCOR not only directed the previous ten years of bats but will likely define the next 10 or 20 look like too.
Change four (and the biggest of them all), check.
All these in all the last ten years have been transformative for the bat industry. From online dominance in bat distribution, the loss of brick and mortar bat stores, the push to consolidate all bat sales under one company, bat companies rising out of nowhere to fill the gaps in new performance standards, and the race to the secret sauce of top-end bat performance. We’ve seen many changes.
Despite our observations, we are not sure where these changes will take us in the next ten years. But you can be sure we will be here to tell you all about it.
Thanks for reading.