How an upstart bat maker swings against Louisville Slugger

June 13, 2012: 11:59 AM ET

BWP is among several boutique bat companies gaining traction inside MLB equipment lockers. Here's how they are doing it.

By Cristina Rouvalis

FORTUNE -- Selling a boutique bat to a famous major league baseball player is about as easy as teaching your great-aunt to hit a low outside slider over the scoreboard. But inside the bowels of PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Mike Gregory, vice president of BWP Bats of Brookville, Pa. is going to give it a whirl.

A few hours before the Pittsburgh Pirates host the Cincinnati Reds in late May, he leans three of his company's shiny maple bats against the locker of Andrew McCutchen, the star Pirates outfielder who uses several other brands. Ordinarily, Gregory wouldn't try to convert the hottest player in the lineup. But McCutchen used BWP bats in the minors, and Gregory knows him. He beams when McCutchen says, "You came at a good time. My bats are snapping like crazy."

"These are good, Andy. This design won't snap as much," says Gregory, who has been customizing the design for months. "It has a smaller barrel," referring to the thick end of the bat.

Gregory won't know for a few weeks if McCutchen will use one of the 12 bats he gave him, engraved with his name. But he says it was worth a shot. "I know if Andrew McCutchen uses our bat, it will sway other players."

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BWP is among several boutique bats gaining traction inside MLB equipment lockers, alongside other brands such as Sam Bat (the company that made Barry Bonds' famous maple bats), Marucci, Old Hickory, X Bat, and others. These upstarts are running against the mighty Louisville Slugger -- a name so hallowed it's practically synonymous with the national pastime.

Taking on Babe Ruth's bat maker

Derek Jeter uses a Louisville Slugger, along with 60% of MLB players today. Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb also swung the 128-year-old brand's bats. Hillerich & Bradsby Co. of Louisville, Ky., produces 1.8 million Louisville Sluggers a year.

That's a formidable opponent, says Jack Trout, a Greenwich, Conn.-based marketing consultant. "It is very hard when you have a brand like Louisville Slugger. It is the only bat in people's minds. It is like Google right now, or Xerox was in the copier business, or Coke."

Trout says the only way a small player can carve out a niche is to bring something distinctive to the table. BWP touts the fact that it's one of only a few of the 30 MLB-approved bat vendors that owns its own timber and mills. The company's forest is located in central Pennsylvania, home to some of the hardest maples in the world. Gregory says that the harder wood means his bats have less flexibility and more pop than a traditional ash bat. "We control manufacturing from the tree to the home run," Gregory says. BWP, which stands for Brookville Wood Products, has been in the wood market for 47 years, but it entered the bat business just 12 years ago. Gregory plays up BWP Bats small size, 12 employees and $3.5 million in annual sales, as an advantage. "It is like a valet service. It is easier to serve 20 players than 500," he says.

It designs bats for clients such as Justin Morneau of the Twins and Johnny Damon of the Indians, part of the 4% of MLB players who use its bats. Most of the 40,000 bats it makes every year go into the hands of minor leaguers, high school athletes, college players, and weekend warriors. The MLB business accounts for a fraction of its $3.5 million annual bat business, but it brings prestige and free advertising. If a player gets a hit in a televised game, high school players will notice the logo on the lumber and run out and buy the bat, Gregory argues. BWP enlarged its logo last year for that very reason. And it now allows rookies to design their own bats, similar to the way the pros do.

The delicate art of selling a slugger

Like a fashion designer who gives Oscar-bound starlets free gowns, a bat salesman hands out free wares, eating the $70-to-$120 cost of a high-quality bat. (After the free trial, if the player orders a bat, they're paid for by the ballclub).

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But as he ventures into a locker room, Gregory says he hands out trial bats carefully. He tries to gauge players' moods, and superstitions, about a tool considered so vital it is treated like an extension of their arms. Trout, the marketing consultant, says the superstitions make it an even trickier sale. "These guys have all sorts of hang-ups. Some won't step on a line or they have a ritual about always hitting a base. Can you imagine how bad they are with their bats?

Gregory says he has seen players retire a bat after a few strikeouts or, even more mysteriously, after a home run. Some are so meticulous about their bats that they weigh them down to a fraction of an ounce. BWP and other bat makers customize everything from the curve of the grip to the size of the barrel to the finish on the wood.

Pirates outfielder McCutchen, for example, likes a bat with a black handle and clear barrel because he feels it gives him a psychological advantage -- the contrasting barrel looks more powerful to him.

Players today hoist much lighter bats than their predecessors, giving hitters quicker bat speed but leading to more broken bats. "They took the weight out of the handles of the bat," says John Thorn, historian for Major League Baseball. "Babe Ruth swung bats that were 40 to 54 ounces, compared to 31 or 32 today."

Tracing the bat market's evolution

There were also more bat makers slugging it out in the early days. In the 1870s and 1880s, the market was crowded with early sporting good retailers such as Edward I. Horseman, John Van Horn, Harrison Harwood, John C. Whiting, and Peck & Snyder. But Thorn says the bat industry went through consolidation when Spalding bought out its rivals at the end of the 19th century. Spalding dominated the market after rolling out the wildly popular "wagon tongue bat" in 1889. It was made from wood so sturdy that it recalled the strong wood tie that connected wagons to horses.

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The first Louisville Slugger was made in 1884. The bat's popularity got a boost in 1905 when Honus "The Flying Dutchman" Wagner, a star for the Pittsburgh Pirates, endorsed the bat, which bore his autograph. The brand accounted for about 75% of the market in the '50s, '60s and '70s, says Rick Redman, vice president of corporate communications for Hillerich & Bradsby. It faces competition from 29 other approved bat vendors today. "Sixty percent of the market is amazingly strong when considering that 29 others are vying for the other 40%," Redman says.

Louisville Slugger is still the dominant force in the market, but smaller rivals are always trying to snatch a big name player or at least get them to add their brand to their arsenal. For a bat salesman, one man's slump is another man's business opportunity.

For example, when the Philadelphia Phillies came to PNC Park in June 2010, Gregory approached Wilson Valdez, the then-slumping Phillies infielder. He talked up the merits of a BWP bat, and Valdez gave it a try. "After that, I was on fire," says Valdez, who now plays for Cincinnati. The next week, he says, he called Gregory for bats and has never looked back. Valdez likes how Gregory narrowed the grip of his bat. But for him, it all comes down to one thing: "Every time I use the bat, I get a lot of hits."

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