I recently wrote a comprehensive youth baseball bat guide, targeting the ages of 12 and below. While I briefly summarized key points for various recommended bats, I think there are some noteworthy bats that merit a detailed review. The complete line of Axe bats is one of them, due to the special nature of the handle.
My 10-year-old son has been using an Elite Axe bat (provided for review by Baden Sports) and a Phenom Axe bat (purchased) over the past 10 weeks, partly because I wanted him to test them, but mostly because he wanted to.
In the comprehensive guide, I mentioned several times how bat reviews are universally poor. Too many variables are not held constant, making it difficult if not impossible to write a completely fair review for any given bat. In this review, I discuss the unique aspects of the Axe bat and how my son fared. I also point out issues with my own methodology and why reviewing bats is so difficult.
What is an Axe Bat?
Axe bats all have an ergonomically designed knob. Similar to the knob of an axe, they allow a batter to swing in greater comfort, while more efficiently transferring power to the wrists. Because the bat can only be held in one of two ways (right-handed or left-handed, with fingers curled around the protruding knob), only certain parts of the bat can strike the ball, which allows Baden Sports to engineer the bat with a hitting zone that confers certain advantages. At least that is the theory.
Baden hired a scientist to detail the biomechanical benefits of the Axe knob design. The benefits mentioned in the study sound plausible, and several major league players have begun using custom-made bats using Baden’s knob design, including Dustin Pedroia. However, of more interest to me is how the bat actually performs in the field in the hands of a 10-year-old.
We tested two of the Axe bats, the 2015 Elite and the 2015 Phenom. The Phenom is a one-piece aluminum alloy drop 12 bat for $80, while the Elite is a two-piece bat with composite barrel and high-end scandium aluminum alloy barrel for $200. The Elite was the main bat being tested and the only bat used during games. We acquired the Phenom about half way through the 10 week testing period.
How to Test a Bat?
As I mentioned in my guide, I don’t find many baseball bat reviews helpful. Amazon reviews usually mention little more than “great pop” which can have many different meanings. More in-depth reviews say nothing about testing methodology and typically provide little context. So with this review, I’ll provide the detail I would wish to see in all bat reviews.
My son tested his Axe bat as follows:
- Test swings
- Hitting tee swings into a net
- Soft toss into a net
- Front toss
- Hitting tee swings onto an empty baseball field
- Coach pitch swings
- Real game swings
- Batting cage hitting
Despite our extensive testing, I still found three fundamental issues that make my conclusions suspect:
- Each player is unique. To some extent you’re really testing a product/player fit, especially with regards to how mass is distributed throughout the bat.
- Multiple aspects of the bat change at the same time.
- Multiple variables change at game time, so it will usually not be clear how the bat performs during actual games, given other competing variables.
To elaborate on the last point, game performance is impacted by numerous variables having nothing to do with the bat. The quality of pitcher, the quality of umpire, weather conditions, and the sheer randomness of baseball make it difficult to tell how much impact the bat has during games. As luck would have it, my son entered into his worst slump ever shortly after beginning to use the Elite Axe bat, which clearly had little or nothing to do with the bat (if anything, he was hitting better than usual in soft toss and at the cages).
I do comment below on how the bat did during games, but now that we’ve spent over 10 weeks assessing this bat, I think there’s more to be learned in controlled, high repetition settings than can be learned during uncontrolled and infrequent game plate appearances.
Before getting into a detailed review of a bat, I think it’s important to state what type of player is doing the testing, what is different between the current and old bats, and what if any variables may have influenced outcomes during game time.
So . . .
What type of player is doing the testing?
The player testing the two Axe bats was my 10-year-old son who is 53 inches tall (about 3 inches below the average height for a 10-year-old PONY Mustang second year player). He bats and throws left, usually hits opposite field, and is clearly a contact hitter, not a slugger.
His .500 batting average during the rec season (and .308 during summer play) reflects occasional high quality line drives, some bloopers landing just between infield and outfield, many medium to hard grounders, some weak grounders he beats out with good hustle (and the lefty advantage of starting closer to first base) and an occasional bunt. Prior to switching to the Elite Axe bat, he had many singles and 5 doubles during the first couple months of the rec season, though some doubles were really singles with sloppy fielding.
In other words, through a combination of frequent contact, good hustle, and the lefty base running advantage, he often makes it safely to first, but he only occasionally drives the ball.
Watching slow motion video, it appears that my son’s wrists drop too early in the swing (causing “bat drag”) and his hands are too far away from his body during the swing (“casting”). These issues are likely why he rarely hits the ball past shallow outfield, usually hits opposite field, and is not consistently hitting line drives. He also has a tendency to step out slightly. Other than that, his mechanics are reasonable, so far as I know.
What Changed Between his Old and New Bat?
Prior to switching to an Elite Axe Bat, my son used an inexpensive one-piece 30”, 18oz aluminum alloy bat, the 2011 DeMarini Vengeance.
I have been unable to obtain detailed information about the DeMarini Vengeance even after contacting DeMarini. It feels somewhat end-loaded and from what I’ve seen of other bats, I would guess the alloy is something similar to 7050, a durable but somewhat heavy alloy commonly used in inexpensive youth baseball bats. This bat was a little too heavy and long for him at first but his results improved as he “grew into” its size over the past year.
There are a number of ways in which his new Elite Axe bat is different than the Vengeance he had been using:
- The Elite Axe is less end-loaded, thus slightly easier to swing even though stated length and weight are the same.
- The Elite Axe is a two-piece bat with composite handle, aluminum alloy barrel, and carbon fiber end cap. My son observed the bat bending backwards during swings, without having known in advance anything about flex or the whip effect. This is common to two-piece bats with a composite handle and aluminum barrel. The DeMarini Vengeance does not flex, being a one-piece aluminum bat.
- The Elite Axe has a high-end scandium aluminum alloy barrel.
- The Elite Axe has an oval handle designed like the handle of an axe.
- Axe bats can only be held in 2 ways (lefty or righty), so they are engineered with a hitting zone, which the company claims can help with performance, especially durability.
- The Elite Axe has a carbon fiber end cap which effectively dampens vibration. My son was never able to feel any vibration from mishit balls with the Elite. He does occasionally feel vibration (sting) from mishit balls with his Vengeance, and with the one-piece Phenom Axe bat.
Testing the Bat
My son was very excited about getting the Elite Axe bat, particularly when I showed him pictures and told him there’s a chance he might be better able to transfer power from his wrists into the bat, better taking advantage of his fast swing.
It took a minute for him to figure out how to grip it right, with a little help from the official company video. Neither of us wanted him to damage the bat by hitting the ball with the weak part of the barrel that is not in the engineered hitting zone. When teammates borrowed his bat, most would wrap their hands around the handle in the proscribed manner without prior explanation.
Unlike several other bats my son has tested, he loved this one immediately. It’s not entirely clear to me whether it was because of the handle, the two-piece design, the higher quality alloy in the barrel, or some combination. Or perhaps there was a perception on his part that he was immediately hitting better, due maybe to his newfound experience with the whip effect or perhaps the incredibly loud ping (the carbon fiber end cap rebounds energy, including sound, back into the barrel very effectively). Maybe he just likes the feel of the swing.
From my point of view, he clearly was not hitting better when we first tested it in the back yard with tee and soft toss. He rarely hit the ball square on with the sweet spot. The hits clearly would have been weak grounders or popups for the most part, and the few line drives were not hit as hard as with his existing bat. He did improve after a couple dozen swings off the tee but he still could not hit as well as with his old bat. He struggled even more with soft toss. Nevertheless, he couldn’t wait to hit some off the tee on a baseball field.
The next day we took the tee to a nearby baseball field and put it on home plate. He hit a few with his DeMarini Vengeance, with his usual mix of line drives, hard grounders, and occasional poorly hit popups or weak grounders. He hit mostly poor hits with the Elite Axe—weak grounders, popups, and sliced line drives. He wasn’t yet getting contact square on with the sweet spot.
I suggested he try pretending as if he were hitting inside pitches. The very next hit was his first really good one. I don’t know if it was my suggestion or him just getting the hang of it, but the majority of hits thereafter were line drives hit to his usual spot for quality hits—opposite field, for first contact in shallow left or center field.
Switching back and forth between the two bats was interesting. He could hit the ball a little further sometimes with the Vengeance, but he was less consistently hitting line drives with it. In other words, after an adjustment period of around 40 swings, he was already more consistently hitting line drives with the Elite Axe bat.
He continued testing the bat over the next few days, including some live coach pitch. He was able to hit the ball into the outfield a little more regularly, though no further than with his Vengeance.
Several teammates tried the bat. Every single player struggled with it at first, and only two of the better hitters on the team, bigger kids with fast swings, were able to hit coach-pitched balls. Some of the hits went very far, so those two players were pretty excited about the bat as well. There’s something about the Elite Axe that takes getting used to, with less adjustment required for better hitters.
Using the Axe Bat in Games
Most players I see try out a new bat in actual games do so for just 3 or 4 plate appearances. They will then give up on the bat if they haven’t managed to get a quality hit during those first few attempts. My son is the only player I know who didn’t do it this way.
He got off to a rough start with this bat in actual games. His strikeout rate is typically once per 9 plate appearances but since using this bat it has been closer to 1 in 4 during recreation league games and 1 in 3 against stronger pitching in all-star play. Basically, he is not contacting the ball as much, and not as well as he was before switching to the bat.
On the other hand, he has had his two biggest hits ever with the new bat, both opposite field triples that sailed over 50’ high and first bounced beyond the left fielder.
During the 10 weeks he has been using the bat, there have been many confounding factors. The pitching in all-star play has undoubtedly been tougher, with some 10-year-old pitchers he faced throwing mid 50’s fastballs, curveballs, and changeups with most pitches at the corners of the strike zone. Most hitters struggled with the better pitching—it wasn’t just my son. He also experienced some erratic umpiring, the worst slump of his life, and a minor knee injury that forced him to take 2 weeks off.
The funny thing is that despite his drop in hitting stats, he totally believes in his Axe bat. He figures he’ll get great results going forward, now that he’s over his slump. He’s going to start getting hitting lessons soon to refine his mechanics, so perhaps he’ll learn to drop his hands later in the swing and that will have a positive impact that has nothing to do with the bat.
Nevertheless, when all is said and done, his game-time performance was clearly not better with the new bat. Last year his batting average in all-stars was .375, versus .308 for this year. Tougher pitching was undoubtedly a factor, but he clearly hasn’t done as well during games since switching to his Elite Axe bat.
Using the Axe Bat at the Cages
The last part of my testing was at the cages. I wish I had done this earlier, as it is a far more controlled setting than games and allows for many repetitions in a short period of time. The only reason we didn’t do it earlier was lack of time.
He hadn’t been to the cages in months. We noticed that he kept getting better with each round of 20 balls, as he got used to machine pitch again. I adjusted for this factor by being sure to test all bats again after he had done a few rounds. He also switched to a higher speed of low 50s after he got used to mid 40s.
We also acquired another Axe bat in anticipation of the cages—the similar but less expensive, one-piece Phenom. We did it for two reasons:
- Spare the expensive Elite Axe from excessive use at batting cages or batting practice (Bat makers generally recommend against using drop 12 bats at cages. The walls of the bat are very thin to keep the weight down and the dimpled balls used at cages are very hard. So whether the bat is composite or aluminum, the bat will wear out much faster and eventually dent.)
- Get better vibrational feedback when pitches are mishit during practice. The Elite Axe was too good at dampening vibration.
What I found was pretty interesting. He could hit line drives with any of the three bats, but there was some adjustment required when switching between bats. Little adjustment was needed when switching to either of the one-piece bats, the Phenom or the Vengeance, but 10-15 swings was needed before he started to get consistent with the Elite. I don’t have any theory as to why this is—but it was clearly happening both times we went to the cages.
We now think that using the one-piece Phenom in pre-game warmups (but Elite during games) may have contributed to his slump. Something about a two-piece vs one-piece bat clearly throws him off and takes some adjustment to get used to.
The batting cage performance of the three bats was very clearly different. He was pretty good with the Vengeance, hitting 22% line drives. But he hit 28% line drives with the Phenom, and 40% line drives with the Elite. It was also visually obvious that he was, on average, hitting the ball hardest with the Elite, almost as hard with the Phenom, and least hard with the Vengeance.
My son was already a believer in the Elite before we went to the cages. But after a couple times at the cages, he now borders on fanaticism in his belief that the Elite is a really great bat, far better than the Vengeance. He attributes his game batting performance decline during late May and June to an unrelated slump.
What Did We Learn About Axe Bats?
The biggest thing I learned during this process is how to review a bat. In retrospect, batting cage hitting was by far the best way to test how well the bat worked versus other bats. Hitting off a tee and soft toss were also useful. Live game hitting was not very useful as too many variables changed.
Based on the types of testing we did, it’s hard to know if the ergonomic knob or the engineered hitting zone was crucial to adding performance, given that the barrels used a higher grade of aluminum than his old bat (especially the Elite). Keep in mind that the old bat was an inexpensive, low-end bat (though pretty good for a low-end bat). So I’m fairly confident that any of the more expensive bats would have performed better.
What we do see very clearly is that using a two-piece bat is different than using a one-piece bat. It took a while to adjust to initially. It was also difficult to switch to when switching back and forth between one-piece and two-piece bats.
We do see at the cages, though, that he hits more line drives and hits the ball harder with the two-piece Elite than with the other bats, once he gets used to it. We don’t know if my son’s adjustment difficulty is with two-piece bats in general, or this model in specific, as it’s the only two-piece bat he’s ever used regularly. He much more easily switches between the two one-piece bats.
My son never feels any vibration from mishit balls off the two-piece Elite bat, and only occasionally off the Phenom. He does notice the flex of the two-piece Elite.
The best thing about the knob design may be how much it inspires my son to practice. His hands never get tired thanks to superior ergonomics. I suppose there’s a “cool” factor as well, though he’d probably be eager to practice with other high end bats as well.
When we finally got around to testing at the cages, it was clear that, after getting used to it, my son could hit the ball harder and more consistently well with the Elite than the other two bats. But the Phenom was also better than the Vengeance and not far behind the Elite. It was also easier to get used to.
My son was a believer in the Axe bat after his first few test swings. I also am now a believer in the Axe bat, after observing a couple sessions at the cages. Given the modest price for the Phenom, I think it’s a worthwhile investment for a kid who intends to take a lot of practice swings. The pricier Axe bats are an option for a player who falls in love with the ergonomic knob and wants a little extra pop.
The only problem I have with the Axe bat at this point is that my son likes it so much, I don’t think he’s going to be willing to test any other bats . . .