As the Fall Ball season begins, many of you out there are browsing the catalogs, scanning WPW, and narrowing down the list for your 2014 cleat choices. With technology peaking and the big baseball manufacturers pushing the style envelope more than ever, this is the best time in our sport’s history to be buying new cleats. You wouldn’t know it by their increasing popularity in 2013 MLB clubhouses, but one of those big players wasn’t a player at all just a few short years ago. New Balance Baseball burst onto the scene in 2012 with the 4040, a cleat worn first by Dustin Pedroia. According to New Balance, Pedroia not only had a hand in designing the cleat, but he made it a point to spread the word. As it turns out, when Pedroia talks (and he talks a lot), MLB players listen. With Pedey’s help, the New Balance message spread like wildfire through MLB clubhouses, and the flashy 4040 and its NB sibling, the 3000, are getting laced up all over the Big Leagues. Today, around 320 MLB players are wearing New Balance cleats from a grand total of ZERO just two seasons ago.
Culminating with Evan Longoria‘s defection from Nike to New Balance this season, its obvious that New Balance has designed a cleat good enough for the best of the best. We sat down with the New Balance Baseball product team to ask them how they got here and where they’re going. As a full-blown junkie, it really was a pleasure speaking with these guys, as they let us peer into their day-to-day experiences with the product and the pros. Below are the highlights of our chat.
WPW: For the 4040 family, what did you learn the first time around, what feedback did you get and what were you trying to accomplish with the 4040v2s?
Jonathan Grondin, Lead Designer, NB Baseball: The 4040 is our speed-driven, flashier product. That’s what that shoe stood for. The performance of the 4040 is also a little lower to the ground and a little bit lighter. The 4040v2 is basically taking all of those things and making them better. We had a pretty good foundation, the original 4040 was received well. On the 4040v2, one of the major parts of the upper is that the whole forefoot is one piece so its very form fitting, its very durable, there’s no stitching or any pieces that fall off. We upgraded the midsole to Revlite, one of the NBs premier running compounds, which also makes it lighter.
WPW: Are there a specific few guys that you look to for feedback? Who gives you the best feedback?
Chris Davis, Brand Manager, NB Baseball: Granderson is a guy who gives really insightful feedback. Hanley had some good feedback on this product as well. Those guys are our representative athletes on that product. Ethier gave some good feedback, too.
Mark Clinard, General Manager, NB Baseball: Dustin Pedroia. The whole thing started with him. He’s a hometown guy (New Balance is based in Brighton, Massachusetts, just a few miles from Fenway Park). There’s a million ways he’s contributed beyond just being an inspiration and what he stands for as an athlete. Things like camo, digi camo, traditional camo, that was Dustin, working with him, peeking into what he was interested in. His word carries a lot of weight in the clubhouse, not only in the Sox clubhouse, but throughout the league.
Davis: He also talks about it when he’s in the batters’ box, you know, catchers will be looking at his cleats, he’s well-known for being chirpy and he’s pretty chirpy about his cleats, so you know he’ll brag to the first baseman at First Base, and the third baseman at Third Base and what-not. He not only brags about his stats but he brags about his products too, which is awesome.
WPW: In that sense, you couldn’t have picked a better guy!
Clinard: If you spend time with Dustin, it allows (Grondin the designer) to have fun, he mixes in little New Balance logos in the camo pattern. Another example: we were working on Dustin’s custom 3000s and it was in the middle of the 2012 (NFL) playoffs and he’s a 49ers fan (Pedroia is from northern Cal), so we worked gold into his custom colors because he was in the throes of the 49ers playoff run and he wanted to represent what he’s all about.
Grondin: That gold plate we showed you (not pictured) is literally just because of that.
Clinard: Nick Swisher, too. Our product meetings with him are phenomenal, he knows his footwear and his ideas are through the roof on color, treatments. We had a military tribute shoe—on his own, Nick Swisher and his wife made a trip to visit the troops with no fanfare, he didn’t want any fanfare, but he wanted the shoe to be a tribute to the troop he was with. He’s one of those guys who knows what he’s doing.
Davis: CJ Wilson, too.
WPW: Wilson’s Instagram account was how WPW readers first saw the 4040v2s. He was showing them off.
Clinard: CJ has his own race team, he’s very involved in motor sports. His race team is a huge inspiration for him and so when we have product meetings with him, we talk about traction, lets say, and he’ll talk about the latest tire technology and some of those same principles work with what we’re doing. To sit with a Big League pitcher who is cerebral like CJ and start talking about the next tire traction and how we might apply that to a cleat or to a turf, how does it get any better from a product team standpoint?
WPW: The way we round the bases and they round the track, there is a definite parallel there.
Clinard: Yeah, you know, he is so in tune with trends and what’s cool but also from a performance standpoint, you know he’s looking to shave seconds off laps. We’re down to the smallest detail with him and it makes us a lot better.
WPW: Longoria crossed over from Nike to New Balance, for a while he was doing it against his contract. Clearly, he preferred you guys. Was there a specific reason?
Clinard: I think we have the benefit at New Balance that we make what we think are the best running shoes in the world. We use Revlite as our cushioning component, and (Longoria) really likes that formula that we put together with the foam and nubuck and mesh upper (in the 3000, Longo’s cleat). He really likes that fit and feel.
WPW: Do you think it was something he just stumbled on? Was it Zobrist? Somebody else in the clubhouse?
Davis: During Spring Training we hit every single clubhouse, show them all the products coming out next year, we throw out sketches of the products coming out in 2 years and get feedback from them then. We developed a lot of great relationships with individual athletes in those locker rooms, so with Longoria there’s a lot of guys on Tampa Bay that wear the product, so I’m sure he’s talked to those guys and talked about how comfortable the product is.
WPW: Not long ago New Balance Baseball didn’t exist. You’ve obviously made a sincere effort in the last couple of years to go after that market, and I’ve read that the baseball market is especially tough. What made New Balance go that route?
Clinard: The strategic decision to jump into baseball was difficult because you can’t go halfway in. The brand made a decision that we wanted to be a baseball brand. Aside from just footwear, we have a new assymetrical apparel top that’s born out of baseball. Its a righty/lefty assymetrical top. We were with Jose Bautista last week and he told us that this assymetrical top was his favorite shirt and that guys were stealing it out of his locker.
Davis: To add to that, we felt that New Balance’s heritage as an American company directly correlated to baseball and additionally we took the approach with baseball of “running shoes on spikes.” Baseball is unlike any other game where professionals can play 200 games a year and we felt that our technologies from a comfort and lightweight and stability point of view really translated directly to what the athletes needed.
There are players out there looking for the lightest possible cleat. What would you say to someone looking at this list?
- adidas adiZero 5-Tool 2.5, 10.6 oz
- Nike Air Zoom Vapor Elite, 10 oz
- Under Armour Spine Low, 11.9 oz
- New Balance 4040v2, 12.9 oz
Grondin: The way I look at it, how a baseball cleat performs is not necessarily just standing at the plate, and especially with how many games you play and how much of the game is just staying on your feet, we wanted a level of performance for just standing around and not sacrifice, after the crack of the bat, what you have to do. If you shop from just the weights in the catalog, the cleat you choose doesn’t usually last as long. That’s part of the performance we’re trying to build, not that we can’t get lighter but where we try to come in is being the most comfortable shoe on the market, not necessarily the lightest.
WPW: Weigh in for us on Metal vs Plastic.
Clinard: The stuff we hear from the Big League guys, if your feet are hurting and the toll that takes up your kinetic chain with your knees and your hips and your back; you can play one game and if your shoes don’t fit right, you pay for it. With plastics the weight is dispersed more evenly. So there’s not so much stress just where the spikes are. Baseball is tough. You stand still then you go to max capacity right away, and just that wear and tear on your body opens up guys to wearing more plastics.
Davis: We also find that in the beginning of Spring Training, when guys’ feet aren’t used to wearing cleats and the metal is a little bit harder that they wear the TPU spikes.
Grondin: Its also field specific, the plastic trend is hotter on certain fields, you know, on turf, a lot of the Dodgers do it, some of it is field specific.
WPW: What about Dodger Stadium makes guys want to use plastic?
Grondin: Honestly I’m not even sure, I just noticed that trending. I talked with (Jose) Bautista and he told me that their outfield turf is incredibly hard. It becomes player preference but you can see trends at certain fields more than others. It also can revolve around injury where if they only hurt for one game it can eventually be a bigger problem so some athletes shift into it for a few games here and there.
Davis: A lot of catchers do too because the plastic bottoms are a little more flexible when they’re catching all game… Yadi wears plastic bottoms.
WPW: Another Nike defector. OK, lets talk details a little bit. The “no stitch” toe, what is the advantage of that?
Grondin: Its a consistency in fit, its a durability without stitches or pieces to fall off. Its a lighter construction and more form-fitting.
WPW: I can see that being a big plus for me. In the older 4040, which I’m still wearing when I play once a week—I’m a pitcher, and I noticed that the stitches spread a little bit. That no-stitch is a great selling point for a pitcher. On the 4040v2 turfs, I got wind of a new concept, ProBalance, that sounds like it can be pretty useful. What is the ProBalance concept and why should we be considering it for the 2014 season?
Clinard: We’re really excited about the ProBalance concept because, to our knowledge, its never been done before. New Balance is big on drop—drop in the running market is how your heel is oriented to your forefoot in a running shoe, the angle of your foot. So we asked ourselves, “what does drop mean in baseball?” We landed on a very simple insight: why would you ever, as a baseball player, prepare for a game in a drop that’s different than what you would play in? If you’re wearing a running shoe to do your pregame, which is perfectly traditional, that shoe has a different drop and your foot is at a steeper angle. Our insight with ProBalance is that it alters your body position so it may pitch your hips forward, or it may make you more on your toes. The orientation of your foot is entirely different. It can effect your mechanics, batting, in the field and certainly pitching. What ProBalance is, in the (4040v2) turf shoe and spike, both have the exact same drop. So the angle of your foot is identical in what you practice in and what you play in. So if you’re hitting off a mat or doing long toss or whatever you’re doing to get ready to play, your foot is at the same angle as it will be in the game, so your body starts to get accustomed to that angle of your foot which we think impacts performance.
WPW: That’s an interesting point, especially since a lot of Major Leaguers use their pregame as a fashion show, a lot of the guys are wearing Jordan or a rare Nike Air Max, or whatever they deem “the shoe to have” at that moment, but it is interesting to think they might be taking 50, 60, 70 cuts a day in a training shoe and then put on a pair of cleats that are totally different.
Clinard: It has resonated with athletes and coaches and the beauty of it is that its pretty simple.
Absolutely awesome stuff from the New Balance team. As a player, I really do see how something so simple and seemingly minor could have a significant effect on performance. We all know that the difference between a home run and a fly-out is a matter of millimeters off the bat, so isn’t it logical to take your practice cuts as close to game conditions as possible? Dealing with manufacturers all day as I do, I am very sensitive to marketing gimmicks—one of my goals with the site is to decode that stuff and find tangible performance benefits in the products we review. The ProBalance feature from New Balance sounds like the real thing.
I hope you all enjoyed the insight on this side of the business from a promising baseball brand. You can check out the entire New Balance 4040v2 line here.