Editor’s Note: The following piece was done by WPW’s newest contributor, Andrew Houghton, who took a tour of the Chandler Bats manufacturing facilities in Norristown, PA. Andrew is an aspiring journalist at the University of Montana and did one hell of a job here. I am thrilled to present his work for you to enjoy. I also want to personally thank David Chandler for showing WPW the utmost hospitality and for being a fantastic interview. You can connect with @ChandlerBats on Twitter, call them at (877) 497-2287 for a custom order, or find select models online at JustBats.com.
The ground floor of the Chandler Bats facility in Norristown, PA is like a dream come true for lumber aficionados. The back wall of the 5,000 square foot room is dominated by a collection of hundreds of bats hanging vertically, like so many wooden swords of Damocles. One corner is occupied by a massive Italian-made milling machine. Bats from Yoenis Cespedes, Jarrod Dyson, and rising stars David Lough and Aaron Hicks are lying on a table, waiting to be laser-scanned into their system. A peek behind the bat wall reveals a state of the art batting cage and video room. Owner and founder David Chandler can barely keep the excitement out of his voice as he shows me around. The former furniture maker started making bats in 2010 and has risen to the top of the industry in just four short years, marked by Cespedes and Bryce Harper using his bats to slug it out in the finals of the Home Run Derby this year. Following the tour, Mr. Chandler sat down with What Pros Wear to discuss his philosophy, how he ended up making bats for players like Bryce Harper, and what’s next for his company.
What Pros Wear: Why did you decide to get into the bat-making business?
David Chandler: I thought I could do it better than everyone else. That’s the honest truth. This was around the time when everyone was worried, particularly in MLB, about maple bats breaking and the potential health risks that went along with that, and I just thought to myself, “Hmm, I bet I could do a better job and build a better bat than what’s out there right now.”
WPW: Could you walk us through your process a little bit?
DC: Well first thing after we unload the wood we let it sit in the humidor. We have a very large humidor room we built that allows us control the weight of the piece of wood and eventually the finished bat. This is key to afford us the ability to hold the final weight of the bat to plus or minus a tenth of an ounce. Each order is pulled according to its specified weight needed and then each order is individually loaded in the CNC milling machine. The machine can do upwards of 500 bats a day and it’ll give the basic shape of whatever model we want. Then we’ll bring the turnings for each order over to the manual lathes and our guys will locate the original model off the library wall, bring it over, and set it on top of the lathe so they can be looking at it while they’re fine tuning the duplicate to be exactly true to the original. There’s a great deal more sanding & refining before they’re finished, lasered, inspected again for the 16th time and shipped.
WPW: Yeah I’ve meaning to ask you about that bat wall. That might be one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. How many do you have up there?
DC: I think around 377 last time I counted. Every one of the bats displayed on the wall is a different model that we use as a master model, if you will, for our own work. What happens most often, is players will send in the model that they want us to duplicate. Our design engineers in our programming department have a laser that’s accurate to tenths of a millimeter. They’ll scan them through to get the measurements we use for our own work and then we make room for them up on the wall so that our technicians can reference them any time they need to.
WPW: Obviously your quality control and attention to detail is top notch, is that the driving factor behind your success?
I think it’s a very strong component. Most players say it’s separates us from the rest. I felt from the very beginning, we are similar to the athletes who come to our shop, really. The team here is striving to be the best they can be no matter what. The players we work with are the same – whether that’s a travel team, the minor leagues or the big leagues. We realize once you’re in the big leagues you are fighting to keep your job there, as well. Every one of those athletes has an approach to who they are, what they are capable of doing; a common theme and essence of what they are about. So in terms of quality we really kind of break that down into subcategories: Being as wise as you can on the front end, aim for high tolerance and keep checking those tolerances throughout the entire production of each piece. So much work goes in on the front end with the understanding that when you go ahead and put that bat on the lathe you’ll have high odds of success.
WPW: Where are you getting your wood from?
DC: From all over the country. At the end of the day, wood is wood. Many times people will say ‘Chandler has harder wood than other people’, or that other companies have the hardest wood, or that this locale for maple may be better than others. Certainly we seek a much higher grade than some, we only get top-shelf wood – but as long as we have the characteristics I’m in need of, I don’t much care where it’s coming from. With that being said wood is coming in from Pennsylvania, New York, Maine, Vermont, pretty much anywhere in the Northeast, Midwest or even on down into Kentucky. The reason why I’m so adamant about locating the best quality wood is that it makes me leaner in the long run. If I buy bottom price, competitive price, volume wood or dollar cost average it, our yield will reflect that choice. We waste very little because we go the extra yard up front.
WPW: How did you start to distribute these bats right at the very beginning?
Pretty much the same as now! All purely word of mouth. Very, very grassroots. I started out discussing my thoughts and ideas of the industry with [current Brewers hitting coach] Johnny Narron, back when I was in Carolina. I was a woodworker at a custom, benchmade furniture shop and I started talking with Johnny one day and asking a bunch of questions – Do players care about this? Have they thought about that? Have you ever seen this? — and the more I talked to Johnny over the course of a few weeks he finally said if you do half of what you’re talking about you’re going to make a huge impact. So I turned a few models and some minor league guys including Zach Booker, in Greensboro, North Carolina played around with them and hit them during the offseason and loved them. That was pretty meaningful. I knew at that point we were onto something. Johnny Narron told me one day he was talking to Josh Hamilton and Josh was interested in trying them out to see what I came up with. Obviously that was a high risk – high reward proposition but I figured “you know what, what the hell? If I don’t know what I’m talking about then that’s a good learning lesson that maybe I shouldn’t be doing this.” So Josh tried them and loved them. And with that, Josh talked to Chris Davis and they talked to Michael Young and it spread throughout that clubhouse during spring training in 2010 – our first year. Since then, it’s always been that way. The bat really kind of just speaks for itself. We think the reality is when a player finds something like this – that is measurably better – from how fast that ball comes off the barrel to how solid and structurally sound it is, we look to create confidence in the player. These things are great attributes and I think most players like to share that with their teammates. Because of this, the players are doing so much of the work based on their confidence in the bat, the confidence in us and are spreading them to one another. As a result, it’s spread like wildfire.
WPW: Where do you, as a company and an industry, go from here? (The EvoArmy might want to read this)
DC: Without a doubt it is in my makeup and my DNA fabric to keep evolving and keep getting better and better. I expect other bat companies, which some already are, to continue to copy us in many different ways. Whether that’s making pro bats available to high school players, talking about straightness of grain, talking about how they process the wood, talking about their new finishes, things of that nature. As for us? I’ve got more finishes already testing with my chemists that I won’t roll out until I need to. But I always am looking 6 to 7 steps down the road to see what I need to keep doing, to stay meaningful to the players around us. Beyond that we’ve been working diligently on a couple of big plans over the past year. The first is a program and partnership with EvoShield. This is a key strategic partnership that we are extremely excited about. Rumors have already been flying around – They aren’t buying us, we aren’t buying them – it’s just two great brands coming together and collaborating on a baseball bat for EvoShield. The new line is EvoSwing, powered by Chandler. People will know we are the ones building it but it will have the distinctive EvoShield logo, their branding on it. I think it is a great and natural progression for that company to want to put a bat in player’s hands. Players trust what EvoShield does for them in terms of protecting them on the field and we absolutely feel there is genuine growth from that to players trusting what Evoshield puts in their hands. I think EvoShield’s reputation as an industry leader, coupled with players knowing we are the ones making it for them is great all around. For both brands and most importantly, for the player.
From there, we are currently engineering and developing a line of Chandler metal bats. After the rule changes, with everything going to BBCOR, I kind of lost my desire at first to work with metal as I’m driven to do everything with performance to an extreme. Obviously the new rules are aimed at safety first and foremost, which I applaud, but it kind of put a damper on the plan to make metal bats. But then after about a year and a half looking at the BBCOR rules I saw how that can be an advantage to us and to the industry, to have Chandler bringing metal bats to market because it is so strict and stringent under BBCOR specifications. For myself, I found a great challenge there. Instead of focusing strictly on how hot the bat can be, we have to focus on what we can do to balance bats better and make a better metal bat within the rules. I think there is an opportunity to do that within the rules because the quality and attention to detail we were talking about earlier in our wood bats will transfer over to metal or whatever else we want to do. I’ll tell you first, I’ve even had world-class cricket players come in and ask us to make cricket bats and from a global perspective that really shows the reach we have had in a very short period of time – to have cricket players, national teams from Pakistan and India come in and say “Hey you do a remarkable job with American baseball bats, have you ever thought of making cricket bats”. I think that really speaks to our methods and our desire for excellence.
WPW: Do you have any stories you’d like to share?
Since this years’ Home Run Derby, so many people have asked how we started making bats for Bryce Harper and Yoenis Cespedes. With Bryce, we were down on the shop floor turning bats at like 7 or 8 one night at the very beginning of spring training. My phone was charging in the office upstairs while I was helping the team get ahead on turnings. Finally I checked on it because I was half expecting my wife to be blowing me up, you know, “You still turning bats? When are you coming home? How long are you going to be?” and there was a message from Bryce instead saying, you know, “Listen, I wonder if you would be willing to make some bats for me.” Because of the nature of what we strive for, I’m never really too floored when players ask because I figure, you know, you’re a hitter, we’re a bat maker, we were meant for each other. But that was still a pretty cool little moment. I respect his approach to the game, his strong desire to be the best he can be – to the utmost level he knows how. Pretty good synergy as to how we view ourselves, too.
Another scenario I’m very proud of started last year, as we were the stock maple bat for the Colorado Rockies at their A, A+ and AA levels. And you know I’ve had people question our price; flat-out ask me “You realize your bats are this much more than this one or that one or whichever?” Honestly, I really don’t care how we stack up price-wise to the competition, but I always tell them that buying one of ours is like buying two, or three, or six of many other bats. Last season we set out to prove that with the Rockies. I’ve gotta hand it to them. They went out on a limb and took my word for it, that in the end they would have a cost savings and so we provided bats for those three Minor league teams. When I met with them at the Winter Meetings last December they said “You know what? We used 500 less bats. You’re right.” They don’t break as easy, their hitters love them, the coaching staff likes the players’ confidence. So this year we are providing bats for their Rookie Ball, A-, A, A+, AA and even AAA teams, so that every one of their players has access to our bats courtesy of the organization. That’s a very forward-thinking organization. It’s an honor to work with them and aid their future big leaguers.
WPW: Okay last question. I know you were watching the Home Run Derby pretty closely. Were you rooting for your guys the whole way?
Oh, hell yeah. All weekend I was amazed at the talk of who was going to win it – throughout New York, through social media, what the odds makers were projecting, even the fans on my train ride to the stadium that evening. That event kind of gets caught up in hype and everything now but it was very, very cool because I knew we had a golden inside track. Late Sunday evening, I spoke with our Marketing Director, Hannah Mein, and said “Hey, Hannah for the Derby tomorrow, let’s put together an ad to put on Twitter, Facebook and whatnot. We can do a little poster and put Harper and Cespedes side by side on it with a background of Citi Field and title it “Who will be the last one standing?”
WPW: And obviously that worked out pretty well in the end.
Yes, it was rather prophetic. I didn’t have a doubt in my mind – with those two players abilities and knowing the quality of product that was in their hand. It was a done deal.