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Swinging Baseball Bats in Louisville, Ohio

photo of SabreCat bats

  There are about 30 companies in the world authorized to make bats for Major League Baseball – and one of them is in Northeast Ohio.

Today is the Indians’ Home Opener, right in the middle of the busy season for Rob Roberts and the team at SabreCat Bats. The seven-year-old company just moved to a new shop in Louisville, where ash and maple are being spun into bats for everyone from Little Leaguers to Major Leaguers.

“We sent bats to Adam LaRoche, Bryce Harper, Sean Halton, Yadiel Rivera. And it grew last year. And then this year, we’re working on Chris Carter’s right now. And if the bats keep hitting the way they’re hitting, and the quality’s there, I think we’ll get a lot more.”

This year, Roberts says his company could ship up to 300 bats to the Major and Minor Leagues, out of around 4,600 they’ll make in total. That’s almost four times what they made in 2013.

A garage brand
When the company started in 2009, Roberts – who played baseball at Malone University – was 

  transitioning out of a nine-year career in pharmaceutical sales.

“A neighbor and I basically bought a lathe, put it in his garage and turned a bat. It took us 20 minutes [and] 

photo of SabreCat team
Rob Roberts, Eric Thorne and Jim Edwards are the men behind SabreCat bats. Behind them, cords of wood that have been weighed and measured await the lathing process.

  we cut one bat. We were ecstatic as all get out, but we knew there was more power.”

So they bought a larger machine and can now cut a bat in about 2 ½ to 4 minutes, depending on the type of wood.

“The pitch that we have is, we’re able to do anything they want. We cut our bats out of the top-quality wood. Everything we cut for the Major League level – and actually, most of the people that come through here – get split maple. The other thing is, we’re willing to work with them. We’ll customize anything; we’ll work with them on the feel. It took us 14 runs on Scooter Gennett’s last model.”

A Happy Thanksgiving
Gennett, a Cincinnati native, was the first Major Leaguer to come to SabreCat.

“He was in Double A: one of the top prospects in the Brewers’ organization. [He] has family around here. [He] was home one Thanksgiving and we made him two bats [and] he loved ‘em. We started a relationship with him. He got called up and was hitting .368. His Dad called us and wanted to revisit us partnering with them and him swinging our bats. And then Eric and I made the decision to just go all-in.”

Roberts and business partner Eric Thorne pay $30,000 a year for authorization to supply Major Leaguers with bats.

photo of bat measurement
For $30,000 a year, SabreCat is authorized to make bats for MLB players. This plastic protactor is provided to ensure the slope of the grain meets league standards, and SabreCat owner Rob Roberts takes pride in the fact that their bats are always up-to-spec.

  Major League details
Roberts says they must meet stringent specs for everything from the darkness of the paint to the placement of engraving to the grain of the wood.

“Major League Baseball requires us to have bats with a three-degree slope, on the tangential slope. These are guaranteed to be in that range. So when you see a bat break -- and it shatters and goes everywhere in the stands -- whatever angle that breaks at is the slope of grain that we’re held accountable for. One thing we are proud of: every broken bat we’ve had at the Major League level, none of them have ever separated. They’ve just broken at the hands. I would say it’s the hitter’s fault.”

Roberts says one reason SabreCat bats are different is the way they’re “boned,” which is a way of compressing the wood to make the bat denser.

“We steel-harden them with a steel pole. Boning with a bottle or – one guy told me to go to a slaughterhouse and get a cow bone, like a leg bone – and just bone with that. We figured, we’ll use a round steel pole. We run that over top at 2000 RPMs. And there’s nobody that can compress the grains as much as on the machine.”

Roberts delights in seeing how his Major League customers are performing with the steel-hardened bats.

“In the last week we’ve had four homes runs – two against the Indians the other night.”

Back at home
But Cleveland has yet to pick up on SabreCat’s bats. Currently, Indians players including Jose Ramirez and Jesus Aguilar use bats made by another Ohio company: Phoenix Bats in Plain City, near Columbus, which has been MLB-authorized since 2000. Still, there is local love for Louisville-based SabreCat.

“We’ve had a lot of guys that played at Kent [State] come through us and -- in the minor leagues – swung our bats. [We’re] working on Travis Shaw, actually.”

Shaw is a southern Ohio native and currently plays for the Red Sox.

“Same thing with D.J. Wilson. We did a couple specs for him. He swung ‘em [and] liked ‘em. And then said this is what he wants to go with. Pretty much, they can tell us what they want. And we pretty much -- out of 28 models we have – we’ve got some combination of something that’s very similar.”

And Roberts says that attention to detail isn’t just reserved for the majors.

"Our goal is: if an eight-year-old kid orders a maple bat, I want the quality in that to be the same as the quality I send to the Major Leagues."

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.