April 14, 2016
Tools of the Trade
Moneyball, But For Grips
You may have noticed a trend of major-league players using brightly colored bat grips in recent seasons. Bats that were once adorned only by pine tar buildup and cleat marks were now wrapped with a rubber-like material that was only seen on metal or composite bats to that point. What was once reserved for Little League had made its way to the highest level of the sport.
Behind this transformation in brightly colored grip tapes was a company who first made hay in the cycling industry. Their vision and, frankly, good fortune, have made images like the one below commonplace across the majors. Lizard Skins, a company who saw an opportunity to improve the feel players have with their bats, is now a big player in the baseball world.
To learn more about how Lizard Skins looked at things just a little bit differently, Baseball Prospectus interviewed the company’s General Manager, Brad Barker.
John Buck with his team color Lizard Skins grip during the 2013 season.
(May 23, 2013 - Source: Mike Stobe/Getty Images North America)
Baseball Prospectus: Tell us how Lizard Skins got started.
Brad Barker (General Manager, Lizard Skins): Lizard Skins started in January of 1993 in the cycling industry. We started with making accessories for either the bicycle itself or the rider; specifically starting with neoprene accessories that were meant for the bicycles. Our first products were chainstay guards that protect from the chain slapping on the bike frame. It actually deadens the noise but also protects the frame. We were also doing shock protectors for the rear and front shock and it just continued to graduate into other accessories for cycling.
Predominantly there were a lot of those items in the beginning that were made from neoprene that we would have to actually manufacture here in our facility, and then it graduated into other items such as grips, body armor, and gloves that the rider would actually use.
BP: So what came next?
Barker: In 2007 we started looking at some different technologies developed with our DSP version. DSP stands for DuraSoft Polymer. We created a handlebar tape that became the leader in the industry for handlebar tape based off the technology for the tape and the feel.
We developed that handlebar tape and then we started working with pro cycling teams that were using the product in all the major cycling events around the world, including the Tour de France. It really created that stamp of approval. The product was doing very well around the world with all of our distributors, but once the industry actually saw that pro cycling teams were using the product, that's when that snowball just started to get bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger.
BP: Obviously you were doing well in cycling. How did baseball enter the mix?
Barker: I was actually using the handlebar tape to wrap on my hockey stick and to wrap on my baseball bat. It was one of those things where we were using an existing product for a different industry that applied very well.
BP: So did you just take your existing product and start marketing it as a bat grip?
Barker: No, we needed to change the product to meet the needs of the baseball industry. In cycling, we make a 2.5 mm thickness handlebar tape, and also a 1.8 mm thick multi-use tape at the time. Those two didn't necessarily transfer over properly into baseball. We went to the factory and said, "Look, we want to be able to do this specifically for baseball." We had some samples done and we started doing specific testing in baseball. We did some research and eventually felt like we had a product that could work.
BP: So you have a product. How did you tell people about it?
Barker: We signed up to go to our first show, ABCA, in January 2012 in Anaheim. We went to that show and it was interesting because a lot of people looked at us and, well they had never heard of Lizard Skins but we didn't look we were a start-up company. We had the background with cycling so we had been to trade shows around the world. We had that foundation to be able to do business; we were just now doing business in a different industry.
So we went to that show and we won best of show for new products with the baseball grip. It was a great start to what we wanted to do in the baseball industry, really.
Later that year we received a phone call from John Buck, who at the time was the starting catcher for the Miami Marlins. He was a local to Utah (Editor’s Note: Utah is where Lizard Skins is located) and he was starting his own company on the side and wanted to get into the trade show for the ABCA, which was being hosted in Chicago for 2013. Unfortunately, the show was all sold out of booth space, so John had called us to see if there was an opportunity to work together. He wanted to get into the show and we allowed him to share booth space with us.
After that, John started testing and using our product. Eventually John was traded to the Mets. He kind of fell in love with it after a while; he came back to us saying ‘Why has no one ever used a grip in major-league baseball?’ Our answer was, well, there wasn't anything that was good enough and that was specifically designed for a wood bat application.
BP: So John Buck just needed some booth space, but he ended up becoming a big believer in the product?
Barker: Exactly. So John went to spring training with the New York Mets and had a fantastic start to spring training. He started getting other players who were curious to see what was on John's bat. They would pick it up and say, ‘This feels fantastic.’ John started off the 2013 season very well in the month of April, to the point that he was leading the majors in home runs and RBIs. So within the baseball industry, which for better or worse has a lot of superstition tied into it, other people started realizing what he was doing. We had other players, especially on the Mets, that started using the product. Then we had other players on other teams start using the product.
We also started targeting certain players who had used some form of grip or trainer’s tape, which is sticky on both sides, and then we started sampling these grips to other players. We were getting calls from other players saying ‘I saw David Ortiz or Prince Fielder using the grip on the bat.'
The next good break was getting invited to the Winter Meetings at the equipment manager show. We made a lot of connections within different clubs. The momentum was increasing and we had a lot of awareness within clubhouses. We had gone from one player to 55 using the product during the 2013 season.
(Image courtesy: Lizard Skins)
BP: Let’s dig into the product a little bit. It’s made of DSP, what else sets it apart?
Barker: When we first launched the bat grips, we had two different thicknesses. There was a 1.8mm grip and a 1.1mm grip. Most of the industry, in our research, were making grips in the 2.0mm to 1.5mm range. We had gotten feedback from a lot of players saying that they wanted something a little bit thinner, including John [Buck]. After talking to him a bit more we ended up creating a 0.5mm thick grip specifically designed to be minimal on wood bats. So the thickness of the grip was one piece of it.
Another part was just the consistent feel that wasn’t really possible on wood bats previously. Whether it was cold or hot, damp or dry, we offer that consistent feel on the bat that players weren't able to get before. This was huge for John. In extreme heat conditions, pine tar or grip stick gets too gummy. In cold conditions, it doesn't work. Guys are now able to have the same feel and consistency on their bat throughout the season.
There are also some possible vibration reduction benefits, especially when you’re comparing it to a wood bat where a player is just using pine tar or trainer’s tape for grip. This is especially true the thicker the grip gets.
BP: There’s also the colors.
Barker: The color options have been one of the highlights, but also one of the challenges. We do solid colors, obviously; I think we have nine or 10 of them right now. Then we do a plethora of camo colors and dual colorways, usually for popular team colors. I think we’re up to 27 different color variations that we have currently for the grips.
When we first introduced the grips we had eight colors, and retailers kind of pushed back on that at first. Then they saw that they were all selling really well and they were saying ‘Give me more. What’s the next new color?’
BP: The variety of colorways seems like it’s been a difference-maker.
Barker: Definitely. Not only does the product perform really well, providing a player with confidence when they’re at the plate, but it also is a fashion item. In that way it serves two purposes.
BP: It seems like John Buck has been a huge asset for the company.
Barker: He has. I remember a conversation with him where he said, 'Look, you have a fantastic product here, but you are going to need to make it thinner for these pro players. They are not going to want to use something that increases the handle thickness. They want all the same properties that are incorporated into the grip, but they want that thinner.' His knowledge and understanding of wood bats and the needs of major-leaguers was huge for us.
BP: Being first to market in the major leagues was big too it seems.
Barker: Definitely. It's one of those things where we knew that we had an opportunity and had a great product, but getting that feedback and first-hand experience with an experienced major-leaguer who wasn’t afraid to try something new was super helpful to us.
BP: Let’s discuss some of your partnerships. You’re working with Louisville Slugger on both the wood and metal/composite side. Tell us about that.
Barker: Bill Clark, who was the president of Louisville Slugger at the time, approached us at ABCA in 2014 to start a conversation about a partnership. Basically they wanted to learn more about the product and see if we could find a good fit. Brian Fruit, the owner of Lizard Skins, and myself flew out to Louisville and met with them at their facility.
(Photo courtesy of Jeff Long)
Originally it was as simple as being able to order a bat from their factory with or without the Lizard Skins grip, but it grew from there. It started with wood with them, but eventually moved into the metal/composite side with their various product lines.
I should also mention that our first partner on the metal/composite side was with Combat, who was our first bat manufacturer partner. Now both Combat and Louisville Slugger are original equipment manufacturers who supply our products directly on their bats for consumers.
BP: Relationships have been key for your business obviously.
Barker: Without a doubt. Another huge component of that has been equipment managers. Kevin Kierst for example [Ed. Note: Kierst is the equipment manager of the New York Mets] was very integral because he introduced us to some key people at MLB. Not only was he wrapping players’ bats, but also helping us with relationships.
Tom McLaughlin, the equipment manager for the Boston Red Sox, played a key role too. In the 2013 World Series we had something like seven of the nine starters on the Red Sox using the product, which started with David Ortiz of course.
BP: What is next for Lizard Skins?
Barker: We’re leveraging our expertise in another component of cycling to bring new product lines to baseball. In the cycling industry we'd been manufacturing gloves for 15 years; we know them very well. We know how our gloves interact with out handlebar tape, with the DSP. It was that natural progression to branch out into these products within the baseball industry. We felt like we had a great opportunity because we already had a great foundation for gloves, and now it's just incorporating some of the features we want that are included in the cycling glove that would actually transfer over to a batting glove, and how can we make that impact and jump into the batting glove space. We spent 18 months developing the product, and now we’re ready to go to market.
The official launch will be toward the end of April, and Russell Martin is a contracted player to use and promote the gloves as well as the grip. We’ve also signed Enrique Hernandez of the Los Angeles Dodgers to promote the product.
BP: How are players responding to the gloves?
Barker: I’ve spent the last month traveling around all the Spring Training complexes, visiting teams and showing them the products. It’s really been seamless to transfer our expertise in the cycling glove space to the batting gloves, and players have really picked up on it.
(Image courtesy of Lizard Skins’ Instagram)
We’re calling it the Komodo series, and we have three levels or models in the line. We have a base model which is the Komodo. Our mid-level model is the Komodo Elite. Then we’ll have a pro-model which is simply Komodo Pro. We’ll have a handful of colorways, and we’ll be pushing them out through all of our existing distribution channels in the US, Canada, Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Puerto Rico, Central America, and South America.
It’s a big launch, but we’re really excited about the potential it has for the company.