SabreCat Bats, made in Louisville, are finding their way into the hands of major league hitters.
A lot of people have apps on their smartphones to follow baseball teams and players.
Rob Roberts is one of those people. But he uses his app to see how his product — SabreCat baseball bats — is working out for the players who use them.
When a player singles with a SabreCat bat, it’s as if Roberts and the company got a hit.
Right now a handful of players in the major leagues have used SabreCat bats. Scooter Gennett, a second basemen for the Milwaukee Brewers has swung SabreCats for a couple of seasons. Other big leaguers to use SabreCats include Adam LaRoche, Adam Eaton and Carlos Gomez, said Roberts and business partner Eric Thorne.
This season marks the third year that Major League Baseball has certified SabreCat bats for big league use. There are 32 companies that meet the MLB specifications, a spokesman said. Phoenix Bats in Plain City is the only other certified Ohio manufacturer.
MOVE OVER METAL
SabreCat makes wooden bats from ash — a wood used for years — and maple, which gained popularity when Barry Bonds and some other major league players started using maple bats during the late 1990s.
After years of using aluminum bats in youth leagues and softball, players are returning to wood models. One reason is cost. The price of a metal bat has jumped, while wood bats are less expensive. Most SabreCat models are priced between $59.99 and $69.99 per bat.
Wood cylinders are turned into bats during a 2 1/2-minute spin on a computerized lathe. Most bats are based off original Louisville Slugger models, Roberts and Thorne said. The original styles are tweaked to create hybrids.
SabreCat has 26 models. The design of a handle — traditional knob or flared — and the shape of the barrel are programmed into the lathe. Models are based on different combinations, depending on a player’s personal preference.
Roberts said the bat a 12-year-old child ends up using will come from the same wood stock used to make a major league player’s bat.
Wooden bats help younger hitters as they learn the skill of hitting, Roberts said. “If you learn to hit with a wooden bat, then you can hit with a metal bat,” he said, but that’s not always the case when switching from metal to wood.
Roberts and Thorne didn’t start their careers intending to build a baseball bat company.
The pair have known each other since childhood, growing up in Salem and playing sports. They graduated Salem High in 1991 and headed for separate colleges. Thorne played basketball for Mount Vernon Nazarene University, while Roberts went to Malone University to play baseball.
Malone inducted Roberts into its athletic hall of fame in 2008. To recognize the honor, Roberts’ father bought him an engraved trophy baseball bat.
That gift sparked the idea for SabreCat.
Roberts had married, moved to Louisville and was a sales representative for a pharmaceutical company. He also had experience with a tooling company. He started working on bats in his garage, cutting a few to see how things worked. It was more like a hobby at first, he said. “Whatever time I could throw into it, I’d do it.”
He did research and visited another bat manufacturer. He also started talking with local coaches and players, building a list of contacts. Finally, he discussed his idea for establishing a bat business with his wife, Amanda. She thought it could work.
Thorne, who with his wife Nichole moved to Louisville, left a retail business to be part of SabreCat. Both families are involved with business, with their fathers — Ted Thorne and Jeff Roberts — and Roberts’ father-in-law, Jim Edwards, helping in different ways.
Working together over the past five years they’ve laid the ground work, Roberts said. “It’s been fun to this point.”
Roberts and Thorne believe they have developed some expertise with bats over the past several years. They have attended seminars and programs as part of the work to earn the Major League Baseball’s certification.
“Not every bat company in the United States can do that,” Thorne said. They had to work with the baseball commissioner’s office and meet a series of guidelines and restrictions.
Many of the company’s bats are used by area high school and college players, but players around the country — as well as Canada and the Dominican Republic — are using SabreCat models. Throne said the company has found representatives around the country to help with sales.
Roberts believes his experience playing is a benefit. The company is willing to work with players to help them get the type of bat they prefer and Roberts can talk to players about hitting and their approach.
Making connections with players and teams has helped to build sales. Roberts credited former Canton South baseball coach Phil Forshey for helping him connect with independent leagues and some players.
SabreCat also has seen repeat customers, especially as the careers of younger players progress. Among that group is D.J. Wilson, who played for Canton South High School and was drafted last year by the Cubs. He used SabreCat bats in minor league games last summer.
Watching as players use their bats can be nerve wracking, but it’s also exciting, Roberts said. He has seen the company’s bats on ESPN and other networks. He hopes one day to see a SabreCat bat used by a player in the World Series or an All-Star game.