The Phoenix Reporter and Item (http://www.phoenixvillenews.com)

Chandler Bats in Norristown humbly wants to be ‘the best’


By Matthew DeGeorge, mdegeorge@21st-centurymedia.com, @sportsdoctormd on Twitter

Thursday, September 7, 2017

NORRISTOWN >> As rain washes the August morning into a relentless gray, the floor of the Norristown warehouse appears to be covered in a light coating of off-color snow.

Three craftsmen labor away at hand lathes, illuminated by a light source. Toward the back of the warehouse floor looms a hulking beige machine, a rare intrusion of mechanization into the homespun premises. Along one wall runs shelves heaving with wooden billets, stacked lengthwise. Another wall is adorned by two-tiered circular bat racks, suspending by the handle hundreds of templates marked with exacting notation. The smell of sawdust and paint intermingle in an acrid aroma.

Hovering over the action, usually engrossed in a printout or the object whose creation it outlines, is David Chandler, whose name graces the building. At first glance, Chandler may not look like someone who texts Bryce Harper or Aaron Judge as often as you do a family member. Or that his phone, which scarcely goes 10 minutes without ringing, reads like a who’s who of baseball. Or that from this humble outpost, a squat brick building that appears to be crouching to hide behind a block of row homes, Chandler isn’t aiming to reshape baseball, yet in his way, is doing more than a little bit of that.

As the market for high-end bats has transformed in the last decade, Chandler’s products have carved out an impressive niche, cradled in the hands of six to eight percent of big-league hitters. He’s achieved that prevalence without exclusive contracts or expensive marketing, just via word of mouth and a product that wins adherents and has helped Chandler weather the internal storms of a start-up life.

A furniture designer who turned an abiding love for baseball into a craft, Chandler has executed his vision at a scale of around 20,000 bats per year, all hand-carved and polished to rigorous standards. And he’s done so with the unflinching affect of a small-town craftsman, despite an office Rolodex that accounts for a billion or so dollars in MLB contracts.

His goal remains elegantly simple.

“We aren’t out to be the biggest bat manufacturer in the world,” he says, “just the best.”

Raul Ibanez appreciated Chandler’s help in drawing a crowd.

Ibanez was 40 years old in spring training with the New York Yankees in 2012. He was taking hacks in the cage at the Yankees complex one day when players were drawn to the sound of his bat. To seasoned pros, the ball sounded different off Ibanez’s bat, a resounding, sharp crack, not the “wet newspaper” sound hitters dread. That started a shop conversation about what made the stick in his hands so special.

The first answer is simple: Chandler bats are harder and more durable. Ninety-seven percent of the bats produced in the Norristown facility are made of maple, which constitutes a significant share of bats in major league stadiums. In his season with the Yankees, when Ibanez hit .240 with 19 home runs and garnered MVP votes, he used the same Chandler bat for batting practice from spring training through the playoffs.

Not the same model, the same bat.

No dents, no scratches, no nicks.

“I’ve never seen a Chandler bat actually dent, which is just incredible,” said Ibanez, also a former Phillie who is now a special assistant to Dodgers President of Baseball Operations Andrew Freidman. “There’s no indentation of the ball.”

The second answer is more complex, requiring a dive into Chandler’s past and a primer on the lineage of baseball bats.

Chandler attended design school in Chicago and designed furniture in North Carolina, predominantly high-quality, low-quantity custom productions. His experience ran the gamut, from 18th- and 19th-century-style classical reproductions to contemporary creations, usually collaborating with design firms. The selling point was bench-made, heirloom quality pieces in a variety of species of wood.

One happened to be maple, which burst onto the Major League Baseball scene, then started bursting at the seams.

Until the late 1990s, every big-league bat for a half-century likely shared two commonalities: It was made of northern white ash, and it was manufactured by one of three companies, most likely Louisville Slugger or Rawlings.

Then a guy with rippling, lab-created musculature named Barry Bonds started massacring baseballs with a maple bat, which debuted to no fanfare around 1996. Disciples flocked to the bats, which promised more efficient transfer of power. The baseball world jumped on board: Maple fills roughly 70 percent of big-league bat racks now, with ash relegated to 20 or so.

Sensing this growth opportunity, MLB opened the doors to competition by increasing the number of certified bat makers. In 1993, they numbered five. Now, it’s a group numbering in the low 30s.

For its benefits, maple carries one unforgiving downside. Chandler’s erudite description could fill pages, but here’s the short version for non-woodworkers: In ash, the angle of edge grain is paramount; in maple, it’s all about the face grain.

Ash’s relative softness means that when it breaks, it tends to absorb the energy, sending off small splinters and dissipating shock via vibration though the bat. Ash degrades with repeated strikes to its face grain, which is where manufacturers affix labels to encourage hitting with edge grain. Maple, though, is stiffer with a lower impact-bending value when contact is made with the face grain. Its durability owes to even compression along a uniformly porous surface.

The combination of new makers and new technology precipitated problems, and around 2008, maple bats started splitting into dangerous shards at a rate of about one per game, leading to injuries. The problem was ash bat manufacturers applying the same logic to maple, overlooking subtle differences in medium.

Chandler recognized this from outside the orbit of pro baseball. And in 2009, when his wife, surgeon Julie Moldenhauer, joined Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and Chandler plotted a career change, he took the risk. It checked all the boxes. Before him lay an expanding marketplace. He had the logistical ease of proximity to supply lines: Much of his maple is sourced from the Northeast and specifically Pennsylvania, where several boutique bat-makers are rooted. And he believed in a core mission of creating a better and safer product than what he saw detonating in big-leaguers hands on TV.

“I thought I could do better,” Chandler said. “And I really didn’t want to be in that situation where … I’m at home on the couch and watching a home run derby or something of that nature and you think to yourself, ‘oh, I could’ve done that.’ I figured, I’m not going to allow myself to be in that situation. I’ll do what I know I’m capable of doing and I’ll see where the chips fall.”

Chandler’s bats are made to exacting standards that dwarfed existing products, alleviating the peril of maple missiles while harnessing the wood’s aesthetic beauty and catapulting potential. An MLB study in 2008 found fractured implements bearing up to a 14-degree angle in the face grain. The steeper the grain, the greater fragility along that fault line. Chandler bats don’t leave the factory at anything steeper than 1.2 degrees, with the objective as near to dead straight as possible. Coupled with MLB repositioning maple brand labels to force face-grain contact, Chandler joined a handful of companies (most notably Marucci) in a new wave challenging the status quo.

Chandler bats take three to five days to produce, the only mechanization in quickly routing a rough bat shape from the cylindrical billet. Workers’ hands are on them for four to five hours, from billet to lathe to spray of proprietary finishes and engraving. Chandler produces 866 models and counting, both original concoctions and adaptations of other companies’ dimensions. He classifies bats into a matrix of nine broad categories, based on barrel and handle thickness, and those classes are grafted onto various lengths and weights, plus knob styles.

Chandler also excels in bridging a communication gap. He isn’t a former ballplayer (beyond Little League), he’s a craftsman whose domain is measured in coefficients of restitution and centers of mass. Rarely has a big league hitter come to him saying, “This bat feels off by a hundredth of an inch,” or, You know what’ll get me out of this slump? A 2.45-inch diameter barrel.”

But he has an innate ability to translate the unscientific metrics of players’ intuitive feels into specifications.

“He really listens to what each hitter wants,” Ibanez said. “Even when he gets it right, he’s always open to getting it perfect. He’s always looking for a way to improve. He’s a master craftsman. Major League hitters become master craftsmen. And when you’re talking with David Chandler about woodworking and those nuances, he’s on the same quest for mastery.”

Ibanez doesn’t recall when he first met Chandler, probably when both were milling about the clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park. Far more important is the moment when Chandler gained Ibanez’s trust. He approached Chandler with specs for an old Rawlings model he hoped Chandler could replicate.

When Ibanez held the new bat, it didn’t feel right to the cerebral hitter whose senses have been honed over thousands (millions?) of swings.

“I put the bat in my hand, picked it up and held it and said, ‘David, this is not the same, this is still not the right one,’” Ibanez recalled. “David looked at me and said, ‘That’s not possible.’ So he picked it up and measured it, and said, ‘Oh, it’s a millimeter off.’ And I said to him, ‘David, I don’t want to sound high maintenance here …’ He cut me off and said, ‘No, no, a millimeter is everything.’

“That’s when I knew I was dealing with a master-level craftsman.”

Ibanez’s story isn’t unique, nor is his standing as an elite hitter who swears by Chandler. There’s Harper, Manny Machado, Carlos Correa (the CC13 model is Chandler’s best seller), Kris Bryant, Robinson Cano, Kolten Wong and Yasiel Puig. Thanks to Judge and Yoenis Cespedes, Chandler bats have helped win three of the last five Home Run Derbies, a night that provides a study in minute adjustments that Chandler relishes.

He is also proud of two pitchers who swing his bats, Jon Lester of the Cubs and Max Scherzer of the Nationals, who hit their first career home runs in August.

Chandler’s company’s diffusion across MLB stems from another Derby legend. Johnny Narron traces his baseball lineage back three generations, when his uncle Sam was signed by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1930s. Johnny worked as a hitting coach with the Texas Rangers in 2008; among his duties was as an “accountability partner” for slugger and recovering addict Josh Hamilton.

Chandler knew Narron from North Carolina baseball circles, so he asked a favor. See what Josh thinks about this bat, no strings attached.

“You put it in the hitter’s hands and if he likes it, he’ll use it,” Narron, now the hitting coach for Cleveland’s Double-A affiliate Akron RubberDucks, recalled of the conversation. “If he doesn’t, he won’t.

“He has a great product, and Josh liked it and the other guys on the Rangers liked it, and they used it.”

With the new bat, Hamilton went on a string of five all-star seasons, including the 2010 AL MVP award. He clubbed a Home Run Derby record 28 dingers in the first round of the 2008 edition. From there, Chandler’s bats’ reputation grew. Texas’ Michael Young, Nelson Cruz and Chris Davis used them. Young landed in Philadelphia, colonizing converts like Shane Victorino and Carlos Ruiz. Baseball players are a chatty bunch; if something’s working for them, you’re going to hear about it.

Chandler also found a fertile ground in youth ranks, with a product that exceeded the quality of what the mass producers marketed to teens.

That’s where players like Bryant and Judge first swung Chandlers. Same for Royce Lewis, the No. 1 pick in the 2017 MLB draft, and what Chandler estimates was about 80 percent of the Arizona Winter League last year. He doesn’t plug into top talent through agents or mail out free gear to names he skims from Baseball America. He builds relationships, and the exemplary quality of his product does the rest.

“I started swinging Chandler in 2010, when lot of players on my select team were using it,” said Phillies outfielder Nick Williams, who’s partial to the Cano and a modified Harper model. “I used one, one time, and I noticed how it felt, and it felt a lot different. It’s crazy, especially for a wood bat, being a high schooler and being 16 and going from aluminum to wood for summer tournaments. It felt good.”

The inroads dissuaded Chandler from locking players into exclusive contracts. Many use multiple brands — Harper alternates between Chandler and Marucci — in search of that magic feel. But Chandler offers freedom: If you’re in a slump and need to tinker, there’s no fear of an angry email.

“The big thing for me when things weren’t going as well for me, I was going to try to switch, and everybody else’s bat felt like it was bending backwards,” Miami Marlins infielder Dee Gordon said. “And I was like, ‘I can’t use that. I’ve got to be able to feel the bat head.’ It’s just something I’m one with, so I’ve got to keep it. … (Chandler) has a good belief in his product and he doesn’t put you in a bind where you feel like even if you’re struggling, you’ve got to use his bat.”

For all the success Chandler bats enjoyed on the diamond in 2015, the tenor in the boardroom was less harmonious. The company, known as RX Sports, underwent a reorganization that in July 2015 led to relocation from Washington Avenue in Norristown to the current shop on Main. In the process, Chandler was forced to downsize, from a high of 22 employees to the point at which David was the only worker in the winter of 2015, hustling to fill orders and appease his biggest clients.

The number of players that stuck with Chandler through his internal strife testifies to the loyalty his bats engender.

“I was with him to ride it out,” Gordon said. “It was tough because that’s the only bat I use. So it was tough, but I got through it and was able to keep with it.”

Gordon knows the Chandler reputation suffered from the slowdown, and he still gets teammates or opponents commenting on his bat who thought Chandler’s demise had come.

But Chandler weathered the storm and rebounded. He’s back to 13 employees, and while he’s a few thousand shy of his peak bat output from 2014, he hopes to return to it soon. The company has ironed out many of the growing pains and awaits approval to relocate to a larger shop in town. He’s exploring what bats might look like in five or 10 years, what finishes could add resilience or what other equipment might be rife for innovation by a disruptive outsider turned insider.

“He tries to get it perfect every time,” Ibanez said, “and he’s never satisfied, even if it’s perfect.”

In surviving his company’s tumult, Chandler’s mission remained a buoy in stormy seas. And no matter how often that process of producing a baseball bat is multiplied, it all reverts to one central tenet.

“I want to do one thing, do it really, really well,” Chandler said, “and make it available to anybody that deems themselves worthy enough to have that caliber of tool in their hand.”