It's a hit: Local bat maker RockBats goes major league

They're two words that, all by themselves, can electrify almost any mid-March conversation within a 20-mile radius of Miller Park (or Warner Park, for that matter).

Opening day.

Those words bring to mind a smorgasbord of sensations – the taste of cold beer and hot pretzels, the smell of freshly cut grass, a surging rush of renewed optimism, and the sound of bats launching taters into the exosphere.

The last sensation that you want to experience at the ballpark, however, is the feeling of fear you get when a bat splinters and flies into several directions, imperiling players and onlookers alike.

It's a problem that Roland Hernandez, co-owner and cofounder of Monona-based RockBats, takes seriously.

In fact, it was the broken-bat problem that ultimately turned Hernandez, once a mild-mannered wood scientist for the USDA Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, into something of a baseball superhero – or at least a contributor to the sport he loves. Indeed, most baseball fans would probably be happy getting their favorite player's autograph. But Hernandez, a Brewers fan, was able to parlay his expertise into a consulting job with the Brewers before becoming an equipment supplier to major league players and, eventually, delivering bats to outfielder Corey Hart for use in the All-Star weekend's Home Run Derby.

But that's getting ahead of the story a bit, and begs the question: How did a Forest Service researcher come to rub elbows with some of the most powerful sluggers in the biz? You might say it all started in church:

"I was a wood scientist for 17 years, and basically my main area of research was glulam (glue-laminated timber), you know, the big glulam beams you see in church, the arch timbers," said Hernandez. "So my area of research always was involving wood properties, understanding how the structural member behaved under load. I would actually use computer-simulation models to study the structures, and based on all that, I developed improved performance for these products, and so engineered wood products was my area.

"Well, I did that for 17 years, and toward the end of my career at the lab, that's when I started a baseball bat business, and all my background I applied to that. I studied wood properties, I studied the products – what was it about the wood baseball bats that made them work? You start learning about physics and the performance of a baseball bat … and then you've got wood science and that was my area, and so you match the two."

A team player

You might say that Hernandez's venture matches brains and brawn as well. During his career, Hernandez authored more than 50 research reports as well as several chapters in various wood engineering textbooks. But in September 2007, he left the Forest Service and went to work full time at RockBats – in order to help big-time sluggers slug.

Shortly thereafter, he went to work for the Brewers to help the team avoid the scourge of broken bats. He approached the team and told them he could rate all their bats, letting them know which were "A-plus bats" and, more importantly, which were likely to break.

The results – and the players' responses – were remarkable.

"Sometimes the players wouldn't use their bats until I checked them … because in every batch of bats, only about 25 percent of them are like the A-plus bats, and unfortunately, about 25 percent of them are also the bats that are going to break into two pieces," said Hernandez. "We're here applying wood science in a major league clubhouse, and … major league baseball was monitoring broken bats, and at the end of the season, the Brewers had the fewest two-piece broken bats in the league."

In 2010, RockBats did receive major league approval, and Hernandez was prepared.

"[2009] was a good year for being an independent consultant, so at the end of the year, I said, "Hey, I actually did all that as a wood scientist,' and I think just about every player did not even know that I own RockBats," said Hernandez. "And the end of the year, that's when I mentioned to them, "Hey, guys, I don't know if you know, but I have a bat business, and I'll be pursuing major league baseball certification next year,' and they said, "Hey, I'll try your bats.' They liked what I did for them that year."

As promising as it looked, however, Hernandez appeared to have underestimated brand loyalty when it comes to players and their bats.

"I thought every guy was going to order bats, but it actually started out slow," said Hernandez. "It got to be April or May, and I was no longer grading for the Brewers, because it was a conflict of interest. I'm not going to go in and grade other manufacturers' bats when I'm an approved manufacturer.

"There were broken bats happening, and they were not used to this because they were not having those types of breaks the year before, so I couldn't come in and grade, but what I could do was supply bats, and that's kind of what got things going."

Major league sales

Eventually, says Hernandez, 12 different Brewers ordered bats, including some of the team's biggest hitters.

"We started getting orders for bats, and slowly the players started ordering, and as we approached the mid-season, we had Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Corey Hart, all the big hitters," said Hernandez. "Last year, finishing the year, Ryan Braun … for the second half of the season, I'd say he used his 90 percent of the time. Prince uses a lot of different models, but … there was a stretch where he was using it almost every game."

Of course, having high-profile Brewers using his product has helped Hernandez expand his market. Troy Tulowitzki and other members of the Colorado Rockies have also tried out the bats, which has further improved the prospects of the business.

"You get a major league player on a major league team, that spreads into the retail market and into the retail stores, so that's kind of our strategy," said Hernandez. "Major league sales is actually a very small percent of our total sales, but it's almost like the tail wagging the dog. It really does control a lot of the popularity of your bats, when people see major leaguers using our bats."

All that is pretty heady stuff for a family business (among RockBats' nine owners is Hernandez's wife, Elaine, who is also the company's co-founder) with local roots (the business is run out of Monona and the bats themselves are manufactured in Antigo) that's growing like "a snowball that's rolling."

And, of course, if you're a baseball fan yourself, watching one of the Brewers' brightest stars using your product in the All-Star weekend's Home Run Derby really is enough to make you feel like a superhero – at least for a while.

"Yeah, it's a dream come true," said Hernandez. "I'm still working with wood, which has always been my dream. … I'm still doing what I did before, I'm just doing it on a different product. I'm not doing anything different now than I did before, except now, instead of having to write a research paper, I'm dealing with major league players.

"I didn't have news crews waiting for me when I got to work when I was a wood scientist. Now they find out that I'm delivering the Home Run Derby bats to Corey Hart and I have two news crews waiting for me at Miller Park. It's kind of fun."

For more on RockBats, check out this IBtv interview from May 28, 2010:

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