Baseball's hottest rookie is the XProTeX, which its creator claims can diffuse the blow of a 100-mile-per-hour fastball to a 39 mph blooper pitch. The "RoboGlove" could save millions of dollars for Major League Baseball by cutting the average of 200 player days each team lost to disability last year.
Players behaving in true macho-man fashion -- shaking the pain out of their hand, rubbing it and trotting to first base despite an injury -- didn't set right with longtime bat manufacturer Jack Kasarjian.
Seven figures of research and development dollars later, his new batting glove sold out its first production batch and snared a crop of orders from big-league players.
"I make bats, so I'm focused on watching hitters," said Kasarjian, whose company is based in Camarillo, Calif. "I see hitters getting hit in the hand, hit in the wrist and in some cases their careers aren't the same," he said, citing the examples of Nomar Garciaparra and Doug Mientkiewicz.
"Most Important Asset"
"The hands and the wrist are everything in baseball," Kasarjian says. "Focus on players' most important asset."
But Kasarjian, who had run X-Bats, the No. 2 bat manufacturer with 350 pro clients, didn't want to come out with a "me, too" product. He also wanted to leverage the bat company's good will for other products, so he came up with the idea of a protective batting glove that would be an upgrade to gloves that merely protect from blisters and provide a better grip on the bat.
XProTeX comes in three models. Top of the line is the $80 Raker with maximum hand and wrist protection. The mid-range model is $50, and an entry-level glove goes for $35.
The products mark the first fruits of an alliance between Kasarjian and longtime motocross and extreme sports protective gear manufacturer Eddie Cole. Approached nearly three years ago, Cole was sold on the concept, but the partners found some players initially reluctant.
"We thought it was a no-brainer, but it's a big mountain to climb, as baseball really doesn't like change," Kasarjian said. "A player making $5 million might put his career at risk because he doesn't want to wear a piece of equipment that's different. Everyone made fun of David Wright wearing a new kind of batting helmet because it was different."
Impact Displaced Horizontally
The designers came up with a glove made of "advanced impact composite," or AIC, a patented co-polymer. Kasarjian and Cole enlisted the materials testing lab at Cal State-Northridge, which does business with the military and NASA, for the first major tests.
"They developed a rig for us to simulate the impact of a baseball," Kasarjian said. "It takes the vertical impact and displaces it horizontally. We designed the protective padding in organic fashion. It moves with the shape and musculature of the hand."
Eventually human test subjects were needed. In came former big-league outfielder Reggie Smith, who joined the XProTeX board. Smith runs a baseball academy in the Los Angeles area. Smith as well as players passing through tried out earlier versions of the glove.
Some 20 players who were hit wearing the glove pronounced the impact of the ball a mere nuisance. Ironically, Smith started out his career with the Boston Red Sox in 1966 not wearing a batting glove.
"They didn't have batting gloves in my day," he said. "They used golf gloves."
Given the high volume of hand injuries and the difficulty of coming back from them, it was inevitable someone had to come up with some real protection.
"I helped the designers to understand the feel of the glove and how the hands are articulated,'' Smith said. "They did outstanding job of re-designing protection."
Smith, a switch hitter, ensured the designers could come up with a standardized glove for hitters working both sides of the plate. A combination of big leaguers, minor leaguers, college and high school players and former players who are now coaches tested the prototypes.
"It's amazing how it disperses the energy," Smith said. "On the lead hand, the bottom hand, there's more padding on it than on the top hand. That covers more of the wrist area. We had to make a glove that would fit everyone."
"The additional weight of the glove that I thought would be a concern was irrelevant. You feel the sting, but there are no broken bones," Smith said. "You can continue to play."
Ready for the Big League
Once Kasarjian had gone through 13 generations of prototypes, he was satisfied he had a product to present to Major League Baseball. He got approval from top official Bob Watson, a former power hitter himself, in just 72 hours.
"Major League Baseball says that each team lost an average of 200 man-days on the disabled list each year," Kasarjian said. "This glove had the ability to save teams millions of dollars."
MLB officials were persuaded by the test reports from Cal State and sample gloves. Kasarjian said Watson and his staff were so pleased they asked his company, also called XProTeX, to develop a skullcap for first- and third-base coaches, base runners and fielders to wear under their regular caps to afford protection from line drives.
"They're interested in our elbow and shin protection, too," he said.
Popular With Latinos
Marketing "RoboGlove" came a lot easier than Kasarjian, Cole and Smith ever figured. Players using it in the Arizona Fall league reported good results, so XProTeX started getting inquires from their agents. Particularly receptive were Latin American players.
"They're much more discriminating," Kasarjian said. "When they have something good, they stick together and pass it around." They understand the risk to their career lessens if they can minimize the chances of a catastrophic injury, he said. "They're not afraid of being different, they're afraid of not being able to play the game they love."
XProTeX clients include Miguel Tejada of the Baltimore Orioles, Alexei Ramirez of the Chicago White Sox, Bengie Molina of the San Francisco Giants, Yorvit Torrealba of the San Diego Padres, Yuniesky Betancourt of the Kansas City Royals, Wandy Rodriguez of the Houston Astros, and Jose Morales of the Minnesota Twins. Native Hawaiian Shane Victorino of the Philadelphia Phillies also is signed up among other big leaguers.
Some 30 minor-leaguers also are clients. Players who are still committed contractually to other glove companies are interested in the concept.
Chicago Cubs catcher Koyie Hill has particular need to protect his right hand. He had three fingers and the thumb on his right hand severed in a home woodworking accident right after the 2007 season. But after the digits were surgically re-attached, he came back on schedule in the minors for 2008 and stuck with the Cubs the entire 2009 season.
Physical and Mental Protection
Hill called the product "probably the best I've seen for the guys who've been hit in the hand or who have broken bones in the hand" and need both physical and mental protection.
"I do believe that anyone wearing the glove would fare far better than someone without it," Hill said. "The glove appears to be the best product out there to do what it's designed to do."
XProTeX isn't just intended for pro players. Kasarjian figured he'd have a bountiful market in softball for both genders and youth baseball, but he didn't think he'd make his investment money back in the first full year of sales.
"We sold out our entire production to e-tailers for January to March," he said. "We thought it would take the public seeing the glove on Major Leaguers come April."
Of 19 online baseball retailers Kasarjian contacted, 17 quickly responded and bought his entire January-to-March stock of 70,000 gloves. "It really surprised us."
Baseball may change at a glacial pace, but after Kasarjian's fast start, he's willing to slow the pace considerably to make sure his glove fits as many well-compensated hands as possible.
High-Tech 'RoboGlove' Saves Major League Hands