Bryce Harper and other MLB stars swing only one bat — and it’s made in Philly’s backyard

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Phillies slugger Bryce Harper swings a hometown bat — one made especially for him by two baseball fanatics from Pennsylvania.

Based in King of Prussia, Victus Sports was co-founded in 2012 by Jared Smith and Ryan Engroff in a friend’s garage, where they sanded, molded and finished the bats themselves.

In the decade since their humble beginnings, Victus has grown tremendously. It now has 44 employees and manufactures 70,000 bats a year, as of the end of 2021. And its workshop, batting cages and bat artists are now housed together in a 25,000-square-foot facility, which hums loudly with the sound of machine lathes. Dust flies from maple and birch “billets,” the round, raw wood hewn specifically for baseball bats.

The company inspires such devotion that the Phillies’ Harper prefers using only Victus bats — and until he broke his thumb last month, he would have been swinging at the All-Star Game on Tuesday.

Harper is not the only Victus devotee. Victus now supplies about 29% of MLB players, including Fernando Tatis Jr. of the San Diego Padres, Mookie Betts of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Julio “J-Rod” Rodriguez of the Seattle Mariners, as well as Alec Bohm, Rhys Hoskins, Bryson Stott and Odubel Herrera here in Philadelphia.

“Some people say ‘don’t meet your heroes,’ but that has not been the case for me,” Smith said during a tour of the operation. “I never expected to have Bryce Harper texting me for bats. He’s an awesome guy personally.”

A native of Lebanon County in central Pennsylvania, Smith stopped playing college baseball after an injury.

“It turned into an obsession making bats and [then we] came up with a business plan,” he said.

Although they started by selling individual bats to players, today Victus sells through multiple retailers, such as Dick’s Sporting Goods, as well as to minor-league players, Little League and college teams, and players in Japan, Korea and Taiwan. The company’s reach could extend to China, too, which is embracing the American pastime, said Smith.

“We focus on prospects for years. We are fans of the game, so we select the right players to represent us,” Smith said.

Victus is the second-most-used bat in major-league baseball. The business was bought in February 2017 by Marucci Sports, the only company with more bats used in the majors. The larger company has helped bolster Victus’ retail bona fides, and Victus has expanded to selling batting gloves and aluminum bats.

Experts in the sports business world say that Marucci and Victus Sports coming together under one portfolio represents a powerhouse. And in 2020, the brands were acquired by the publicly traded Compass Diversified Holdings when it bought Marucci in a $200 million deal.

Victus’ sales have climbed to $15 million to $20 million annually, with double-digit growth expected to continue, according to Ryan Faulkingham, chief financial officer of Compass Diversified. Its portfolio of sports equipment brands also includes Lizard Skins, a maker of bat grip products, and glove-maker Carpenter Trade.

Compass Diversified’s portfolio has attracted Wall Street institutional shareholders such as Vanguard, now the second-largest shareholder. Compass Diversified was also recently added to the Russell 2000 index, a benchmark of small- to mid-sized public companies; inclusion in the index means many more shareholders must buy the stock in order to keep pace with the index.

“Marucci is classic in that the players really respect the brand,” Faulkingham said. “Victus has an edge, that’s the Victus brand.”

The first major-league player to promote Victus bats was the Baltimore Orioles’ Adam Jones in 2012, the year Victus was founded.

Jones “was an All-Star player that year,” Smith said. “He told other players about us, and got us orders” from players such as the Boston Red Sox’s Jonny Gomes.

Then in 2018, Harper put in his first order, when he was still with the Washington Nationals.

“That really put us on the map,” Smith said.

Harper then joined the Phils and “he’s still using our bats,” Smith said. “He and [Fernando] Tatis order the most custom bat designs.”

Harper’s preferred bat measurements are 34 inches long, 32 ounces in weight.

So why do some players prefer one over the other?

The bat world “is a really fascinating industry within baseball, in that when a specific player finds success using a certain brand, they share it with their teammates in the clubhouse. Then everyone else wants to use that same bat,” said Wayne Kimmel, co-founder of SeventySix Capital, a Philadelphia venture fund that invests in start-up sports businesses.

In addition to the customized length and weight of Victus bats, Harper is one of Victus’ many customers who order “trophy” bats that have customized painted art.

Bruce Tatem is Victus’ primary artist, known around the factory as the “Bat King.”

On a recent visit to the showroom, he showed off what looked like a hard plastic guitar case, but inside were Harper’s custom bats, including four painted with South Park’s main characters, the Phillie Phanatic and the Statue of Liberty.

The custom bat designs aren’t allowed to be used in major-league games, where Harper swings a normal Victus bat, but he’s been known to use his Phanatic and other custom bats for practice.

Victus bats are now made almost exclusively from maple and birch, after an infestation nearly wiped out the U.S. ash tree population. Prices for wood bats range from $140 to $200 and metal bats go for $250 to $400. But custom or limited-edition bats can fetch even more. A Jackie Robinson commemorative bat, or an autographed Fernando Tatis Jr. edition, can sell for $1,000 apiece, Smith said.

Now the company is expanding its customer base to bats made especially for YouTube influencers such as Eric Sim, an ex-minor leaguer who posts on social media as KING of Juco.

Also, one of SeventySix Capital’s portfolio companies, Diamond Kinetics, is currently working with Victus, Marucci and about 20 other bat makers to install electronic sensors on and inside the wood and metal. That creates a data trail of every swing.

“We put sensors inside the bats or strapped on the bats,” Kimmel explained. “All that technology will be on display across the All-Star Game.”

An element of Victus’ marketing campaign is an onsite batting cage connected to the warehouse. It’s part of the retail store operation in a corporate office park behind the King of Prussia Mall.

Young and old players make a bat-fitting appointment, and try out different weights and lengths for the best “feel,” Smith said.

“When Bryce was using the Phanatic bat it went viral,” Kimmel recalls. “It’s great how these companies market themselves, trying to share with young people how amazing baseball is.”

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