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Time to stop the breaking of bones

Two at-bats into J.D. Martinez’s D-backs’ career, it felt like it might have been ended. Don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough.

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at Cincinnati Reds Sam Greene/Cincinnati Enquirer-USA TODAY NETWORK

I was probably not the only person to think, “Oh, no - not again...” when they heard about J.D. Martinez being hit on the hand and having to come out of the game. After my first reaction, which involved nuking Cincinnati from orbit, I calmed down a bit. But I was still annoyed by the sheer senselessness of the situation. While fortunately, it appears there there was no fracture in this case (though at time of writing, we’ve yet to see him return to the line-up), it’s far from the first time in recent history a Diamondbacks’ hitter has taken a pitch on the hand. And previous incidents have led to their fair share of missed time.

  • April 2013: Aaron Hill hit by PiratesJames McDonald. 63 games missed
  • May 2014: A.J. Pollock hit by Reds’ Johnnie Cueto. 79 games missed
  • August 2014: Paul Goldschmidt hit by Pirates’ Ernesto Frieri. Season ended.
  • June 2017: Nick Ahmed hit by CardinalsTrevor Rosenthal. 27 games missed, and counting.

Of course, it’s not just Arizona. Ian Desmond of the Rockies was lost to a similar injury in spring training, sitting out virtually the first month. And the Braves’ best player, Freddie Freeman, sat out 44 games after getting his wrist broken by a pitch. Those are merely the most significant injuries. That part of the body is always going to be particularly vulnerable, for several reasons. They are the area closest to the strike zone; are potentially moving in the opposite direction to the pitch, increasing the impact; and contain a large number (54 between them, more than a quarter of the entire skeleton’s total) of relatively vulnerable bones.

So why do they seem to be so poorly protected? I’m particularly aware of this, having grown up playing a highly-similar game, cricket. The ball there is almost the same size and weight as a baseball (half an ounce heavier, a quarter-inch less in circumference), and comes in at around the same speed (slightly slower, so the kinetic energy involved is likely very similar). But in 20 years playing cricket, I never once saw a batter even have to leave the game with a hand injury, let alone suffer any broken bones. The reason is obvious. As the photo below illustrates, cricket batting gloves (like the one on the right) offer far more in the way of protection for the hands.

Quite why baseball doesn’t use something similar on a regular basis eludes me. It would seem in everyone’s best interests to protect players from needless injuries, and (if done right) it’s not as if adding extra protection would cause any significant problems for hitters. Indeed, since their injuries, both Pollock and Goldschmidt have apparently taken to wearing better protection on their own initiative. Paul now has added Evoshield protective slips to his Franklin batting gloves, and A.J. has a steel plate in his modified gloves. If you’ve spotted any decline in production since their returns, I’d like to borrow your microscope.

It’s in sharp contrast to what we’ve seen elsewhere, where even single instances lead to changes in the name of safety, whether that’s changes to the rules in response to Buster Posey’s injury, or alterations in the manufacturing process for bats which reduced breakage by 50%, after Tyler Colvin was stabbed by a flying shard of wood. But MLB has been utterly quiet despite the string of hand and wrist injuries which could have been easily avoided. Compare batting helmets, which are now mandatory, and must offer a required standard of protection. Gloves? Wear them or not, it’s entirely up to you, and they can be as utterly flimsy and useless as you want.

They’re surprisingly new, rarely seen before the sixties, and originally adopted as protection. Their first recorded use in a game was by Ken Harrelson - better known these days as “Hawk” - of Kansas City, who wore a glove in 1964 to help with a blister. Now, they are almost universal, save a few old-school types who prefer to go without. For D-backs fans, the most obvious name there is Mark Grace, who rarely wore gloves at all over his 16-year career, only on particularly cold nights. But there used to be players who didn’t like to wear batting helmets too, and adding protection to the back of the hand can be done with little change to the inside part that grips the bat.

There’s no doubt about the drastic reduction in damage which can be achieved. As far back as 2010, XProTeX introduced a glove which cut impact by 60%. But it was still a specialist market, and XProTex’s president suggested larger equipment companies were the main obstacle to achieving significant market penetration. “The agents have been steering players toward these bigger companies because the companies are offering the players who are up and coming in the agents' stables deals in return for delivering the major leaguers.”

It’s likely any enforced change will be met with resistance, from the troglodyte section who seem to consider injury “part of the game.” I’ve already been told on Twitter that steps to prevent broken bones would be “pointless”. It appears neither Goldschmidt nor Pollock would agree. But there’s a certain macho attitude here, exemplified by Jerry Crasnick’s glorification of the gloveless few as “Hitters who are enterprising and bold enough to take a heater off the hands without benefit of cushioning to ease the sting”. Bold? Sting? I’m guessing here, but I imagine Crasnick and the troglodytes have never had their fingers broken. That might adjust their attitude a little.

And it’s probably something we’re going to see more of, going forward, for the escalating velocity of pitches these days increases the chances of serious damage. The average fastball speed has increased almost every season we’ve had decent measurements. It’s now at 93.6 mph this year, up from 91.8 mph in 2008. While that change may not seem much, it’s worth pointing out that kinetic energy is proportional to the square of velocity, so even a small uptick in speed will pack a greater wallop, and increased risk of damage.

Any improvement doesn’t even necessarily have to be MLB-mandated. Teams should be keen on this as well. I’m pretty sure Mike Hazen would not have been happy to pay J.D. Martinez five million dollars for two strikeouts, as he almost had to do, never mind the three prospects the hitter also cost Arizona to acquire. It could also begin from the bottom up. I don’t know if Little League players have better protection for their hands, but players who started off that way, would seem more likely to continue using protection on through college, and into a professional career.

I just don’t see any real downside here. A.J. Pollock and Paul Goldschmidt prove it is entirely possible for players to be better protected, without any negative impact on their performance. But for some reason (perhaps because hand injuries aren’t potentially lethal? Or funding from those equipment companies), it seems that MLB just isn’t too bothered about them. Pollock, Goldschmidt - and, I suspect, now J.D. Martinez - would probably beg to differ.