As the MLB season winds down toward the playoffs, players and team management hope that the crack of the bat takes precedence over the crack of the bones.
Bones of the hands in particular.
Since the exhibition season, an all-star team of players — more than a dozen in all, and double the number from a year ago — has been struck by pitches and sustained hand or fractures, including the Cardinals’ Matt Adams and Paul DeJong; the Mariners’ Robinson Cano; the Phillies’ J. P. Crawford; the Blue Jays’ Brandon Drury; the Yankees’ Aaron Judge, the Pirates’ Josh Harrison; the White Sox’s Nicky Delmonico; the Rangers’ Delino DeShields, the Athletics’ Ramon Laurano, the Giants’ Evan Longoria, the Mets’ Kevin Plawecki, the Reds’ Eugenio Suarez and the Dodgers’ Justin Turner.
Other players have been hit on the hands and suffered nonfracture injuries. For example, Brandon Nimmo of the Mets recently took a painful fastball on his hand. He avoided a break but was on the 10-day disabled list with a bruised index finger. Big hitters Matt Chapman of the A’s and Edwin Encarnacion of the Indians were among the others disabled with hit hands.
Six players suffered broken hands in 2014, four in 2015, eight in 2016 and seven last season, according to MLB.
There are several theories as to why there has been an increase in hand injuries. They include a rise in the velocity of pitches — Fangraphs tracks the average fastball velocity at 93.7 mph — batters’ approaches at the plate, and pitchers throwing inside more to counter power hitting.
With September rosters expanded to 40 players, there is a crop of fresh young arms striving to reach triple digits on radar guns but still honing their control of pitches that cut and sail. Playoff contenders beware: Star players could be spending the postseason in a cast instead of in the lineup.
Longoria was hit in the pinkie by a fastball thrown by the Marlins’ Dan Straily in June. He had surgery to set the fracture. After rest and rehabilitation, he was back in the lineup in late July. He had been a sturdy player, playing in at least 156 games in each of the last five seasons.
Longoria realizes that pitchers want to claim the inside part of the plate to counteract the power swings that can amplify launch angles and high exit velocities.
“It’s necessary to pitch inside,” he said. “If you don’t, hitters will be able to look to one spot at the plate and not be worried about getting their bat blown up inside. Plus, if you told major league hitters they could eliminate one half of the plate, it would be much easier to hit.”
In addition, hitters are lunging to cover the outside corner. Combine that with the increase in pitching velocity, and something has to give when a speeding, moving ball meets fingers wrapped around a bat with no pliability.
“Maybe more players are diving to try and cover the outside,” Longoria said. “And there are definitely more pitchers throwing harder than ever.”
Turner, a co-MVP of last season’s NLCS, fractured his wrist when he was hit by a pitch in an exhibition game in March.
“I think it’s teams opting to go with younger guys who have velocity and don’t have control of the pitch over the veteran pitchers who know how to pitch,” said Turner, 33.
He was hit on the same wrist in a recent game against the Cardinals but avoided a serious injury.
Delmonico fractured the middle finger of his right hand after being hit by the Rangers’ Matt Moore and was on the disabled list from May 19 to July 20. Citing the increase in velocity, Delmonico said there’s less time for hitters to react to inside fastballs if they think the pitcher is going to throw a breaking ball.
“In my case, a lefty hitter against a lefty pitcher, you want to stay in as long as you can to stay on the off-speed pitches, and sometimes you don’t pick up the heater until late and they come up and in,” he said. “That’s what got me.”
Dr. Sanjeev Kakar, an orthopedic surgeon in the sports medicine group at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., who specializes in hand conditions and treats baseball players and other professional athletes, said baseball players have little hand protection.
“All the player has is a relatively weak batting glove,” he said. “That has some padding but doesn’t take a tremendous amount of the brunt of the force. And, remember, when the ball comes, you’re entrapping the fingers or the metacarpals between the ball and the handle of the bat. The only thing that’s going to give is the handle or the bone, and usually, the bone is the weaker of the two and that’s what gives.”
“You basically have skin, then tendon and bone,” he continued. “There’s not much fat in the back of the hand. The soft-tissue padding is not there that you have in other areas.”
One solution is extra padding, he said. Companies such as EvoShield are offering batting gloves with padded inserts and protective guards that some players are using. Delmonico now hits with a padded shield on his right hand.
Kakar, who himself is working on a protective glove, cites a similar sport for perspective: cricket.
“The ball is coming at you at 95 miles an hour,” he said. “You’ll see the size of the glove and the padding around the fingers is more substantial.”
When Longoria, an 11-year veteran and a three-time All-Star, was asked how to avoid getting hit on the hands, he said he couldn’t, but he wouldn’t let a pitcher’s strategy change his batting stance or his approach.
“Once you start being scared at the plate, you’re pretty much done,” he said.
Longoria, though, has made one concession. He added a hand protector.
Joe Brescia is on the staff of The New York Times and is the author of the eBook “Quick Chats with Sports Stars.”