How Pitchers Get A Grip On Hand Woes
ESPN The Magazine|October 1, 2018

Pickle juice? Superglue? Peeing on their digits? This is the gripping tale of how far pitchers go to get an upper hand.

Eddie Matz And Anna Katherine Clemmons

REMEDY

ACRYLIC NAIL

ARCHIE BRADLEY, DIAMONDBACKS

After multiple cracks in his nail curtailed the use of his curveball, the Arizona reliever found relief at a local salon.

Aaron Sanchez is staring at his cuticles, pondering a seemingly simple question. The Blue Jays pitcher has just been asked to describe his relationship with his fingernails. At first, he considers using words to tell the story. But words won’t suffice to describe the medical ordeal that transformed him from Cy Young contender to replacement-level player. No, only images can do that. Graphic ones. So Sanchez pulls out his phone to share the grisly photos.

“It started like this,” says Sanchez, sitting shirtless at his locker in the visiting clubhouse at Camden Yards before a late-August game. He taps open a close-up of his right middle finger, a burgeoning blood blister beneath the nail and what appear to be small burgundy skid marks on the flesh bordering the top of it—the cost of doing repeated business with a baseball. He then scrolls through the dozens of pictures that tell the story of his lost 2017 campaign, each gnarlier than the last:

There’s the one taken just two weeks into the season, after a surgeon sliced off the entire left third of his nail in an effort to destroy the blisters that had started bubbling up the year before.

There’s the one of him pitching against Tampa Bay a few weeks later, when the remaining nail split in half horizontally during the first inning—his only inning—and his finger began, as he says, “leaking,” blood oozing everywhere, nary a Band-Aid in sight.

Then there’s the one he took in the bathroom at Camden Yards three weeks later, after he’d applied a seventh layer of superglue onto that same nail, one for each of the six innings he’d just worked against the Orioles, plus another just to be safe.

A day after that May start in Baltimore, Sanchez landed on the disabled list for the third time in five weeks, then returned in early July, only to last three starts before hitting the DL again. The cause of that final stint—the one that ended his season—was listed as a blister, but the injury, in truth, was a torn finger ligament, the result of Sanchez altering his mechanics to compensate for the loss of his nail.

“My mind was thinking, ‘I need my fingernail,’” says Sanchez, a sinkerballer whose normal grip requires the left edge of his middle nail to maintain contact with the ball until release. But after part of that nail was surgically removed, he fell into the habit of rotating his middle finger so that what little nail remained was touching the ball. Sanchez says that led to the torn ligament, which ended his season—one that had begun with such promise.

After a breakout 2016 performance in which he won 15 games, worked almost 200 innings and finished seventh in AL Cy Young voting, Sanchez had just one win and worked 36 innings in 2017. Needless to say, he didn’t receive any Cy Young votes. He did, however, get plenty of flak from folks who couldn’t comprehend how a silly little blister on the end of a finger had totally rocked his world.

“The image in their mind is not what’s in those pictures,” Sanchez says. “Once they see it, they’re like, ‘Oh, f---! No wonder you didn’t pitch.’”

REMEDY

ROOFING

AARON SANCHEZ, BLUE JAYS

After serving multiple stints on the DL, the 2016 AL ERA leader finally cracked the nail-care code through manual labor.

TOMMY JOHN SURGERY is old news. Torn labrums had a moment. Thoracic outlet syndrome? So 2016. In truth, when it comes to orthopedic ailments that can harm hurlers and kibosh careers, it’s fragile fingertips—from bubbling blisters to nagging nails— that are suddenly all the plague.

Over the past two months, ESPN The Magazine has spoken with more than a dozen MLB pitchers who’ve battled blister and fingernail problems, several of whom would talk only off the record, some for fear that it would affect their value in contract negotiations. One thing they all shared: Most of them don’t officially report the full extent of their finger injuries so they can avoid DL stays. “It’s one of those weird little baseball injuries,” says an AL playoff-bound pitcher. “For position guys, calf strains are hard to come back from, and they generally recur. For pitchers, blisters [and nails] are in that same category. They can derail a career.”

Still, there are ways to uncover the growing damage caused by finger injuries. Corey Dawkins, an athletic trainer and founder of Baseball Injury Consultants, tracks the injuries that land big league pitchers on the DL. According to Dawkins, 10 hurlers hit the DL for blisters in 2015; the next year the total more than doubled (22). In 2017, the tally climbed to 27. This year, through Sept. 10, 22 hurlers had hit the shelf with blisters, which projects to at least 24 this season. And that total doesn’t even include fingernails, which, as Sanchez can attest, go hand in hand with blisters.

So what in the name of Edward Scissorhands is to blame for all the digit demolition? Why are so many of today’s pitchers hanging on by a nail? While it’s hard to put a finger on a lone cause, several pitchers posit that modern metrics have played a role. “With the increased use of Statcast data,” Dawkins says, “focusing on increased spin rate is causing them to grip the ball harder and creating more friction.”

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