Hotspots keep coming at blistering pace for Jays
Toronto’s sinkerballers appear to be most affected by what many suspect are changes to the ball
MINNEAPOLIS— Theories abound about what is behind a rash of blisters among major-league pitchers this season, but one thing is for sure: The Blue Jays are among the hardest-hit ball clubs when it comes to hotspots.
The Dodgers’ Rich Hill, Cleveland’s Corey Kluber, the Mets’ Noah Syndergaard and the Cubs’ Jake Arrieta are some of the biggest names who have struggled with the niggling injury over the course of this season. Blisters have robbed Jays right-hander Aaron Sanchez of nearly his entire season, while teammates Marcus Stroman, Chris Rowley and Brett Anderson, who developed a hotspot on his left index finger Thursday night, have dealt with the issue to varying degrees.
Some players and managers, Stroman among them, have intimated that this year’s crop of baseballs could be behind the league-wide blister troubles. It has been suggested that the current batch of balls, while falling within the league’s manufacturing specifications, are tilted toward to producing more eye-catching home runs. There have been complaints about the balls being harder and the seams being different. Heading into Friday’s games, the league was 135 homers away from the single-season mark of 5,693, set in 2000.
Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said during the all-star break in July that the league is looking at why the injury seems to be more prominent among today’s pitchers.
“There’s got to be something there,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said Friday. “You look at the number of them.”
Gibbons and pitching coach Pete Walker have noticed it’s their sinkerballers who seem to struggle the most with blisters. Stroman has used his sinker 55.8 per cent of the time this season, according to baseball analytics website Fangraphs, nearly a 10-per-cent increase from last season. Anderson has used his sinker 33 per cent of the time, more than any other pitch.
Walker called the increase in blister issues league-wide unusual and concerning. He is worried about the feel of the ball and making sure his players are comfortable pitching their best stuff.
“The irritating part is there are times when they’re not throwing their sinkers as much,” he said. “Some of these guys, it’s their bread and butter, it’s their best pitch and they’re using their four-seam fastball more, they’re using their off-speed pitches more. That’s concerning and that’s happened at different points in the season depending on how their feeling.”
Walker believes the league is doing the right thing by looking into the issue. “They’re doing their best to make sure that, if there was any changes in manufacturing, then they’re going to address them and make sure that we get back to the baseballs and the way they were.”
Luckily, two of the Blue Jays four pitchers who have struggled with hotspots — Stroman and Rowley — bounced back quickly. Anderson’s progress remains to be seen; he left the ballpark on Thursday night with his finger bandaged and expected to begin treatment on Friday.
For Rowley, the blister he developed in the fourth inning of his first major-league start in August was the first hotspot he has ever had.
Coming from a season spent with Toronto’s Double-A and Triple-A affiliates, he noticed more friction with the big-league balls compared to those he used in the minor leagues.
“I felt like the baseballs I was using that day were rougher on my hand than what I was used to or what I’ve experienced,” he said.
While Rowley said he never considered the issue serious — he didn’t miss any time — it was something that he felt every day until he returned to the minor leagues later that month.
“The general consensus seems to be that something’s up, something’s different,” Rowley said. “The guys who have been here for a while, some of them seem to say the balls are harder and they feel that they are wound tighter. The biggest thing I noticed was the surface.”
Walker said the small wounds have forced some of his pitchers to focus on the health of their fingertip as opposed to making pitches against major-league hitters.
It can be mentally taxing, he said, when something seemingly so commonplace is keeping a player out of the game.
“I think in general it is difficult because these guys take care of their bodies so well. They’re in tip-top shape, physical specimens, work the entire winter to prepare for a majorleague season and a tiny speck on the end of the finger can keep you from performing what you want to do,” Walker said.
“You feel like you’re letting your team down and you feel like you’re not doing something that you’re supposed to be doing.”