After a blister on his right middle finger split open, causing him to miss a start last week, A’s right-hander Jesse Hahn said he turned to an age-old pitchers’ remedy for managing the malady: Dipping his fingers in pickle juice to help toughen the skin.
“Grab a pickle, eat it, dip (your hand) back in,” Hahn said, smiling.
For men of Hahn’s profession, though, blisters can be no joke. On April 18, Hahn had a shutout going into the sixth inning in Kansas City before the blister on his pitching hand opened up and knocked him out of the game. The A’s skipped his next start – but he had healed enough by the start of this week to return to the rotation tonight against the Los Angeles Angels.
Hahn said blisters are an issue he has dealt with throughout his career, and he’s certainly not alone. Giants starter Tim Lincecum has battled blisters in the past, including during the 2010 playoffs. Former Red Sox pitcher Derek Lowe reportedly had recurring blister issues, even during his 2002 no-hitter at Fenway Park, and Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan famously used pickle juice to treat and prevent blisters on his pitching hand.
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“Every pitcher’s going to get it,” said A’s right-hander Chris Bassitt. “You’ve just got to let it heal up, callous over, and hopefully it won’t do it again.”
The problem for pitchers usually stems from the friction caused by gripping the seams of a baseball and releasing it, typically 80 to 100 times in a game and more between starts.
Hahn said he believes the main culprit for him is his two-seam fastball, for which he rests his middle finger across the seams. When his blister opened in Kansas City, Hahn said it was “bleeding a little bit. But (missing a start) was just more about stopping it right away from being a recurring thing.”
A’s closer Sean Doolittle, who said he has not had problems with blisters, noted the irony of hockey players getting teeth knocked out and remaining in games, while something as seemingly small as a blister can sideline a pitcher. But a blister can seriously affect a pitcher’s ability to properly grip his pitches, which then gets magnified by a process as precise as trying to repeatedly locate a 90-mph fastball.
“Resting this past week gave it a chance to heal,” Hahn said. “I wanted to (make his last start), but it was a smart decision not to. I would’ve had the chance of reopening it and possibly being on the (disabled list) for something so small and stupid. We can just let it be now.”
Keeping his finger quiet, though, is an ongoing process. Hahn said he’s still on the pickle juice treatment, “When I get the time to, at least.”
In the past, when he’d notice the skin of his fingers getting rough, “I’ll take a nail file and just file it down a little bit and make it smooth,” to prevent a blister forming.
Is the pickle juice working?
“It’s not something I can tell the difference right away,” Hahn said. “I’ve heard some people soak their fingers in vinegar. Who knows what’s the right way. All I know is it can’t hurt it anymore.”
A’s bullpen coach Scott Emerson, who pitched for six seasons in the minors, swears by pickle juice, saying it “stings you out real quick, kind of dries it up, and moisturizes it at the same time.” Emerson said he dealt with a lot of blisters and also regularly dunked his hand in a bucket of rice, hoping to extract excess moisture.
“Pitchers always have the baseball in their hand and there’s always maintenance going on with your fingertips, whether you file them down, use an emery board, or you’re trying to glue your finger back together,” Emerson said.
“You put a lot of pressure on one finger, you develop a blood blister; now it gets into the nail and you’re looking at treating their nails. You see a lot of guys getting fake nails.”
Gripping a fastball across the seams helps pitchers control its spin and location, so the challenge for many is the maintenance Emerson described and simply trying to toughen the skin – which isn’t always enough.
“(Hahn) had a good callus,” Emerson said. “But with the friction of rubbing the callus, underneath the callus became the blister.”
The good news, Hahn said Tuesday, was that after a period of rest his finger was “a lot better.” His return is also good for the A’s: Hahn has a 2.12 ERA in his first three starts, and the man who replaced him in the rotation last week, Jesse Chavez, is now starting in place of Kendall Graveman, who was optioned to Triple-A Nashville.
“New skin’s grown in, it’s toughened up a good bit,” Hahn said of his finger. “Hopefully it stays that way.”