Jake Arrieta did not look very sharp during Thursday evening’s anticipated matchup with Madison Bumgarner and the Giants on ESPN. The Cubs ace exited after only one-third of an inning, having allowed 5 earned runs on 4 hits and 2 walks. I made some snarky jokes on Twitter about pulling him before his confidence was ruined, but I got legitimately worried when it actually came to fruition. As we learned shortly after he was removed from the game, however, it wasn’t a matter of protecting his fragile ego, but of a blister on his thumb.
The results of the outing don’t worry me, but the blister can definitely be cause for concern. This isn’t the first time a pitcher has dealt with such an issue and it may end up being nothing, but for someone with Arrieta’s nasty stuff even the slightest change in touch and feel could significantly impact performance.
It’s not uncommon for a pitcher to develop a blister or blisters during Spring Training as he re-acclimates to the stresses of throwing regularly, though it’s possible for the irritation to persist into the season. That, more than the results of his performance, is what led Joe Maddon to give Arrieta the early hook. With nothing on the line in this game, the real focus needs to be on dealing with the blister and preventing it from becoming a bigger problem.
And if you’re thinking, “What’s the big deal? It’s just a blister,” I would like to direct you to one Josh Beckett. While he had various other injuries over the course of a roller-coaster career, Beckett was forced to the DL on seven separate occasions due to pitching blisters. He missed 80 games in the 2002 season alone and at least 60 more between ’04, ’05, and ’07. That’s, uh, not good.
While he didn’t have to spend extended time on the shelf, C.J. Wilson faced his own blister issues during the 2010 season. In order to keep himself ready to take the mound every fifth day, Wilson estimated that he spent 10-15 hours a week on finger care. Mike Sielski detailed the extensive regimen in the Wall Street Journal as the pitcher was competing with the Rangers in the 2010 World Series.
“It’s painful, and it’s just a weird thing. It affects your control,” said Wilson, who led the American League this season with 93 walks. “Honestly, I feel like if I didn’t have the blister issue for the whole year, like, I would have pitched much better. …
“It’s centrally located, right at the sweet spot of my fingertip, so it’s right at the end of the nerve. It’s how you feel the ball. When the ball comes off your hand, it’s the last part the ball touches.”
Blisters are a hazard of the job that pitchers have been dealing with for ages. There were Red Sox fans who vowed never to forgive Roger Clemens for leaving Game 6 of the 1986 World Series because of blister issues. (The Sox’s 2004 and 2007 championships may have mitigated that grudge against Clemens–may have.) Nolan Ryan, now the Rangers’ president, had them often in his 27-year pitching career and in spring training showed Wilson how to use a razor blade to shave away skin from the damaged area of Wilson’s finger.
In addition to shaving the blister, Wilson coats it in superglue, smears ointment on it, soaks it in iodine and a low-pH solution to prevent infections, and runs a LiteCure laser over the area to promote skin growth. As a teenager, he said, he once ripped off his entire fingerprint, and he has to be careful even now not to worsen the blister whenever he tends to it.
“The glue can create another issue. It all becomes one big piece and it tears off like a sheet,” he said. “Then you’re left with a stubby, flat finger, which is not good.
“If we get a TV timeout and I can get six minutes to drain it, dry it, glue it, then maybe [he can continue pitching], but it takes while. It’s not like there’s a magic”—and here, he made a whirring sound—“and it just is done.”
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Kerry Wood, whose frequent blisters were overshadowed by more severe arm issues. But the hard-throwing Texan went to the DL in 2008 (which resulted in Jeff Samardzija’s initial call-up and Carlos Marmol’s first real run as closer), ’10, and ’11 in order to deal with lingering irritation to his bird-flipper. Those instances all came during his tenure as a reliever, but Wood was also pulled relatively early from a 2002 start with a blister.
Most of the aforementioned pitchers’ problems occurred on their respective middle fingers, which, along with the index, is a very common spot for pitching blisters. The thumb isn’t as prone to such issues, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less significant. After all, it’s that opposable digit that separates us from less-civilized creatures by enabling us to grasp tools and send text messages. Given that the tool of Arrieta’s trade is a baseball, anything that affects his grip of it in the slightest is kinda-sorta important.
There are any number of remedies for blisters, ranging from those mentioned in the Wilson article above to more apocryphal treatments like pickle juice, antiperspirant, Stan’s Rodeo Ointment, and a certain yellow liquid secreted by the kidneys (known colloquially as piss). Maybe the Cubs can bring Moises Alou in as a special instructor/director of folk medicine for the duration of Spring Training. Wait, does R. Kelly still live in Chicago?
If there’s any good news in all this it’s that we’re talking about a player in Jake Arrieta who is as in tune with his body as perhaps anyone in baseball. His fitness regimen has been well documented and you can rest assured he’ll put the same tireless care into making sure his thumb is just as fit as his core. So while you’d probably rather see a blister on someone else’s hand, I can’t think of better hands to have it in. Wait, what?
I guess what I’m trying to say is that this could be a big deal but that it isn’t yet. We’ll just have to wait and see how the situation develops and whether it persists into the regular season. Arrieta’s got 10 days to get right before the Cubs start playing real games, so here’s to hoping he can stay on the mound in Anaheim for more than one out.