Get a Grip

Can MLB find a more uniform way for pitchers to develop a satisfactory grip? (via Jason Alley & Michelle Jay)

Consider the brief lifespan of a baseball in the majors: After a cursory glance from an umpire and some coddling from the pitcher, the baseball sees a handful of pitches before it is retired. This brief appearance belies the amount of preparation that takes place to get a baseball into game-ready condition for its oh-so-short career.

Much has been written about the use of Lena Blackburne Original Baseball Rubbing Mud for preparing baseballs for a game. The mystique surrounding the process of rubbing this magic mud onto new baseballs dovetails nicely with romantic aspects of the sport, even if we aren’t gripping those baseballs ourselves, while also having a practical element. A new and shiny baseball is an affront to a pitcher; rubbing up a baseball allows the pitcher to be a bit more deceptive by making the ball more difficult to see. But more importantly, it adds a gritty, tacky quality that gives the pitcher an easier grip for control of the ball.

But let’s be honest: The inconsistencies and unpredictability behind this longstanding tradition also add to our frustration. The timing of the application and the amount that is applied varies enormously from ballpark to ballpark. This is noticeable both in terms of the appearance of the ball, which has implications in a hitter’s ability to see the ball, and the feel of the ball, which can lead to variance in a pitcher’s control. Underlying this is the concern for safety, as a slick ball slipping out of a pitcher’s hand at a high velocity can have devastating consequences.

Commissioner Rob Manfred and others have agreed that it’s time to find a new, MLB-sanctioned substance that can provide improved tackiness to the surface of the ball. In fact, it has been reported that MLB and Rawlings, the official manufacturer of professional baseballs since 1975, already have undertaken this research. Their prototypes, both in the form of a spray-on substance to be applied before game time as well as an entirely new baseball, were first tested in the Arizona Fall League in 2016. A Rawlings executive said, “We’ve got several formulations that are being tanned into the leather, and there’s another process where we’re spraying it on the leather.”

Since this is still in the early stages of research and development, little has been disclosed about the makeup of these new substances and new baseballs (although it’s probably safe to assume it’s something that is more amenable to quality control than a bucket of mud from the Delaware River). So before we speculate about what a new, approved substance might be, let’s take a closer look at the substances currently in use.

The chemical composition of Lena Blackburne Original Baseball Rubbing Mud has been characterized using X-ray diffraction, X-ray fluorescence, and plasma spectroscopy. Lena Blackburne mud is a mixture of various minerals, as well as quartz sand, silt, and clay:

The sand allows for the gritty texture, and is responsible for most of the ‘roughening’ effect (like liquid sandpaper). The clay content is the very tiny particles, most of which is likely responsible for the ‘dirty’ color left on the ball, working somewhat like pigment. The silt fraction, between the clay and sand size (all of these are very small particles), is likely providing most of the bulk of the mud, and provides a ‘matrix’ to carry the sand; a combination of the silt and clay gives the ‘slick’ feel, and lubricates the action of the sand.”

Lena Blackburne Original Baseball Rubbing Mud gives the ball grittiness and mitigates the glossy look of the ball, but the
ball is still a bit slick. Players note that when the baseballs have been rubbed up too far in advance, or in a dry atmosphere, they tend to dry out before they are put into use. And we know moisture–such as from a players’ spit–can reactivate the tacky feel of the ball. The difference between a ball covered in dirt and a ball covered in mud is simply moisture.

Turning again to the chemical analysis of Lena Blackburne mud, the matrix formed by the mixture of silt and clay is of interest for our purposes today. Anyone who has dabbled–literally–in ceramics understands clay has plasticity when wet. Clay has physical properties that change given the level of water held within its matrix, and a dry silt and clay mixture can be restored to a more plastic material with the addition of water. In more scientific terms, “Plasticity in clay systems is the result of the attraction and repulsion forces set up between the colloidal clay particles and the ions in the dispersion medium.”

In other words, the “matrix” carrying the sand is composed of colloidal particles of clay, and these colloidal particles become more plastic when they have more charges to associate with, such as salts in water. So that Lena Blackburne Original Baseball Rubbing Mud is actually a clever way of delivering grit and sand, using a clay-based matrix to carry said grit and sand.

And here’s where we turn to a different clay–Clay Buchholz. As you may recall, Buchholz unwittingly became an advocate for skin cancer prevention, going so far as to wear Bullfrog sunscreen even when he’s indoors. Regardless of whether sunscreen should be worn when it’s overcast or on a cold day (note: always wear sunscreen!), Buchholz’s application of sunscreen on his forearm is no different from any other pitcher’s use of sunscreen. It’s well known to serve as a substance to provide improved tackiness to the ball.

The combination of Bullfrog spray-on sunscreen and rosin is the not-so-secret weapon in the pitcher’s arsenal, readily available to anyone in a major league dugout: “Sunscreen and rosin could be used as foundation for houses,” one American League pitcher said. “Produces a tack, glue-like substance that engineers would be jealous of.” What is in this combination of Bullfrog spray-on sunscreen and rosin that could be providing this extra tackiness?

Although we generally refer to the combination of sunscreen and rosin, it’s not the sunscreen compounds per se that is responsible for the tackiness of this concoction. Instead, it’s the carriers used to formulate the product that are forming this “glue-like substance.” While lotions or gels can achieve the same results, Bullfrog spray-on sunscreen seems to be the product of choice–although it’s difficult to say whether this is due to the partnership between MLB and Bullfrog; the clear, colorless, subtle sheen provided by the spray-on formula; or if there is some particular ingredient in Bullfrog spray-on sunscreen that provides a better grip than other spray-on sunscreens.

The most readily available Bullfrog spray-on sunscreen, now that Bullfrog Marathon Mist and Bullfrog Sport Dri have been discontinued, is Bullfrog Land Sport. All three products generally comprise sunscreen compounds as their active ingredients, but what catches the eye are the inactive ingredients, specifically, the acrylates/octylacrylamide copolymer. All three products use acrylates/octylacrylamide copolymer, which is a waterproof film-forming agent found in many spray-on sunscreens.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Bullfrog Land Sport also has dimethyl capramide, an emulsion stabilizer, and glycerin and propylene glycol–poly-hydroxyl compounds (polyols) that function as humectants, wicking water away–and alcohol. Although alcohol makes up the bulk of the product, it simply makes the formula amenable to spraying while evaporating away quickly, leaving behind our polymer, moisture-wicking agents, and skin emollients.

While this alone probably would provide some amount of tackiness, the pitchers specifically cite the combination of Bullfrog and rosin. While rosin, derived from tree sap, comprises a number of organic terpene and terpenoid compounds, a major component of rosin is abietic acid, which is a weak acid, and abietic acid esters. Abietic acid and abietates are known plasticizers, used to soften polymers. Indeed, rosin and its derivatives are “one of the most common tackifiers in the industry” and are commonly used with acrylic polymers and other pressure sensitive adhesives.

I would be remiss not to consider rosin’s close cousin pine tar in a discussion of grip-enhancing substances. While rosin is found in a bag on the pitcher’s mound, pine tar is found on a rag near the on-deck circle. Batters rub this pine tar-infused rag onto their bat in order to achieve a better grip on the bat. Inevitably, pine tar is transferred to batting gloves and helmets, but it’s also very dirty.

There are a number of grip-enhancing sprays that are designed specifically for use in batting gloves and provide an enhanced grip and a cleaner feel. One such commercially available grip-enhancing spray is Grip Boost. Grip Boost is a spray-on product comprising a chitosan-based polymer, a plasticizer, and a volatile alcohol (which solubilizes the chitosan polymer and also evaporates after application). The chitosan-based polymer has been functionalized with a hydrophobic, i.e., water repellant, moiety.

When applied to a surface such as a batting glove, this spray dries into a film that provides a tacky feel. Much like the Bullfrog-and-rosin combination, Grip Boost uses a weak acid as a plasticizer. The plasticizer disrupts any hydrogen bonds that might form within the chitosan-based polymer as it dries. By disrupting the formation of hydrogen bonds, the plasticizer keeps the film soft and tacky.

So the new grip-enhancing spray-on substances most likely comprise a film-forming polymer; a plasticizer, to keep the polymer tacky; and a volatile solvent. But as noted by both the players who used the experimental baseballs and the producers of commercially available grip-enhancing spray-on substances, these products wear off fairly quickly. A formula that would last through multiple pitches would be preferable. It has been reported that Rawlings has been developing an entirely new baseball, not just spray-on grip enhancers, and MLB acknowledges that fresh-out-of-the-bag balls need some sort of treatment, currently in the form of Lena Blackburne Original Baseball Rubbing Mud. What if you could just open a bag of balls and it would be ready to go, no mud necessary?

Not only have other people thought of that, but they’ve actually done it in Japan. Both pitchers and scouts who are familiar with NPB acknowledge baseballs in Japan have noticeable differences compared to the MLB baseballs. The baseballs in Japan are smaller, but more pertinent to the discussion at hand, they have a tackier feel to them right out of the bag.

The problem has been solved in Japan. There, the balls are manufactured with a tacky feel to them and no doctoring is needed.

“Red Sox closer Koji Uehara brought a Japanese ball to Fenway Park and tossed it to the reporter to inspect. The difference was noticeable.

“’It took me a while to adjust when I came to the majors,’ Uehara said with the assistance of translator C.J. Matsumoto. ‘Rosin is not enough to get a good grip.’

It was not until 2011 that Mizuno became the official baseball of NPB. Prior to that, players were able to select from a number of different baseballs. Naturally, pitchers were more likely to favor a ball that provided a better grip. And because there was room for competition in the baseball market, manufacturers had more incentives to innovate around the design of the baseball itself to achieve a tackier baseball preferred by pitchers. But even after NPB adopted Mizuno as the exclusive manufacturer of its standard baseball, the ball remained different from the Rawlings baseball.

The consensus, though, of many scouts and players who have played in both leagues is the Japanese ball is slightly smaller and has a sticky property. Unlike the Japanese ball, the American baseball, which usually comes out of a plastic wrapper, has an almost powder-like quality when fresh out of its wrapper. This quality is the reason why every player or umpire “rubs up” the baseball with dirt or mud before use. The Japanese ball is game-ready and has a better grip. This quality can make the ball easier to control and manipulate, especially with its smaller size.

While the details behind these Japanese baseballs are undisclosed, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility to simply incorporate one of the newer grip-enhancing materials into the leather treatment process. There are a number of batting gloves and receiving gloves that feature an enhanced grip by way of a functionalized silicone polymer. Adhering a grip-enhancing polymer onto another polymer, such as a silicone palm of a glove, is one thing; adhering a grip-enhancing polymer to a leather surface presents different challenges. A chemical engineer from Grip Boost noted that incorporating tacky materials into the leather treatment process is not as simple. Leather has a textured and naturally porous surface, which makes thin-film formation challenging. Adding the components of the grip-enhancing sprays to leather is not as simple as the spray-on formulas.

The process of treating leather, tanning, is vastly different from the process used to simply adhere or absorb a polymer onto a silicone surface. Tanning generally refers to the conversion of the collagen proteins of animal skin into leather. The process displaces water molecules in the collagen proteins and replaces them with a tanning agent, such as tannin molecules or mineral compounds. One could envision replacing these tannin molecules with a molecule that has been functionalized with a polymer that would provide additional tackiness.

There is precedent for making grip-enhanced leathers. (Some examples: Wilson Sporting Goods has U.S. Patent 5,069,935, for waterproofing leather for making footballs. There is also U.S. Patent 4,689,832, for creating a partially de-tackified leather containing nitrocellulose and silicone resins.) It just so happens that there is a particular tannery whose products are well known in the sporting industry, Horween Leather Company. Their proprietary leather tanning process is used for products varying from shoes and belts to baseball mitts and footballs. In fact, the NFL uses footballs manufactured from Horween. Although the tanning process is a trade secret, a Horween spokesperson spoke with The New York Times about Horween leathers and footballs:

Mentally, people get the image that if it’s shiny, it must be slippery. And the fact of the matter is, if you shine it up, it actually gets tackier,” Mr. Horween said, taking out a brush and ball to demonstrate. After a few buffs, he let a reporter feel the difference. Indeed, tackiness prevailed. Enough to generate squeaks and make this reporter’s small hands grip the ball sufficiently to possibly go medium, if not long.

Football is played in hot weather and cold, wet conditions and dry, but Mr. Horween said no accommodations were made for weather differences because the balls must be perfectly uniform.

Due to a recent change in N.F.L. rules, quarterbacks are now allowed to practice with game balls beginning in midweek before each game, as long as the balls meet the standard of a new ball when presented to the referee on game day. Each quarterback has his own ritual of conditioning, many of them secret, league observers said.

“Everybody’s got his own formula,” Mr. Horween said. Jay Cutler’s hands are so big, he said, that all he needs is a simple brushup on the ball and he is good to go.

Mr. Horween said that many of the more extensive conditioning methods, including moisture, mineral oil and solvents to dissolve wax, were hurting more than helping by stripping the football of waxes that enhance its grip.

Horween Leather Company has developed a process for creating a leather with increased tackiness. Horween’s process has been used in the leather used to make Grip-Tite footballs since 1955. “Tanned in Tack”® is a proprietary finishing process that provides a leather with “a tacky feel that makes the ball easier to grip, especially when wet.”

Could it simply be a matter of modifying the Grip-Tite material used in football for use in baseball? If that’s the case…well, Horween’s Chicago factory is notoriously tight-lipped regarding the trade secrets involved in the tranning and production process for its athletic clients. It would not be all that difficult for Rawlings simply to use a variant of Horween’s Tanned-in-Tack leather to make baseballs for MLB. After all, Horween has been supplying Rawlings with leather since 1929 for use in baseball gloves.

However, using leather with built-in tackiness will not be a cure-all. Even with the Tanned-in-Tack leather, football players still condition the balls. It seems that adding additional substances is one tradition that will not go slowly into the night. But with the development of new baseballs with built-in tackiness, MLB is at least moving toward a more consistent ball, one that will not experience as much variance due to a heavy hand of mud in the clubhouse. Perhaps we can reduce the number of grip-enhancing substances that are used. It’s also worth considering that the new surface of the built-in-tack baseballs may require rethinking any grip enhancers, as the Bullfrog-and-rosin mixture may not be compatible with the new baseballs.

It appears inevitable that additional approved grip-enhancing substances and enhanced-grip baseballs will be coming to MLB in the future. However, as with any new technology introduced into a sport that loves to adhere to tradition, it’s unlikely these new additions will be welcomed without resistance. But given the secrecy surrounding Rawlings and MLB’s experiments, we may never know what the new grip-enhancing materials are. Maybe it’s for the best; even with a new ball that doesn’t require Lena Blackburne’s touch, we still can retain an air of mystery around the game.

References & Resources

Stephanie Springer is an organic chemist turned patent examiner. Follow her on Twitter @stephaniekays.
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Jetsy Extrano
6 years ago

Materials chemistry in baseball! Love the article.