No batting gloves: Is it superstition, science … or something much simpler?

Whether you credit longtime major leaguer Bobby Thomson — who is most famous for his Shot Heard Round the World — for first wearing batting gloves, or whether you remember the more iconic appearance of Mickey Mantle wearing a single white glove in a 1960 episode of “Home Run Derby” as the start of the trend, it’s common knowledge by now that a high percentage of pro baseball players wear batting gloves.

There are a few no-gloved hitters out there, however, and when asked why they don’t wear them, the answers usually include some blend of superstition and mechanical explanation. While we could easily dismiss both of those replies as ballplayers just being ballplayers, it does hit upon the interesting relationship ballplayers have with their psyche (superstition) and hands (mechanics).

Let’s take a closer at both sides of the explanation.

Superstition

Like high socks, dirty underwear or other superstitions, batting gloves are often put on or taken off according to on-field results. “I sucked and I wasn’t playing,” Oakland Athletics catcher Stephen Vogt said succinctly of the moment he decided to stop wearing gloves.

Houston Astros rookie Preston Tucker has the longer version of the same story. “I was in the Cape Cod League in college in my sophomore year, and I was struggling pretty bad,” the Astros outfielder remembered. “I had worn gloves my whole life. I took a round of batting practice without them, and said, ‘Hey, that feels all right.’ I got a couple hits, then the next game got a couple hits, and we were in the playoffs, so until the season ended, I was getting a couple hits a day, and I thought I’d just ride it out. The next year in college, just lost ’em.”

The body of psychology research on superstitions is rather large. The most-cited study might be from Shana Wilson at Kent State, who found that superstitions allow fans to believe they can assert some control over outcomes. There’s some element here that’s true for the players, at least in their heads. It looks like players that have a stronger sense of control over their own results have fewer superstitions, which makes sense even if those results have been challenged.

Though there is a calming benefit to superstition, there’s a negative side to it, possibly. In a description of the Locus of Control, a concept that describes how we link results to internal processes, there’s an interesting description of people with an external Locus.

With such beliefs, people with an external locus of control tend to be fatalistic, seeing things as happening to them and that there is little they can do about it. This tends to make them more passive and accepting. When they succeed, they are more likely to attribute this to luck than their own efforts. They are less likely to have expectancy shifts, seeing similar events as likely to have similar outcomes. They hence step back from events, assuming they cannot make a difference.

That last sentence could be seen as a strong negative for an athlete, of course; you want your favorite players to believe they have a high sense of power regarding a result and to not step back from events. You want them to perhaps focus on changing things that matter instead of changing their socks, shoes, underwear or batting gloves.

The key question, then, is whether there is a tangible difference between the two approaches. Does ditching the batting gloves actually mean something mechanically?

The mechanics

GattisHand

“I feel the bat better,” says Evan Gattis, who doesn’t mind the calluses on his hand (above). “Spring sucks, it takes a bit, but I don’t like gloves, and always haven’t,” he told me before a game with the Athletics. Even teammate Tucker says he now “can’t feel the bat when he goes back” and that he has “better bat control” now. The Giants’ Hunter Pence uses one glove, but also said it was about control and feeling.

This isn’t superstition talking, maybe. The hand is a very important… organ. From The Sensory Hand, here’s an important passage about what humans can feel with their hands.

The fingers and hand are capable of resolving differences of ∼10% in curved objects; differences of 4–5° in orientated objects; differences of 2–3 mm in stimuli moving in the same direction and differences of ∼14° in their orientations. Vibratory stimuli with amplitudes as small as 0.01 μm at 300 Hz can be detected and we can discriminate 2–3 Hz differences at base frequencies of 20–40 Hz.

The hand is impressive in what it can sense. Four to five degrees of difference in an angle is tiny — take a look. Three millimeters of difference in a moving object is one tenth of an inch! And those vibrations — a hundreth of a micrometer is smaller than a typical virus particle, or 1/100000000 meters, or 1/10000 the size of a typical human hair, and it’s vibrating 300 times a second — those vibrations are comparable to feeling a fly vibrating nearby.

Is it a stretch to say that a gloved hand may not feel that small difference in angle as well? The vibratory perception has to be lower with something in between your hand and the vibration, and that’s an important part of the things you learn from your bat while at the plate.

We don’t have a great control group here, since most no-glovers have used gloves their whole career, and most glovers have kept them on. But since ‘feel’ and ‘bat control’ the most-cited benefit, perhaps we can look at the contact rates for the guys with gloves versus the league averages. Could the no-glovers benefit from higher contact rates due to better bat control?

Using lists culled from twitter, MLB.com, reddit, and our own Jim Caple’s excellent piece on the subject, I put together a list of 18 players that don’t wear gloves. Here’s how they faired against the league average on some key stats.

2015 MLB Stats for Batting Gloves Versus No Gloves
K% swSTR% Zone Contact %
No-Glovers 20.9% 9.7% 85.9%
League 20.3% 9.8% 86.8%
SOURCE: FanGraphs.com
No-Glovers: 18 players not wearing batting gloves this year.
League: Full league averages.
swSTR% = Swinging strike rate, or whiffs/pitches
Zone Contact% = whiffs/pitches in the zone

It’s tempting to point to the better contact rates, since even a .1% change in contact rates, over the course of a season, could mean over 200 fewer whiffs. But a sample of this size means that we can’t put much stock in a difference this small.

Even stories like the one from Prince Fielder and Kendrys Morales and Bryce Harper can’t be much help here. Harper has had some luck without them early in the season, but has alternated since — sometimes in the middle of a plate appearance. Fielder currently has the second-best strikeout rate of his career and has put away the gloves for a big part of this year. Kendrys Morales took his gloves off last week… right before his three-homer game in Detroit. But Morales has taken them off and put them back on again before, and Fielder wore a glove Tuesday night in Oakland, where it was cold.

And that fact — that weather plays a role in the decision — might really help us put this debate in focus. It’s a matter of equipment, and finding the right equipment for the moment.

For instance, Vogt uses pine tar on his hands to get a good grip without batting gloves, so he uses gloves in batting practice because he doesn’t want to “get sticky twice.” Tucker likes not using the gloves, but has to wrap two of his fingers with tape because of persistent blisters. Pence wears a batting glove on the bottom hand because “you can put pine tar on it and get a good grip, and it takes kind of a beating when you swing.”

Astros outfielder Colby Rasmus, who has decided not to wear batting gloves this year, provides the most clarity regarding the use of batting gloves, hitting all facets of the argument in one explanation. “I was on the bench one day in Texas,” Rasmus said, “and I left my batting gloves in the clubhouse, and they said, ‘You’re hitting,’ so I said, well, I’ll do it without ’em. I hit a home run against Neftali Feliz. [Then] I’m going to go with it.” There’s the superstition.

Rasmus continued: “I like the feel. I feel like I use my hands well without batting gloves, and they get real sweaty down here in Houston and you rip ’em and they tear. You don’t have to worry about that with no gloves.” There’s the mechanical explanation.

And finally, “But when it’s cold, it’s not the best thing in the world and you want gloves.”

Right there, in one place, we have the closest thing we’ll get to our answer. Is it superstition? Yes. Rasmus was thrust into a moment without gloves and succeeded, so he decided to continue without them. Is it about the mechanics? Sure, for some players. Rasmus likes the feel of not wearing batting gloves, especially ones that keep ripping.

But in the end, it’s a simple equipment decision, just like a hitter deciding to put on an elbow or leg guard to hit, or a fielder getting a bigger or smaller glove. Granted, it’s an equipment decision that can say a lot about the player, his mental makeup and the way he plays the game, but it’s still nothing more than an equipment decision.

We hoped you liked reading No batting gloves: Is it superstition, science … or something much simpler? by Eno Sarris!

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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