MLB Hitters and Batting Gloves: A Love Story
Few items of sporting equipment are as disposable as batting gloves. But don’t mistake their impermanence for a lack of importance.
By Zach Buchanan
Reporting from Phoenix
One day this month, Jake McCarthy, an outfielder for the Arizona Diamondbacks, slid open a large drawer inside his locker and attempted a quick accounting of its contents. Inside, piled haphazardly on top of one another, were several boxes of Franklin batting gloves.
“I get eight boxes of batting gloves” to start the season, McCarthy said, and each contains six pairs of gloves. That’s 48 sets of gloves for a campaign that lasts roughly 27 weeks. What remains in that drawer represents the final third of his supply, and by the end of this season, they’ll most likely all be gone. Under normal circumstances, one pair of gloves can last McCarthy around 10 games.
Swapping them out is easy. After all, since making the majors two years ago, he has not had to pay for a single pair.
McCarthy is hardly a star — in fact, the Diamondbacks recently optioned him to the minor leagues — but he’s accustomed to the good life of the majors. When it comes to batting gloves, the big leagues are the land of plenty. Almost every big-league hitter has an endorsement deal with a glove manufacturer that provides them with more free gloves than they can shake a 34-ounce bat at.
That’s good because, boy, do they go through them. Other than the ball, which no player really owns, no piece of baseball equipment is as fungible as a pair of batting gloves. Many hitters go through them like Tic Tacs, in no small part because the supply is inexhaustible. The instant a pair shows any sign of imperfection — a loosening grip, a minor tear or, heaven forbid, a cold streak at the plate — they’re gone in favor of a crisp replacement.
“We’re so spoiled,” McCarthy said. “You go 0 for 5 or something and you’re like: ‘It’s not me. It’s the batting gloves.’”
Among major-league hitters, batting glove peccadilloes run the gamut. McCarthy can’t stand when his start to feel sweaty, while James Outman, a rookie outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers, is bothered when the palms of his gloves begin to stretch. For Juan Soto, a star outfielder for the San Diego Padres, it’s often about wrist tightness. “You start feeling the strap is getting longer and longer,” Soto said, leading to frequent between-pitch adjustments. And for just about every hitter, a hard slide into a base often means a ripped pair of gloves.
Perhaps no player changes his gloves as often as Garrett Cooper, a first baseman acquired by San Diego at the trading deadline. On average, he goes through a pair every two days. His issue isn’t grip loss or stretching but crunchiness. He covers his hands with sticky spray before stuffing them into his gloves, and it isn’t long before they have stiffened like a metal gauntlet. When the leather begins to crack, he calls Franklin to re-up.
“They probably hate when I ask for another order,” he said, “because it seems like they send me one out every few weeks.”
Glove manufacturers don’t really mind. It’s good business to keep even the most persnickety of big-league batters flush with supply. That has been the case for 40 years, ever since the introduction of Franklin’s first glove built specifically for gripping a bat. That glove, Franklin’s Pro Classic, was designed in 1983 in consultation with the Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt. Hitters had tried wearing gloves before — Ken Harrelson is often credited with starting the practice in the 1960s by using a golf glove, although there are earlier instances of gloved experimentation — but soon after the Pro Classic’s introduction, nearly every hitter was wearing Franklin gloves.
Franklin has been the official batting glove of Major League Baseball since 1988 and still has a stranglehold on the big-league market. Of the roughly 400 hitters on opening day rosters this year, Franklin’s president, Adam Franklin, says that 250 wear his company’s gloves. Franklin has deals with another 450 players who began the year in the minors. And while the company offers a variety of models, some costing $40 or more for retail shoppers, many players are wearing gloves that are functionally identical to the pair Schmidt introduced.
Other companies have gotten into the game over the years. The biggest sporting goods companies — Nike, Adidas, Under Armour — make batting gloves and have a presence in the majors. So do boutique outfits like Lizard Skins and Bruce Bolt, the latter started in 2017 by a then-16-year-old Texas high schooler. Some players have hopped on board with those newer gloves, but many prefer to stick with what has become familiar. Kiké Hernández, the versatile utility player, is an example. He spent a year being paid well to endorse Lizard Skins before switching back to his trusty old Franklins.
“I decided that I wasn’t going to switch brands for money,” Hernández said. “I’d rather make the money on the field.”
Hernández spoke a week after being traded back to the Dodgers following more than two years with the Boston Red Sox, a change that meant he needed a resupply of Dodgers-colored batting gloves. And if anything has changed over the four decades that batting gloves have ruled the sport, it is the advent of the batting glove as a fashion statement. An initial offering of just a few colors has blossomed to every shade on the spectrum.
There are color schemes for every team’s uniform set. Bright neon colors are all the rage, a trend that Adam Franklin traces back to the Red Sox slugger David Ortiz wearing gloves with bright yellow piping during the 2013 World Series — though Rickey Henderson, way ahead of his time on so many things, wore neon green Mizuno gloves while leading the Oakland Athletics to the 1989 World Series. There are also pink gloves for Mother’s Day and powder blue ones for Father’s Day, as well as special sets for Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Jackie Robinson Day and Roberto Clemente Day. Most of those are worn for one game only, although they may make nongame appearances.
“You’ll see me with some exotic batting gloves on in batting practice,” McCarthy said, “not necessarily for the swag purposes.”
The supply of gloves may be abundant — “If there was an issue,” McCarthy said, “I feel like there would be a new box in my locker within 48 hours” — but players actually do try to make them last. Many of them have a pair for batting practice and a pair for the game, a rotation necessary to keep both pairs fresh and dry. Luis Gonzalez, whose single won the 2001 World Series for Arizona, would hang his gloves in front of a dugout fan between at-bats. Other hitters take preventive measures. San Francisco’s Robby Thompson and Will Clark would hermetically seal their gloves in freezer bags between games to prevent degradation.
“They’d pull them out the next day,” said Matt Williams, a former Giants infielder and current Padres coach, “and they were still soft.”
Most hitters have no qualms about ditching a pair of gloves the second they lose a step, but a few remain who ride with a pair until the treads are bald. Breaking in a new pair means blisters to Corbin Carroll, a rookie sensation for the Diamondbacks, so he goes through a season wearing only three or four pairs, which means using them until they’re threadbare. “I get crap about it all the time,” he said. Superstition leads others to hold on to theirs. There are grip and fit, and then there are results.
“If I like the pair and the pair is getting hits,” Hernández said, “the pair is going to be worn for a while.”
But one tear, Hernández says, and even the most productive pair of gloves lands in the trash can, a fate that highlights the essential paradox of a good batting glove. It must grip well and be durable, but it also must be light and offer what Franklin calls the feel of a “second skin.” (There are still a few gloveless players, like Matt Carpenter of the San Diego Padres, who prefer the first skin, their own, but they are vanishingly few.) Good gloves also must move as the hand does while remaining tight around it.
There have been technological advancements since the Pro Classic. Bruce Bolt hypes the unique stitching it uses around the wrist, as well their gloves’ long and compression wrap-like wrist straps, a feature Franklin has also recently incorporated. Later this year, Franklin will introduce gloves with built-in guards for the back of the hand, and Adam Franklin says 2024 will bring “some more unique designs happening with wrist compression and fit and feel.”
Players will always seek any slight performance edge they can gain, but it’s unlikely that any innovation will significantly reduce churn. If pitchers know they’ve reached the show when every baseball is a flawless white pearl, and learn to blithely toss it aside at the appearance of any minor scuff, then hitters have the same realization when it comes to their batting gloves. As unpaid amateurs and poorly paid farmhands, they had to make them last. But when you can routinely stuff a new pair in your pockets without the money for them coming out, you know you’ve made it.
“When you’re the big-leaguer making all the money,” Gonzalez said, “that’s when you get all the free stuff.”