Hamate bone injury – What is it and is it preventable?

Kyle Farmer, a Dodger rookie catcher in the Advanced A Pioneer League in 2013, has already experienced some of the major challenges of baseball beyond the biggest challenge of all – trying to hit a round ball less than three inches in diameter traveling upwards on 90 MPH with a round bat. Add to that the fact that he played his entire college career as a shortstop but was drafted by the Dodgers and spent his first season in professional baseball at an entirely different position – as a catcher.

In 2010, as a hard hitting and strong defensive shortstop with the University of Georgia Bulldogs, Farmer had another experience similar – one identical to that of Evan Longoria, Nick Markakis, Dustin Pedroia, Mike Zunino, Troy Tulowitzki, Pablo Sandoval, Ken Griffey Jr., Jim Thome, Gordon Beckham, Tony Gwynn Jr. and a number of other major league players – Farmer broke the hamate bone in his left hand. And as it often seems to happen, he broke the bone on a simple swing and miss.

A hamate injury is relatively common in baseball, tennis and golf. (Image courtesy of msdlatinamerica.com)

A hamate bone injury is relatively common in baseball, softball, tennis and golf.
(Image courtesy of msdlatinamerica.com)

Farmer missed fifteen games in his freshman year as a result of the injury but was able to return to action more quickly than usual. The hamate bone injury usually sidelines players from four to six weeks but Farmer was able to returned to action after being out only three weeks.

The hamate bone injury is relatively common but somewhat overlooked. It does not garner the publicity of hamstring and groin injuries that are so prevalent among the ranks of major league baseball players. Perhaps the reason is that the hamate bone injury is more easily correctable and although the effects can linger for some time they aren’t chronic in nature.

The injury is most prevalent with athletes that participate in sports that involve the swinging of a bat, a racket or a club such as baseball, softball, tennis and golf. The hamate bone is part of the wrist structure and sits at the base of the palm below the little finger. The bone has a small hook that projects toward the palm that adds leverage to the grip. The bone is small and apparently susceptible to stress, and because of its location, an injury to it may be difficult to detect. However, the excruciating pain associated with the injury is more than enough to diagnose the nature of the injury.

The positioning of the hand on the bat, club or racket means they rest against the hook of the hamate. In the case of the baseball bat, Farmer’s left hand is against the knob of the bat. On a powerful swing, hit or miss, the hook takes the full force of his swing. How great is that force? Here’s what I found from hypertextbook.com:

The batter exerts some 6000-8000 pounds of force on the ball. This force is required to change a 5 1/8th-ounce ball from a speed of 90 mph to a speed of 110 mph, this distorts the baseball to half its original diameter and the bat is compressed one fiftieth of it’s size. At the same time, the knob of the bat is compressing the part of the batter’s hand that rests against it, including the somewhat fragile hamate bone.

Farmer returned to play more quickly than most major league players do after suffering a hamate injury. The usual treatment for the injury means removing the bone, the option chosen by Farmer. Orthopedic surgeon John Seiler at the Atlanta Hand, Shoulder & Elbow Medical Center performed the surgery. However, it was not the excellence of his work that allowed Farmer to return to active duty so quickly, it was the ingenuity of Bulldogs trainer Mike Dillon, who looked for ways to reduce the stress on the wrist while swinging the bat and catching a hard hit ball. With gratitude, Farmer explained the modifications developed by his trainer.

“I’ve got to thank Mike for all that,” Farmer said. “He came up and just put it all together. He just kind of figured it out. If I didn’t have those pads, it would be different story. The wrist guard helped me not over-torque my wrist. The bat guard helped keep the knob from grinding into my wound. The glove protected me from getting hit in the field.”

Dillon made some simple pieces of equipment to help protect Farmer’s hand as he recovered from surgery following his hamate bone injury to his left hand. At the MLB level hamate bone injuries ordinarily cost players and consequently their teams four to six weeks of playing time, often at crucial times during the season. Players wear batting helmets, shin guards to protect against foul balls, arm guards to protect against pitched balls, yet there have been no innovations to help protect against hamate bone injuries – or so I thought.

Grady Phelan, a graphic designer, has been developing a bat design that he feels will help protect players from hamate bone injuries. He came up with the idea after a near accident in his back yard.

“My youngest son Brian and I have a summer ritual of fungoing hickory nuts out of our backyard,” said Phelan. “It’s great practice and makes for a fun afternoon. While we were hitting these green nuts into the woods, the bat I was swinging slipped from my hands nearly hitting Brian. The knob had been digging into the palm of my hand (and) had left a nice bruise in my hand (similar to what you get from your first time in the cages every spring). That’s when I realized that the knob probably caused my grip to fail. I started to do research on thrown bats, hand injuries, anatomy and even started to experiment with bat designs to eliminate the problem.”

Gary Phelan's ProXR bat (Photo courtesy of fastcodesign.com)

Grady Phelan’s ProXR bats have been approved for MLB and NCAA use.
(Photo courtesy of fastcodesign.com)

Phelan, in fact, has developed his bat over the past ten years at his own expense. His bat, the ProXR, has his patented tilted knob at 23 degrees. The 23-degree tilt is the exact range of motion of the human wrist and he calculates it will mitigate the impact to the hamate by 25%, thus preventing much stress on the bone and preventing many hamate bone breaks. His bat is MLB approved, NCAA approved, and the prototype first used in the major leagues by New York Mets utility infielder Mike Hessman is now in the Baseball Hall Of Fame. Prince Fielder also used the bat in a few games, as did Cory Hart.

A traditional bat knob vs. a ProXR bat knob. (Photos courtesy of fastcodesigncom)

A traditional bat knob compared to a ProXR bat knob.
(Photos courtesy of fastcodesign.com)

Phelan’s bat, as mentioned, has been approved for use by Major League Baseball. His obstacles for extended use of the ProXR bat comes from two sources. First, bat manufacturer Rawlings simply rejected the design. Hillerich & Bradsby, manufacturer of the Louisville Slugger, offered a very polite and almost encouraging response to Phelan’s presentation but as of now it appears to also be a polite rejection.

Secondly, we all know that if there was a demand for the ProXR bat, the bat manufacturers would be falling all over themselves to turn them out. At this point, players are not interested in the bats – most have not suffered hamate injuries, although I am sure many have experienced pain in the hand caused by countless swings during the baseball season. A hamate injury is not as threatening as other types of injuries as it is a one time occurrence following the removal of the hamate bone. Gordon Beckham, a hamate injury survivor, most likely sums it up for most major league players.

One can only guess at how many hamate bone injuries could have been prevented with the ProXR bat. (Image courtesy of ProXR.com)

One can only guess how many hamate bone injuries could have been prevented with ProXR bats. (Image courtesy of ProXR.com)

“I feel like, for guys who have broken their hamate, they’re not going to use it,” Beckham says. “For guys who have used a different bat for their whole life, it’s going to be difficult to change the feel of what they’re doing.”

For now Grady Phelan will continue to dream his dream of having his bat used extensively in MLB, while MLB players will continue to experience hamate bone injuries without knowing that their injury may have been prevented had they been using one of Phelan’s bats.

Major League Baseball players who have suffered hamate bone injuries:

  • Albert Almora – Cubs
  • Yonder Alonso – Reds
  • Pedro Alvarez – Pirates
  • Willy Aybar – Rays
  • Keon Barnum – White Sox
  • Jose Bautista – Blue Jays
  • Gordon Beckham – WhiteSox
  • Joe Benson – Twins
  • Domonic Brown – Phillies
  • Jose & Ozzie Canseco – Athletics
  • Chris Dickerson – Reds
  • Danny Espinosa – Nationals
  • Eric Farris – Twins
  • Adonis Garcia – Yankees
  • Nomar Garciaparra – Red Sox
  • Carlos Gomez – Mets
  • Ken Griffey Jr. – Mariners
  • Robbie Grossman – Pirates
  • Tony Gwynn, Jr. – Dodgers
  • Eric Hinske – Blue Jays
  • Brandon Jacobs – Red Sox
  • Ryan Kalish – Red Sox
  • Andrew Lambo – Pirates
  • Jed Lowrie – Red Sox
  • Zack Lutz – Mets
  • Nick Markakis – Orioles
  • J.D. Martinez – Astros
  • Joe Mather – Cardinals
  • Derrick May – Cardinals
  • Arron Miles – Cardinals
  • John Nelson – Cardinals
  • Derek Norris – Nationals
  • David Ortiz – Red Sox
  • Dustin Pedroia – Red Sox
  • Wily Mo Peña – Red Sox
  • Nick Ramirez – Brewers
  • Scott Rolen – Phillies
  • Pablo Sandoval – Giants (twice)
  • Gary Sheffield – Yankees
  • Jim Thome – Indians
  • Troy Tulowitzki – Rockies
  • Tim Wheeler – Rockies
  • Ryan Zimmerman – Brewers

 

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10 Responses to “Hamate bone injury – What is it and is it preventable?”

  1. ebbetsfld says:

    Very interesting and informative post, Harold. Thanks!

  2. MFGRREP says:

    Nice post Harold. Almost seems like its entering into a players area of superstition. We’ve seen players alter the knob by taping huge amounts of tape on the knob ( Manny Mota and Joe Morgan ) and we’ve seen others who hold their hands over the knob ( Ethier ) and we constantly see players spinning the bat in their hands when entering the box. This type of design almost prevents any of that. At the end of the day I believe a player will go with what he thinks give him an advantage to getting a hit first and safety last.

    • Bluenose Dodger says:

      You are right on Gary and I do understand it. That is, the unwillingness to try a new bat style. Superstition and comfort definitely play the bigger part.

      Didn’t Andre break his little finger on his right hand on a swing in batting practice?

      I guess it could never really happen because of ritual but this bat could be held backwards as the knob is not symmetrical.

  3. bigbluebird says:

    Informative article, Harold. I have used a rubber knob that slips over the end of the bat. I just use it because it is comfortable. I didn’t know about this specific injury. I have also seen an aparatus that slips over a finger and rests in the palm of the hand. Is either contraption useful to prevent this type of injury?

  4. Harold,

    Excellent piece on hamate injuries and thanks for the mention. There is indicative data that suggests the long-term effects of the broken hamate injury may extend well beyond time off the field. When the hamate is excised, the grip structures of the base hand are compromised, giving batters less grip strength and perhaps a gradual decline in batting performance. For example, the Orioles Nick Markakis’ batting average is down roughly 30 points in 2013 since his hamate injury just over a year ago. Cause and effect? Perhaps.

    The underlying issue with hamate injuries is that baseball bat design hasn’t evolved with new grip and swing techniques of the 20th and 21st century. Back in the early days of the game, the knob acted as a stopper to keep the bat from flying out of the hands after the swing. Back then, batting was more about finesse and small-ball than power and home runs.

    So, what has changed in batting? Two things:
    1.) In the early 1900’s, batters moved their hands from a choked-up grip – well off the knob – to a knob-engaged grip.
    2.) The rotational swing technique used today keeps the hands “inside the ball” resulting in an explosive acceleration of the bat into the ball, as noted in your article.

    The physics of a rotational swing mandate that the hands roll over the center axis of the bat to complete the swing. And therein lies the problem – the conventional bat knob is positioned in the worst possible place for a batter’s hand to complete a swing. The resulting explosive rotational forces combined with direct hand and knob contact create compression forces that cause broken hamate injuries, as well as thrown bats. The conventional bat knob acts like a speed bump to a player’s swing.

    Broken hamate injuries and thrown bats are simply indicators that the conventional bat knob is impeding a batter’s natural swing. Let me say that another way – current bat design is preventing batters from reaching their best performance.

    My efforts to bring my theories about knob compression and the ProXR solution forward to the market, of course, has been met with resistance and skepticism. Change in general unsettles the way things are and challenges the status quo. But for baseball – a game steeped in tradition and heritage – ProXR is particularly challenging in that it suggests something is wrong and needs to be fixed.

    As you point out, it’s players who will, through their preference, enact change. Players demand the best performance from themselves and their equipment, especially when it comes to their bats. ProXR is, above all, a performance technology that makes batters better hitters by giving them greater range of motion and improved power transfer. Every time I put the ProXR technology in a batter’s hands, they’re skeptical. But every time, after a round or two in the cages, that skepticism changes into utter surprise and belief.

    This clip from “Money Ball” is particularly appropriate in regard to bringing change to baseball.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZZ2sy_H2J54&feature=youtu.be

    • Ron Cervenka says:

      Thank you for taking the time to drop in on us and for your excellent reply, Grady.

      Your points are very compelling and the Money Ball clip absolutely nails the point that MLB players are more concerned about maintaining a 130+ year history and tradition rather than being ‘that guy’ to step outside of the box and try something new – even if it keeps them healthy or makes them a more efficient hitter.

      Nick Markakis is a great case-in-point, as is Andre Ethier’s injury in 2012 (although not a hamate bone injury). How can any injury of the hand not be on their mind upon their return to action? There is no way that they are not going to ‘favor’ that hand – it’s human nature. It’s like the old joke “Doctor, it hurts when I do this” – “Then don’t do it.”

      Knowing that bringing about change at the major league (and even minor league) level is extremely challenging, I have to imaging that you are spending a great deal of time and effort on the college and high school levels which, hopefully, will eventually bring about a change in attitude and mentality in professional baseball.

      A big drawback (as I see it) is that a $100 price tag for a breakable wooden bat is a bit much for most Little Leaguers and prep school ball players – well… for their parents, that is. I can only imagine what an aluminum or composite ProXR bat would cost.

      All of this said, I absolutely love the concept and wish you the very best in your endeavors.

      By the way – I have to believe that God put the hamate bone in the hand for a reason and that removing it defeats His purpose.

      • Ron,

        You’re most welcome. If I had my choice I’d spend all day doing this – I love sharing what I’ve learned over the past ten years.

        The $100 price tag may seem prohibitive, but it will come down over time as I increase the number of bats I make. Right now my focus is on elite competitive players who know how to hit with wood and who train with it on a regular basis. For the quality of wood I use and for the extra steps required to make our bat, the price is actually less than comparable bats.

        In reference to testing with college players I was fortunate to spend the afternoon with the University of Maryland baseball team this past October. This was the first time these players had ever tried the ProXR technology and the results were consistent with those I see every day. I prefer not to post the link here as I don’t have permission from the players and team to display it publicly. If you send me your email address I’ll forward it for your eyes only. Of course you can comment on what you think after seeing it.

        Cheers,

        Grady Phelan
        gphelan@proxr.com

        • Bluenose Dodger says:

          Grady – thanks for the response and additional information. What I like about your bat design is that you have made a technological change based on science (Physics) and research.

          I also admire you commitment to the product you have developed. You have shown that commitment not only in staying with it for ten years but also by committing over $100,000 of your own money in the project.

          Keep the faith. All it will take is one star player to use the bat over a period of time and to endorse it.

          Maybe the Cape Cod League would be a place to introduce it to young drafted players.

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