Baseball Brands To Watch: Clean Fuego, Plate Crate & Steelo
From the latest in a throwing training aid that has taken over MLB clubhouses to the first Black-owned glove company to make an appearance in the big leagues, new brands continue to push baseball gear forward. Take a look at a trio of brands making an impact in the baseball community with Clean Fuego, Plate Crate and Steelo.
Mike McGuiness, founder of Clean Fuego was listening to his brother, Connor McGuiness, a pitching coach in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, talk about how his pitchers were using hockey pucks to help work on spin efficiency and thought there had to be a better solution. Mike McGuiness then worked with a friend, a mechanical engineer who had done contract work with NASA, to 3D print an alternative to the hockey puck, focused specifically on baseball. And 42 iterations later, they had Clean Fuego, an aid that “is dialing into the athlete’s natural ability compounded with the ability to visualize.”
The plastic device feels like a baseball. With a four-seam orientation, Clean Fuego follows the stitch pattern of a baseball, replicates a baseball’s center of mass and has accurate weights. What is different is the hockey puck-inspired shape that when thrown will fly straight if the form is good but will wobble when something is off, whether a release point or grip. Just like a football won’t spiral when thrown improperly, a Clean Fuego will wobble.
“When throwing with Fuego, if that flew really straight and clean you can immediately transfer the feel from the outcome with Fuego to the baseball,” says Mike McGuiness. “If it is wobbling like crazy, get it to not wobble. It is dialing into an individual’s natural ability and natural feel.”
Clean Fuego launched in 2020 when pitchers and catchers were first reporting to Spring Training, just weeks before the pandemic took hold. The word of mouth about the product spread through MLB and the baseball community really took notice when MLB pitcher Joe Kelly threw one from his backyard into a house window.
The design of the product is meant to provide visual understanding, giving meaning to coaching corrections. Not just for pitchers, but any position player and any baseball player who can hold a ball with a two-finger grip, Mike McGuiness plans to grow the brand—he’s working on prototyping for three other designs he plans to patent and may roll out in 2022, as well as a softball design—and help players get better. While they focused on pitchers at the start of Clean Fuego, he says the device can not only help with pitch design and fundamentals but it can also help every position player improve throwing efficiency.
The first Black-owned baseball glove company to make a MLB debut, this in 2018 when Jonathan Davis appeared for the Toronto Blue Jays using a Steelo glove, hasn’t slowed down. Launched by Steve Friend officially about three years ago, Steelo has steadily grown each year and while gloves remain a true focus—the brand has multiple professional players on its roster—Friend also has recently debuted a bat lineup and offers a range of accessories.
“One of the cool things is being able to be on this adventure and be able to bring a different perspective and angle to this market,” Friend says. “I am really excited about that.”
Friend says that his focus on product will take an even stronger cultural turn. “I am extremely passionate about hip hop culture, music, sneaker design and streetwear fashion design,” he says. “I am bringing that energy to the baseball market through my lens.” Expect to see more culturally driven designs throughout the Steelo brand in the coming months, whether through product design or brand visuals. “A lot of the elements you are going to find in successful and cool and hip streetwear companies, whether sneaker culture or apparel, I am going to be doing my best to incorporate those elements into gloves,” he says. “Traditionally, what you see in gloves coming from Steelo are going to look quite a bit different. We are not changing everything about the composition of the glove but drawing on things that have inspired sneaker culture.”
While cultural relevance is part of Friend’s focus, nothing takes his eyes off the gloves themselves. “I am a big product person,” he says. “I am very much about the product and craftsmanship.” A former professional player, Friend says he had a specific Asian-made glove he used each year during his career as a middle infielder and he wants to bring that same quality to Steelo, crafting a lighter weight glove with a form based on the true shape of the hand.
Professional players are taking notice. Friend wanted a team of athletes joining Steelo and now many of those players, who started as minor leaguers, have worked themselves into the big leagues. Players such as Pedro Strop and Sterling Sharp have also used Steelo gloves in MLB. Friend says the popularity is starting to snowball and grow.
Friend has always been a glove junkie and says the glove will remain his focus, but when he conceived of Steelo it was meant to be a full 360-degree baseball company. So, adding bats and accessories was always part of the plan, something that has been “exciting to watch as this thing grows.”
The pandemic provided Friend the opportunity to step back and observe while trying to focus on what he wanted to do with Steelo, committing to a direction. “It was an opportunity to get some validation,” he says. “I was shown a lot of support with what I was doing, but at the same time I was able to sit back and understand what I was trying to accomplish and go forward with a plan with more conviction.”
When Josh Band turned his baseball-centric subscription box service Plate Crate from side job to his complete focus that meant turning from curator to creator.
He launched in 2015 while playing middle infield in the independent Frontier League, really the first baseball-focused subscription box. While the early days had him curating training aids and fun extras from the trunk of his car and parents’ basement with about a $40 per box value, he now guarantees a minimum value of $75 per box and has started additional companies—Bandit Sports and Stadium Snacks—to manufacture his own products to improve the overall value of Plate Crate boxes.
The boxes, geared toward 12- to 18-year-olds, come themed. January was a Pearl theme, while February was Maple and Ash and March Scoreboard. Every box comes with at least one training aid, one piece of apparel (this can include hoodies or long-sleeve shirts), one to two snacks and a miscellaneous item, whether bat grips, a backpack or a Bluetooth speaker for hitting in the cage.
“It is for the baseball obsessed,” Band says. “There is a really good balance of something to train, a snack to try, apparel to wear and a miscellaneous item just for fun. We don’t want to just provide the things to get better at baseball, but we help them use it to train.”
As Plate Crate grows, so does the inventory. Now Band offers the original monthly subscription along with a subscription for three boxes annually or quarterly boxes. They’ve also created Player Crate Pro. These one-time purchase boxes put a focus on the best training aids—regardless of price or size—for a specific position, opening the door for Plate Crate to work with new companies. There are also age-specific boxes focused on training aids for development.
So far, Plate Crate has grown to have subscriptions in all 50 states and is shipping Player Crates worldwide. “We are going to provide a Plate Crate that is fun and enjoyable and with the partnerships, players get better at baseball and get to the next level,” Band says. “We provide the education to get there.”
Tim Newcomb covers gear and business for Baseball America. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.