In this age of velocity and launch angle, catchers around the major leagues are being forced to change the way they think about the position, the gear they wear and how they receive the baseball. Always risky, the position has in the past few years proved to be more dangerous, with much of the risk linked to an increase in pitch speed.
With pitchers throwing harder than ever, there are more foul tips because hitters have less time to connect with the baseball. In turn, catchers are inching closer to the plate to reduce the likelihood a foul tip hits them. Doing so leaves them increasingly vulnerable to backswings.
Both foul tips and backswings have effects. A recent study found that while on-field collisions are rare — perhaps a result of the adoption of a 2014 rule designed to prevent collisions at home plate — hit by pitch and injury by foul tip were the most common causes for concussions in the majors.
But much of what’s happening to catchers — headaches, bleeding, bruises — doesn’t get reported. Many times, they stay in the game after a blow to the face mask, as Vázquez did. They pride themselves on durability and toughness. They want to stay on the field.
“It’s bigger than baseball. It’s your life that you’re messing with,” Colorado Rockies catcher Tony Wolters said. “Sometimes you get hit hard and you’re like, ‘Whoa.’ Safety has to be a priority for a catcher. It’s your livelihood. It’s how you’re going to be living for the rest of your life.”
Vani Sabesan, an orthopedic surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic, and her team sought to answer a riddle: While runners almost always slide at home plate, why are there still so many catcher injuries?
But Sabesan found there was little catcher injury information available.
“We can do better at protecting our players and tracking injuries,” Sabesan said.
Atlanta Braves catching instructor Sal Fasano believes in more protocols, sensitivity and awareness to the rigors of catching. He said it’s on coaches and trainers to put catchers on the injured list. Reading a catcher’s injury report, seeing a catcher get dinged — the former journeyman catcher finds it unsettling.
“You’re holding your heart,” Fasano said. “If they say, ‘I’m a little foggy,' we tell them to talk to the trainer right away. We have to be more sensitive with it; players have to be honest with it.”
With data sparse, one of Sabesan’s fellow researchers, Kiran Chatha, said it remains to be seen what long-term impact increased foul tips and backswings could have. There’s no evidence of catchers having the same issues that are widely accepted to be associated with football — that many players suffer from early dementia, depression, confusion, suicidal tendencies and other conditions. The velocity era has only recently begun, and we don’t yet know the effects on a large scale.
But it’s especially concerning that many foul tips to the head don’t get reported, Chatha said. It also is “really surprising how many catchers have suffered concussions, which have long-term effects including [chronic traumatic encephalopathy],” she said.
For now, Sabesan said, more research on face masks may reduce concussions.
“What would be nice: more protective catcher gear,” she said. “That’s what we had hoped to instigate with this, including at the youth levels.”
Better protection is also the focus for many big league catchers, who acknowledge that no mask is concussion-proof. What they seek are masks that maintain visibility without sacrificing comfort and safety.
Two-piece helmets, used by two-thirds of major league catchers, don’t cover all parts of the head. And although they have developed routines for better self-care, many catchers believe there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to safety.
“It’s all luck,” the Nationals’ Kurt Suzuki said. “Hopefully, you don’t get hit.”
Fellow Nationals backstop Yan Gomes ducks his head to avoid getting hit on a backswing. But that’s no guarantee.
“I haven’t solved the riddle of getting hit,” he said.
After suffering a concussion in 2017, catcher Brian McCann, a seven-time all-star and six-time Silver Slugger winner then with the Houston Astros, texted a friend, “This is enough, I don’t want to do this again.” He needed a new, better helmet, an answer many catchers believe could solve some of the issues they face behind the plate.
Suzuki has felt impact to most parts of his body, including his head — forehead, sides, top, nose and chin. Before games, he checks which hitters have long backswings. There’s more of them, so he squats farther away from the plate to give himself enough room.
A few years ago, when a blow to the mask hit him hard — “It rung me pretty good,” he said — he also needed to make a change.
He received a text from Braves catcher Tyler Flowers, who was part of a new company called Force3 Pro Gear. The idea of Force3′s mask with “S3 Shock Suspension,” belongs to Jason Klein, a former minor league umpire. Flowers shipped Suzuki a Force3 mask, and Klein said more than 30 major league catchers now wear the Force3 Defender mask, which uses a spring-cushioned, shock-absorption system that reduces the force of an impact. Maybe, they say, a mask like that could lessen the risks behind the plate.
Wolters has suffered several concussions. Nearly every month, he tells the clubhouse manager to give him a new set of face masks. Wearing new helmets makes him feel safer. He also improves neck strength, and he sits lower or gets on one knee to decrease the number of foul tips that hit his mask. As he receives the baseball, he remembers to breathe out. That eases tension when he does get hit.
Klein and Flowers say a hit to the jaw is “like getting your teeth knocked out.” The chin may be the worst: Flowers has been hit in the jaw so hard that he couldn’t eat meat for a week. They are both among catchers who reach their gloves out as far as possible. It’s one of several adjustments catchers are making. The idea is to catch or deflect the ball before it reaches the mask.
Even still, the New York Yankees’ Kyle Higashioka replaces his mask once per month or whenever the bars bend. He said he gets hit hard by a foul tip once per game.
But even with changing out his mask frequently, he said there’s no way to tell the damage already done.
“I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a concussion,” Higashioka said. “Not that I know of.”
Then he knocked on the wooden locker behind him.