Major League Baseball is hoping new developments in protective head gear can bridge the gap between equipment that makes the game safer for pitchers and that which those same pitchers will actually wear.
After several frightening incidents in which pitchers have been struck in the head by batted balls, baseball officials are in discussion with a handful of companies about ideas and designs for a protective liner that would fit under the baseball cap, MLB senior vice president Dan Halem said.
Among the materials being discussed for the liners is Kevlar, a heavy-duty, high-impact substance used by law enforcement and the military. The liners are expected to be lightweight, maybe as little as five ounces. Baseball officials also are exploring how to cover the temple, an area particularly vulnerable to serious injury if struck.
“Since we started looking at the concussions a few years ago, we’ve actually been talking about this and looking for products,” said Gary Green, MLB’s medical director. “But unfortunately there has not been any product that can withstand the impact at the major league level. And I think the fact that we’ve had several in the last two years has really given us more impetus to see if we can get this developed quicker.”
While the potential head gear wouldn’t cover the pitcher’s face nor prevent concussions, it would help absorb the impact and prevent catastrophic injuries, Green said. Line drives off the bat can often travel 100 or 110 mph.
Earlier this month at the winter meetings in Nashville, baseball officials briefed team physicians and trainers about the development of protective liners. General managers discussed the issue last month at their meetings in California.
Green said there has not been an uptick in pitchers being struck by balls, but Halem acknowledged that the head injury by Brandon McCarthy last season was a motivating push.
McCarthy, an Oakland Athletics starter, required two hours of surgery after suffering an epidural hemorrhage, brain contusion and skull fracture when he was hit on the right side of the head by a line drive while pitching Sept. 5. He is expected to return to the mound next season. During Game 2 of the World Series, Detroit Tigers starter Doug Fister was also hit on the head with a liner, and he remained in the game to pitch.
In 2011, two pitchers were injured by balls to the head, Green said, most notably Colorado Rockies starter Juan Nicasio, who fractured a bone in his neck after taking a line drive to the temple off the bat of Nationals’ shortstop Ian Desmond.
MLB could test the head gear in the minor leagues next season, but if they were to make major leaguers wear them it would require approval by the players’ union. The union has been briefed on the matter, Halem said, and is receptive to issues concerning players’ safety. Baseball officials hope to make the liners available as optional next season.
“Assuming that the liners satisfied our test, then we’ll make it available to the players this season if they want to wear it,” Halem said. “Hopefully we’ll get some complement of players to wear it and some feedback on how it feels and change to be made . . . The last thing that we want is to introduce a safety product that nobody will wear because they claim it is uncomfortable or interferes with their performance.”
Players and team officials seem open to the idea — so long as the liners don’t alter the way they feel and perform on the mound.
“I don’t know if I’d necessarily wear it,” said Nationals pitcher Erik Davis, 26, who finished last year in Class AAA Syracuse and was added to the major league 40-man roster in the final month of the regular season. “Baseball players are about comfort and whatnot, and it’d especially hard to force people, especially hard-headed baseball players, into something they have been doing their whole life. But I’d be willing hear about it.”
Concerning head injuries to pitchers, Davis speaks from personal experience. In June 2007, the right-hander was starting in the Cape Cod League and was struck in the face by a liner off the bat of Ryan Flaherty, an experience Davis later described as feeling like a “really hard punch.”
Most of the bones in the right side of his face were broken, he most likely suffered a concussion and couldn’t see out of his right eye for two days. Four titanium plates were put into his face. He was back pitching in a game six weeks later. Even given that experience, Davis isn’t sure he would wear a protective liner.
“If they make something that fits like a hat, and is not that uncomfortable, I wouldn’t mind trying it out,” he said. “The last thing you want to be thinking about when you’re trying to get hitters out at that level is how the hat feels on your head.”
Davis understands there are risks that cannot be prevented when a pitcher steps onto a mound just more than 60 feet away from a batter. Still, being hit while pitching is the exception not the rule, he said.
“If you think of the physics of it, the how many ways the baseball can hit the bat, it has to be the perfect hit or the good reaction time or bad reaction time by the pitchers, to get hit,” he said. “And you see so many times where you think, ‘Gosh, how did that guy not get hit?’ ”