Pitchers have about one-third of a second to react to a line drive hit right at them. I can’t imagine a scarier moment in sports than seeing a baseball rocketing toward your face with literally no time to react to try and get out of the way or protect yourself.
It seems like we have witness this nightmare playing itself out more and more over the last few years. In the last two seasons alone, five pitchers have been struck in the head or neck area by a line drive, and some with serious – even life-threatening – consequences.
These incidents have inventive movement by athletics companies, who have been trying to design new equipment that can make the game of baseball safer for those players just 60 feet and six inches away from the crack of the bat. And for the first time, we finally have a product that has been given the thumbs up by the commissioner’s office.
Above is the prototype for the new protective pitchers caps that Major League Baseball approved a few days ago. The one in the middle is a skull cap for youths. The caps on the left and right are models of the ones that have been given the OK to be worn during major league games.
This bit of news has been a long time coming. Proponents of the cap had hoped that it would be ready for the start of last year’s Spring Training, but apparently MLB’s approval standards are pretty exacting.
The cap had to be capable of providing protection (here comes some technical stuff) at 83 miles per hour somewhere below the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment standard severity index of 1,200 (indexes higher than that are considered high-risk for skull fractures and traumatic brain injuries). To put things in laymen’s terms, 4LC Sports and Entertainment, the company who designed the cap, had to prove that if someone was struck in the head by a baseball travelling at 83 miles per hour (the average speed of a line drive), the hat would protect them against an otherwise high risk of suffering a serious head injury from the resulting impact.
That sounds pretty good, right? You would think major league pitchers would be sprinting to get in line to try out this new safety product. But not so. Not even those players who have been victimized by liners in the past seem to be willing to wear this new model of protective cap.
I think the reasons for that are two-fold.
First, the chances of actually being struck with a line drive remain very slim, and this new cap would not have done anything to mitigate the injuries suffered by most of those who have been struck over the last few years. Four of the last five pitchers hurt by line drives to the head or neck area were struck below the cap line.
Second, players are probably a little afraid of the bulkiness of the caps. The caps use isoBlox, a form of impact absorption technology that uses plates of material with living hinges, paired with a foamy material that works together to diffuse the impact of a baseball. This composite of materials will be used as a lining to the inside shell of the New Era baseball caps currently used by the MLB.
The lining is great for safety, but it causes the caps to bulge at least a half-inch thicker in the front and an inch thicker on the sides than the typical baseball cap. Let’s face it, no matter how much safer a piece of equipment may make things, nobody wants to run out onto the field looking like Kazoo from the Flintstones.
There’s also a comfort factor. The new caps are seven ounces heavier than the standard New Era, which weighs just three to four ounces.
Brandon McCarthy is the poster-boy for the whole pitcher-protection movement. In 2012, while pitching for the Oakland Athletics, he was struck in the head by a hard line drive and was forced to undergo emergency surgery after suffering an epidural hemorrhage, a brain contusion and a skull fracture. His literally could have died.
McCarthy has spent the last eight months working with the MLB and 4LC on this new protective cap, yet not even he is willing to wear it its current form. According to Jayson Stark at ESPN, who has interviewed McCarthy and other players in the wake of the cap’s approval, McCarthy had major issues with the cap when he tried throwing, running and wearing it for other baseball activities.
“It’s something where, if you just put it on your head, you don’t feel that,” Stark quotes McCarthy as saying. “But if you’re not sweating with it and moving with it on the field, you don’t understand how awkward it feels.
“It looks kind of like a train conductor’s hat, or, actually, like a newsboy hat,” he went on. “It bows up at the side. So you don’t get that sense of it fitting you snugly. If your head moves a tick, your hat moves a tick. You feel it. You notice it.”
Baseball players more than any other athletes I’ve encountered adhere to the “look good, feel good, play good” mentality. I think the fact that baseball is such a thinking man’s game plays into that. If a player is worried about what he has on his head, if he’s uncomfortable or feels awkward, it’s going to affect his play on the field. It’s that type of mentality that’s kept pitchers from embracing these new protective caps with open arms.
McCarthy is thankful that its developers have championed this cause and thinks the cap is a step in the right direction, but doesn’t see this is a product that players will actually use or want to wear. To McCarthy, it’s a launching pad for further research and development to create that perfect, wearable product, which is still as important.
Thankfully, the MLB has not yet mandated use of the cap, and it likely won’t. The fact that players have been so critical of it suggests that any such attempt would be staunchly rebuffed by the players’ union.
Whether the caps actually get any usage by big leaguers next year is a huge question mark. I think it will probably take a few years, maybe even a couple more freak accidents, before some players gather the courage to throw their self-consciousness to the wind and debut the cap. But if that happens, if other players are able to sit back and see the cap in action, perhaps some of the fear and stigma currently associated with it will begin to erode.