Head injury reignites debate over protection for baseball pitchers

Staff and Wire ReportsMay 8, 2013 

J.A. Happ raised his glove in front of his face as quickly as he could, a futile attempt to shield himself from the line drive headed for his temple.

It was too late.

The sickening sound of a sharply hit baseball striking the Toronto pitcher’s skull could be heard across baseball, from St. Petersburg to Durham.

Happ’s frightening injury Tuesday night was the latest occurrence of a pitcher being hit by a line drive. The video is jarring. It shook players and revived questions about whether Major League Baseball is doing enough to protect pitchers who frequently finish their delivery just 55 feet from possible peril.

Hitters are heavily protected when they walk to the plate, helmet to ankle guard, but pitchers actually have less time to react to a sharp line drive – fewer than 4/10s of a second – and most are not in position to protect themselves.Durham Bulls pitcher Chris Archer has never been hit in the head, but he knows the possibility exists with every pitch.

“It’s one of those situations where you know it’s possible, but there’s really nothing you can do to prevent it,” he said Wednesday in Durham. “If you really were concerned about it, you could wear the hats with padding on the inside. I’d consider wearing that, but the odds of that happening are so small.

“Just like anything else in life, there’s always risks involved.”

Tampa Bay Rays pitching coordinator Dick Bosman, who was in Durham on Wednesday, echoed Archer’s thoughts on shutting out the threat mentally.

“It’s essentially an occupational hazard that you can’t avoid,” said Bosman, who was 82-85 in 11 major-league seasons. “It’s like being a race car driver. If you go out there thinking you’re going to wreck, you’re not going to win. As a pitcher, I got hit everywhere except for the head, but I never thought about it.”

General managers discussed the issue in November, and MLB presented several ideas at the winter meetings weeks later.

MLB staff have said a cap liner with Kevlar, the material used in body armor for the military, law enforcement and NFL players, is among the ideas under consideration.

The liners, weighing perhaps 5 ounces or less, would go under a pitcher’s cap and help protect against line drives that often travel over 100 mph.

“We are actively meeting with a number of companies that are attempting to develop a product, and have reviewed test results for several products,” MLB spokesman Pat Courtney told the Associated Press in an email after Happ was injured. “Some of the products are promising. No company has yet developed a product that has satisfied the testing criteria.”

Bosman said that baseball has changed a lot since he was a pitcher from 1966-1976 and, eventually, he could see pitchers being required to wear protective head gear.

Baseball mandated in 2008 that base coaches wear helmets after Mike Coolbaugh was struck and killed by a foul ball line drive in 2007.

“When I came in the big leagues, you just had to wear a plastic insert in your hat rather than a helmet at the plate,” he said. “But these guys are having a hard enough time getting used to new helmets that were just implemented for batters.

“I’m not against anything like that and I do think that with today’s technology they could produce something that pitchers could still have success with.”

Several pitchers around the majors sounded resistant — even after seeing replays of Happ’s injury. Happ was released from a Florida hospital Wednesday.

“You know the risks,” Angels lefty C.J. Wilson told the Associated Press. “Guys get hurt crashing into fences. Guys get hurt tripping over first base and blowing their knee out. This is professional sports, and we are paid well to take those risks.”

MLB could implement the safety change in the minor leagues, as it did a few seasons ago with augmented batting helmets, but would require the approval of the players’ union to make big leaguers wear them.

Colorado Rockies left-hander Jorge De La Rosa said if a helmet or liner is developed for pitchers, he’d wear one.

“It wouldn’t be hard for me,” De La Rosa said to the Associated Press. “To protect against those kinds of things, it’s good for us.”

Seattle Mariners right-hander Aaron Harang thinks it would be difficult for veterans to adapt to new equipment.

“I know it’s a hot topic,” he told the Associated Press, “but I don’t think it’s a problem that’s easily solved. I know a lot of people want pitchers to start wearing helmets. It’s a good idea in theory, but I don’t know how practical it is. I think you need to start with that at the lower level, I’m talking high school and maybe even lower, and then gradually introduce it into the higher level. I’ve been pitching since I was 6 years old and I’ve never worn a helmet. I think it would be tough to make that adjustment while pitching in a major league game.”

Oakland right-hander Brandon McCarthy was hit in the head last September, causing a skull fracture, an epidural hemorrhage and a brain contusion that required surgery. He was released from the hospital six days later.

McCarthy, who pitched for Arizona on Tuesday night against the Los Angeles Dodgers, said he won’t watch video of Happ getting hit.

He said most of the suggested equipment wouldn’t have protected him anyway.

“You’re at a point now where you’re looking at batting helmets,” he told the Associated Press “You’d have to have something that protected the ear and then the face and beyond. So it’s kind of a slippery slope."

Still, McCarthy maintains hope.

“We’ve put things on the moon before, so I feel like we can create some sort of a device that sits over your head and protects you," he said. “Someone will do it. It’s just a matter of when, not if.”

Staff writer R. Cory Smith contributed to this Associated Press report.

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