Keeping Score

Why Pitchers Won’t Be Wearing Helmets, Even After Latest Scare

Baseball is hoping that padded caps can offer better protection for pitcher. But will they arrive before tragedy strikes?

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J. Meric / Getty Images

Trainers attend to J.A. Happ of the Toronto Blue Jays, after he was struck by a line drive during the game at Tropicana Field on May 7, 2013 in St. Petersburg, Florida.

A major league batter stands 60-feet, 6-inches away from the pitcher, give or take a few inches; the exact distance depends on where the batter is positioned in the box. Batters must wear helmets, to prevent potentially lethal skull fractures. This rule seems so commonsensical though helmets weren’t mandatory, in fact, until 1971.

Meanwhile, the pitcher stands 60-feet, 6-inches away from the batter, give or take those same few inches. And while there’s a chance that the pitcher will bean a batter in the head with a 95-miles-per-hour fastball, there’s also a chance that a ball can rocket off the bat at a similarly dangerous speed, and smash the head of the pitcher. Yet, pitchers wear no helmets.

Does this make any sense? In the second inning of Toronto’s game against the Tampa Bay Rays, in St. Petersburg, on Tuesday night, Blue Jays pitcher J.A. Happ was struck on the side of the head by a line drive. Happ was stabilized, lifted onto a stretcher, and taken to a hospital. Players and fans were shaken.

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On Wednesday, thankfully, Happ was released from the hospital. He did not suffer a concussion; he said he had a fracture in a bone behind his left ear, but that it wasn’t serious. He also tweaked his knee while falling to the ground. Toronto put Happ on the 15-day disabled list.

Still, his fate could have been much worse. It probably should have been. “When the ball hits the head that fast, you’d expect a serious skull fracture,” says Dr. Barry Jordan, director of brain injury rehab at Burke Rehabilitation Center in White Plains, N.Y. “I’m surprised that didn’t happen. He’s very lucky.”

Yes, these scary incidents are rare in baseball. But a recent string of beanings are alarming. Last September, Oakland A’s pitcher Brandon McCarthy suffered an epidural hemorrhage, brain contusion and skull fracture after a batted ball struck him on the right side of his head. McCarthy needed emergency brain surgery. Oakland’s trainer,┬áNick Paparesta, said McCarthy faced a “life-threatening” situation. He recovered, and signed a free-agent contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks this off-season.

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And just a few weeks later, in the second inning of Game 2 of the World Series, a line drive beaned Detroit‘s Doug Fister. He was fine: Fister stayed in the game, and held the San Francisco Giants scoreless through six innings, before giving up the deciding run in the seventh (the Giants won the game 2-0).

These hits could have been catastrophic. At some point, baseball’s good fortune may expire, with fatal consequences. Still, don’t expect pitchers to start radically changing their head-gear. To maximize head protection, pitchers should indeed wear helmets. But baseball’s medical director, Dr. Gary Green — a physician and professor of sports medicine at UCLA — doesn’t see helmets happening.

Green believes that helmets just aren’t practical for pitchers. For one thing, loose-fitting batting helmets stay on the heads of hitters because they’re trained to keep their heads straight, and focused on the ball. Meanwhile, “a pitchers head’s moves pretty violently,” Green says. Would a helmet even stay on a pitcher’s head?

Even if you, say, attached a chin strap to the helmet to better fasten it, like a hockey helmet, or add padding and ear flaps to secure it on the head, Green thinks the extra weight could cause more problems. “If you put a several-pound object on a pitcher’s head, it could interfere with his biomechanics,” Green says. The pitching motion is already prone to injury; if a helmet mucks with it, injuries could increase. “It would be very hard to put helmets on pitchers, given today’s technology” says Green. “We’d have to really study it before doing that.”

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What’s more likely, Green says, is padding or some other kind of insert into existing caps. Green says eight companies are working on such products, but none have met MLB’s standards for safety and comfort. “We hoped to have this ready sooner,” says Green. “Unfortunately, getting the right material and designs has taken longer than we thought.” Green says baseball has been trying to find the right product for over a year, since before McCarthy’s skull fracture. These recent incidents, he says, have given this project “more urgency.”

Both Green and Jordan, the brain injury specialist, say that technique, as well as more advanced equipment, can help prevent these beanings too. Jordan has noticed that today’s harder-throwing pitchers put more torque on their bodies, to add force to the pitch and increase velocity. As a result, they’re off-balance when the ball hits the bat, instead of crouched in front of the mound, in fielding position. “If you’re not in position to field,” says Jordan. “You’re not in position to defend yourself.” If you watch the video of the McCarthy, Fister, and Happ beanings, you’ll see that none of them seem to be in fielding position when the hitter strikes the ball.

Former pitcher Tom Glavine, who won 305 games with the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets between 1987 and 2008, agrees that today’s pitchers are less likely to be ready to field — and maybe dodge — the ball. “There’s some truth to that,” says Glavine. However, good luck trying to get pitchers to change their habits. “You never want to tinker with somebody’s delivery if you’re fearful of tinkering with their success,” says Glavine. “It might sound simple to say to someone, ‘well, don’t put as much effort into it, and instead of throwing 95, you’ll throw 93 and end up in a good fielding position.’ Well, that’s a whole lot easier said than done. If you are sacrificing success, hey, I’ll go back to the way I was doing it, and I’ll take the chance that I’m going to get hit by the rare line drive.”

So minus a radical new rule that legislates how pitchers position themselves, their deliveries are unlikely to change. Full-blown helmets are the surest fix, if preventing skull fractures is the sole priority. But baseball just isn’t going to go there.

If MLB is banking on tech-savvy caps to prevent another J.A. Happ, they can’t get here soon enough.

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