Table of Contents

Thursday, March 20, 2014

My two cents of pitcher head protection

Like all Cincinnati Reds fans, I'm still reeling from the news of Aroldis Champan's injury last night.  The star closer was hit by a line drive in the face, resulting in facial fractures.  If nothing else, the bones in the area where he was hit (near where his eyebrow and nose meet) are directly in front of his left frontal cranial sinus, so that may have collapsed.  He is getting a metal plate installed in a surgery that began at 5pm Arizona time, which will be reinforcing those areas.  The big concern from all of this, of course, was the possibility of damage to the brain, and the eye.  Early reports are very good, however.  Hopefully, those reports will continue.  Word is that he can be expected to be pitching as early as May, assuming he recovers well and is able to conquer the psychological challenge of getting in front of live hitters again.

Therefore, for the moment, I'm breathing a little easier now than I was this morning.  That reprieve allows one to start thinking about how the Reds will readjust their bullpen (Broxton?  Hoover?  Marshall?), but that can come later.

My other reaction is to immediately advocate measures that would fix this problem.  As Craig Calcaterra noted, it's hard to know how to what to recommend here.  I do think that we're very slowly starting on a trajectory toward requiring some kind of protection for pitchers.  Pitching at the major league level is so difficult, however.  It must require almost perfect balance and coordination to get the ball within a 3' by 1' box sixty feet away.  Therefore, anything that has the potential to disrupt or interfere with that balance seems destined to be rejected.

The IsoBlox padded hat.  Ugly, uncomfortable,
but at least a bit safer?
Still, solutions are already in the works.  This spring, in response to Brandon McCarthy's injury in 2012, MLB approved a new padded cap as an option for pitchers.  It weighs about a half-pound more, but provides a modicum of additional protection against line drives to the head.  Unfortunately, at least thus far, even McCarthy himself has been slow to embrace the cap.  I'd be interested to know if any players in baseball are using it right now; I haven't seen reports of any.  And, given that the ball hit Chapman in the face, it wouldn't have mattered in his case anyway.  There's another level or protection to consider as well: the pitching facemasks used in softball and even some little leagues.  The two in combination would offer a lot of protection.  But would pitchers still be able to throw the baseball with precision while wearing that gear on their heads?

My guess is that it would take some practice, and the transition would sometimes be frustrating to watch.  But yes, eventually pitchers would adapt.  The problem is, as long as protection is entirely optional, I think we're very unlikely to see pitchers adopt the protection on their own.  Some might give it a try.  But my guess is that the moment they start to struggle, someone is going to suggest they go without it.  And then, because Regression, they'll probably start throwing better once they take the gear off, and decide that it's just not for them.

So a league-wide policy, then?  It worked for third base coaches.  Yes, it has a chance to have a meaningful impact on player performance, and thus their livelihood.  And yes, some pitchers--maybe max-effort throwers?--might be impacted more severely than others.  But I see this as a workplace safety issue.  Just as wearing a hard hat on a construction site is a requirement for worker safety, requiring some kind of head protection should probably be something that MLB strongly considers.

Will it happen?  I'm under no illusions that it will happen soon.  A first step would be to improve the hat (or find another) that at least a decent number of pitchers can sign off on, and yet still provides meaningful protection.  But once that's done, I think MLB will need to mandate it if it is going to be used.