New Protective Hats Raise Questions Regarding Usefulness

Though it can sometimes occur, we do not watch baseball for the violence. That is reserved for football — the bone-crushing hits, the gruesome tackles, the cringe-worthy collisions. Baseball is supposed to transcend that. It’s a game of athleticism, certainly, but it’s about grace and fluidity and unencumbered effort. This is not to say that baseball is without contact of course. There are the double-play-breaking slides at second, the collisions at home. Major League Baseball has taken measures to combat the latter, and, very recently, to take on another injury concern — players getting hit by batted balls.

We remember Ray Chapman certainly, who was struck in the head with a  pitch and remains the only player to die on a major league field. The baseball itself underwent fundamental changes after that incident in 1920. There’s also Mike Coolbaugh, the minor-league first base coach that was killed after being hit in the head by a foul boul. Major League Baseball has reacted to this as well, making base coaches wear batting helmets while on the field. On Tuesday, it was announced that MLB has approved a new type of hat geared toward protecting the heads of pitchers from line drives. This, on the surface, is a good thing. It’s a good thing on any layer, but if the goal is really to protect pitchers on the mound, it still might not be enough.

The new caps, produced by a company called isoBlox, are specifically padded to provide a pitcher head protection should a line drive find him during a game. They have approximately .5″ of padding in the front and 1″ of padding on the sides. The hat looks like this:

Photo via Yahoo!
Photo via Yahoo!

And therein lies the first problem — it’s going to be hard to get players to wear them. Ball caps are made to feel like they’re not there. A hat that sticks out an inch on either side is bound to be noticeable, and distracting to a pitcher. It also weighs about twice as much as a normal cap. We’re talking about ounces here, but if a part of a uniform suddenly weighs twice as much, it’s bound to be bothersome.

One of the more publicized cases of a pitcher getting struck in the head with a batted ball came in 2012, when Brandon McCarthy was hit with a line drive. His skull was fractured and he needed surgery to alleviate pressure that had built in his skull. He also suffered a seizure due to his injuries. If anyone were to be an advocate for this new head gear, it would be McCarthy. Yet, in a story published by ESPN, he is quoted as saying he wouldn’t wear the hat, saying it is too bulky, too hot, and too noticeable. He seems for the idea of protection in general, but not in the way it was presented Tuesday.

Even if a pitcher were to wear this new hat, electing to deal with the bulkiness and heat that goes with it, there is a chance that it may not even protect him from many line drives. The hat is designed to withstand frontal impacts of 90 MPH and side impacts of 85 MPH. This meets MLB’s requirement, as it has deemed — through independent study — that the average speed of a line drive when it reaches the mound is around 83 MPH. This is where the second problem arises.

Dr. Alan Nathan, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, has done extensive research on the physics of baseball. Citing publicly-made HITf/x data from April 2009, he says that line drives to the mound average a bit faster.

“The average of such batted balls is 90 MPH,” says Nathan. “But there are a significant number exceeding 95 MPH. Balls hit that fast are on the cusp of a pitcher’s ability to react. At 100 MPH, a pitcher has about 0.4 sec[onds] to react. At 80 MPH, it is more like 0.5 sec[onds]. That extra 0.1 sec[onds] makes a very big difference.”

Photo via Dr. Alan Nathan
Photo via Dr. Alan Nathan

However, Nathan says that the protection would not be without merit.

“Protection designed for 80 will certainly help when the actual speed is 100. Something is better than nothing. Perhaps even a lot better […]

While 80 mph is definitely below the speed where such impacts occur, using such protection certainly will help for the higher-speed collisions.”

Dr. Nathan pointed to a few examples of balls exceeding 90 MPH that struck pitchers in the head, including (note: the following videos are not for the squeamish)David Huff in 2010 (101 MPH), Alex Cobb in 2013 (102 MPH), and J.A. Happ in in 2013 (97.4 MPH). While protection of any kind would have helped negate some of the force of these balls, none of these pitchers would have been fully protected had they been wearing this new hat. And while most players might be reluctant to wear it, it may be most beneficial to the recently-concussed players in those days following a concussive episode.

The affect of concussions on players has certainly been a point of contention in football, but baseball seems to be taking some strides as well. In 2011, a new seven-day disabled list was introduced, specifically designed for players with concussion-like symptoms. This was to allow them time for their symptoms to recede before they took the field again. Additionally, players were required to wear a new style of batting helmet in 2013 to combat concussions caused by pitches to the head. This helmet was originally utilized by players who had suffered a recent concussion.

Dr. Semyon Slobounov, director of the Virtual Reality/Traumatic Brain Injury Research Laboratory at Penn State University, says that there are still two schools of thought when it comes to repeated concussions. One says that they should be treated as separate events, the other says they should be treated as cumulative. However, he pointed to studies that concluded that the shorter the distance between concussive events, the more susceptible one would be to post-concussive symptoms. There are also studies that state the more concussions one encounters, the heavier the post-concussive symptoms become, says Slobounov. These conclusions are still being debated, however, as methodology remains a point of discussion.

Head injuries are head injuries and anything that helps prevent them are valuable. This first stab at protecting pitchers isn’t perfect, but first stabs rarely are. It is promising to see MLB taking steps toward injury prevention of any kind, even though this attempt may not see much on-field action. A  long while back, batting helmets weren’t used in the game at all. Neither were ankle guards or elbow pads or hockey-style catchers masks. The game evolves with safety slowly but surely, and even though these new hats are big and goofy and hot, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to envision a version of them being used regularly in our lifetimes.




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David G. Temple is the Managing Editor of TechGraphs and a contributor to FanGraphs, NotGraphs and The Hardball Times. He hosts the award-eligible podcast Stealing Home. Dayn Perry once called him a "Bible Made of Lasers." Follow him on Twitter @davidgtemple.


41 Responses to “New Protective Hats Raise Questions Regarding Usefulness”

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  1. stuck in a slump says:

    I’m a bit surprised that Juan Niccasio wasn’t mentioned. When he got hit, he broke his neck when he fell on the mound. That was one of the scariest moments I’ve seen on a baseball field, and this hat would have done nothing for him. You would almost have to go with a women’s softball helmet in order to provide meaningful protection for pitchers on the mound, but it’ll never happen because baseball will never mandate it like they did the new batting helmets. Pitcher safety on the mound will never be adequate.

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    • AC_Butcha_AC says:

      I think either Prof. Nathan or the author got something wrong here. A ball leyving the bat at 100mph+ will arrive at the pitcher with a velocity in the mid 80’s. This is the velocity for which these hats are concipated. I think they confused the exit speeds with the arriving speeds in this article. Otherwise very informative.

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  2. Uncle Randy says:

    God is that really what they look like? Looks like a cartoon hat.

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    • Stu Sternberg says:

      I’m a big fan of the cartoon birds circling the pitcher’s head after he gets hit.

      Oh wait..its not a joke, and that’s a potential traumatic brain injury?

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  3. AK7007 says:

    What was wrong with the easton things that went over the caps?

    http://www.wired.com/playbook/2012/10/basball-pitching-helmets/all/

    As a separate issue, the title of the article makes it sound like protection isn’t useful. A better title? “New Protective Hats Raise Questions Regarding Adequacy” – the real issue isn’t is it useful, but has the technology come far enough to adequately protect players? Nitpicky, but could make a difference.

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  4. TheGrandslamwich says:

    MLB should recommend and try to promote it. But when it is that uncomfortable and inconvenient, a pitcher should have a choice.

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    • Dale Earnhardt says:

      Oh absolutely, if something that could save your life is uncomfortable or inconvenient you shouldn’t have to wear it.

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      • HANS Device says:

        But I wasn’t even invented when you died.

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        • Deelron says:

          While the above was truely tasteless, that’s just not true, a quick Wikipedia search shows it was invented in the 80s.

          Also, while the comparison isn’t quite as apt as dying, there have been plenty of severe injuries to pitchers on the mound on comebackers (at all levels), and if a device like this prevents or mitgates even some of them, “inconvience” isn’t really a good reason to say no.

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      • TheGrandslamwich says:

        Wow. That was truly tasteless and awful. When you attempt to reference something you should at least try to make it comparable.

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        • AK7007 says:

          It is comparable. Earnheart knew he could die. His ego overruled safety measures. Modern pitchers know they could die. Their egos are overruling safety measures. Everything else is just details.

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        • TheGrandslamwich says:

          No it is not comparable. There is 1 recorded death in baseball history. There are a few more car crash deaths.

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        • RC says:

          The fact that the rate is lower doesn’t change the fact that they’re completely analagous.

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  5. Cody says:

    This may be pure ignorance on my part, but why not just have the pitcher wear a lighter, custom-fitted batting helmet while pitching? Maybe some sort of condensed gel padding inside of a carbon fiber helmet that was made specifically to the player’s skull.

    At the very least, it has to look better than this.

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    • Matt says:

      part of the issue is the weight… the normal caps are 3-4 oz, the new cap is 10-11oz, batting helmets are generally 16 to 24 oz.

      If the 10-11oz cap is too heavy for a picther (or just too big a difference) then making a batting style helmet would be tricky. If all they cared about was the look or fit, maybe it’d be ok.

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    • joser says:

      Given how violent windups often are, would a helmet even stay where it’s supposed to during the pitching motion? And the heavier the helmet, the more inertia resisting the motion of the pitcher’s head, sliding over his eyes or throwing off his mechanics.

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  6. Professor Ross Eforp says:

    I’m sorry, but I don’t see how you can possibly design a hat that is supposed to protect a human adult’s head from an object flying 100 MPH that isn’t bulky and sticks out.

    We’ve come a long way as far as technology goes, but that seems to me like asking for a seat belt that doesn’t keep you in place.

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    • Professor Ross Eforp says:

      This isn’t a problem with “the hat”, it’s a problem with the people that hat is supposed to protect.

      It doesn’t look “cool” or “manly” and it might take some getting used to wearing. The same things are true of feeding tubes.

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      • Matt says:

        The only way it’ll become standard is when they make it mandatory in College and HS, then a new generation of players grows up used to it.

        Convincing 10 year vets to change their equipment is impossible.

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        • Professor Ross Eforp says:

          I agree, and to an extent I say let them do what they want. I think it’s silly to turn down the extra protection, but oh well.

          My point is just that asking for anything more than this seems crazy to me. There are only so many ways to absorb this kind of shock.

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  7. sam says:

    Will this thing interfere with anyone’s wind-up?

    Also, you can’t cushion your brain; helmets don’t really help prevent concussions if the impact is hard enough to jar your head around. They will help prevent fractures and what-nots, though.

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    • joser says:

      But padding — by slowing the ball and spreading the impact in time and space — can reduce the acceleration to the skull imparted by the ball, thus reducing the effect on the brain when it sloshes around inside the skull.

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  8. ankle explosion hr celebration says:

    Can pitchers swap these caps with the regular caps during or between games?

    If I was an MLB pitcher, I’d take my Mario cap on and off between innings, just to screw with the heads of my opponents. I’m pretty sure they’d be too busy laughing to swing, especially if I did Mario Jumps out to the mound.

    On an unrelated note, I definitely think the solution to traumatic head injuries in sports is to make anyone afraid of them wear what is effectively a dunce cap.

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  9. Professor Ross Eforp says:

    My JV baseball coach’s hat fit exactly like that one. I’m still not sure why, but it did.

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  10. Roger says:

    Perhaps these would be a little more fashionable if the bottom tapered on the sides, but to preserve all of the safety that probably means making the cap come down lower where an ear flap or cutout becomes necessary.

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  11. pft says:

    Why doesn’t MLB consider moving back the mound to account for taller pitchers whose release points are closer to the plate and stronger hitters and better bats that increases the speed of the bat is higher. This gives pitchers more reaction time at the cost of a higher ERA and lower K rate.

    Just a matter of time before MLB’s insurance company forces them to require pitchers to wear the hats or face higher premiums or no coverage for players who don’t wear them.

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  12. Nit Pickety says:

    In the interest of accuracy, Ray Chapman didn’t die on the baseball field; he died in a hospital, several hours later.

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  13. Jay29 says:

    The biggest complaint I have about all these helmet/hat designs is that they don’t protect the head below the top of the ear. If I recall correctly, Coolbaugh’s fatal blow struck him below and behind the ear, in a spot that this helmet/hat — like the coach’s helmet that was mandated for coaches in response to Coolbaugh’s death — does not protect.

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  14. TKDC says:

    I’m going to reserve judgment for how the thing looks to seeing it on an actual human being.

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  15. RC says:

    The “what use is it if they won’t wear it” argument holds no weight with me. Players have fought pretty much every safety improvement in the history of the game (and done the same in other sports).

    People don’t like change. It could look exactly like the normal hats, and there are people who wouldn’t wear it.

    If MLB wants players to wear it, they should make it mandatory.

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