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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.