Should MLB Force Pitchers to Wear Helmets for Their Own Safety?

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Should MLB Force Pitchers to Wear Helmets for Their Own Safety?
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Should the Doug Fister situation be the last straw in the helmets for pitchers discussion?

It's hard to imagine baseball without helmets for hitters and catchers. For that matter, it's hard to imagine baseball without helmets for base coaches now that they've been wearing helmets on a daily basis ever since minor league coach Mike Coolbaugh was tragically killed by a line drive in 2007.

On the other hand, it is quite hard to imagine some form of baseball that involves pitchers wearing helmets as well.

That would...Well, that would be just weird, wouldn't it?

But maybe it's time. Not just for pitchers to wear helmets, but for them to have no choice but to wear helmets. I first said what I had to say on the subject back in early September, and Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com reported soon after that Major League Baseball is indeed looking into some form of protective headgear for pitchers. The league doesn't want to make anything mandatory, but that could very well happen in the future.

And after what happened to Doug Fister in Game 2 of the World Series, making helmets for pitchers mandatory somewhere down the line suddenly seems like a pretty good idea.

In the second inning of Thursday night's game at AT&T Park, Fister was hit in the head by a wicked line drive off the bat of San Francisco Giants left fielder Gregor Blanco. Fister was immediately checked out by a team trainer, but he was deemed good to go in a matter of minutes and he then went on to throw 114 pitches over six-plus innings.

You can call Fister tough if you want. If you are, you're probably also applauding the Tigers for being bold enough to leave him in the game. They needed innings from Fister, and they took his word for it that he was up to the task of racking 'em up. For that, they were rewarded with a fine effort.

But let's be real here. The Tigers' decision to allow Fister to continue the game was risky at best, and unfathomably stupid at worst. In taking Fister's word for it that his health was A-OK, what they were really doing was putting his health at serious risk.

The line drive that Blanco hit off Fister's head was no Texas leaguer. It was a bullet that Rhett Allain of Wired estimated to be traveling right around 99 miles per hour. It could have caused some serious damage.

The mistake the Tigers made was that they somehow felt totally safe in assuming that there was no serious damage done to Fister's head just because he said so. Had they been wrong about leaving him in, Fister could be lying in a hospital bed right now.

Worse, he could actually be dead.

Morbid, to be sure, but true. You never want to fear the worst with these things, but fearing the worst should be the general protocol after what happened to Oakland A's pitcher Brandon McCarthy in early September.

Kelley L Cox-US PRESSWIRE
One of the scariest things to happen on a baseball diamond in recent memory.

McCarthy was hit in the head by a line drive off the bat of Los Angeles Angels shortstop Erick Aybar in a start on September 5. He was able to walk off the field under his own power, but he soon found himself at a hospital for further tests. 

Soon after that, McCarthy found himself in emergency surgery to repair a skull fracture and to relieve bleeding within his head. Even after the surgery was performed, McCarthy was still in a "life-threatening" situation for a matter of days.

What's eerie is that the extent of McCarthy's injuries would not have been known if the A's hadn't sent him to the hospital in the first place. The tests performed on him were meant to be strictly precautionary. They ended up probably saving his life.

The very notion that precautionary measures were necessary apparently never crossed anybody's mind during the second inning of Game 2 on Thursday night. The Tigers were content to take Fister's word for it that he was OK, and all the confirmation they needed that he was indeed OK was that he was able to answer a few very simple questions.

It's not like they went out there with a CT machine and ran Fister through it, which is what it would have taken to determine how serious the damage was on the spot.

For the Tigers, it was good enough that Fister didn't appear to have a concussion. In the words of the club's official website, the Tigers concluded that Fister was in good health when it was evident that he was "clear-headed and focused."

According to the experts, the Tigers did nothing wrong in terms of how they evaluated Fister to make sure he didn't have a concussion. A neurosurgeon told Ann Zaniewski of the Detroit Free Press that "the appropriate evaluation" was carried out, and that it didn't look to the naked eye like Fister was suffering from a concussion.

However, anybody who thinks what the Tigers did was therefore good enough is missing the point. Fister may not have had concussion symptoms, but he would have had no way of knowing if he had actually suffered a potentially life-threatening injury.

Remember, McCarthy was feeling good enough to walk off the field under his own power when he got hit in the head by Aybar's line drive. He had no clue that he was going to need life-saving surgery just a few hours later.

Tyler Kepner of The New York Times said it best: "McCarthy learned last month that toughness is irrelevant to what actually goes on inside a human head that has been struck by a major leaguer’s line drive."

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Credit where it's due, Fister definitely pitched a beauty in Game 2.

You're not going to get Fister to concede the point, nor will you get the Tigers to concede the point. Fister appeared to be just fine during the game, and the Tigers were able to confirm with a battery of tests after the game that he was indeed fine. They have every excuse to continue to rave about the guts Fister showed on Thursday night.

In other words, they have every excuse to abide by baseball's old-school "just rub some dirt on it" mentality. The game is a lot safer and people within the game are a lot smarter and a lot more cautious than ever before, but the tough guy aspect of the sport is still very much alive.

It's this aspect of the game that drove Fister to stay in the game, as he said afterwards that it was "a matter of a mind-set."

"You’re not going to take me out of the game," he said, via the Times. "I want to play the game, I want to play it right, and it’s one of those things. Something happens that you can’t play, you can’t perform, O.K. But they checked me out, made sure everything was O.K. and went back to work."

We've heard it all before, and we're going to hear it all again. Ballplayers are going to be ballplayers. It would take something pretty drastic for them to stop talking like ballplayers.

Again, I hate to be morbid, but a death would certainly do the trick. Something like that would definitely get ballplayers to rearrange their thinking about whether being tough should always overrule being smart.

A death in baseball should not be treated as something that can't and won't happen, especially when it comes to pitchers being hit by line drives. Balls can be hit back at a pitcher as hard as triple digits, and they're standing right in the way less than 60 feet from where the ball is coming from. With the right kind of placement, a line drive could easily deliver a killer blow.

Chris Humphreys-US PRESSWIRE
Nicasio also had bleeding in his head after taking a line drive off the bat of Ian Desmond to his head.

A line drive resulted in a broken neck for Colorado Rockies pitcher Juan Nicasio in 2011, and the line drive McCarthy took off his head could have killed him if the A's hadn't sent him for tests.

An actual death by a line drive is something that MLB never wants to deal with. The best chance the league has of preventing something like that from ever happening is by making sure pitchers are protected from both line drives and, in a way, from themselves.

Putting L-screens in front of the mound at every ballpark is out of the question, and MLB certainly isn't about to force hitters into using lighter, more malleable bats. As such, helmets for pitchers are the only practical preventative measure.

But are pitchers actually open to wearing helmets?

That depends on who you ask. McCarthy responded to a fan question on Twitter saying that pitchers "should and probably will" wear helmets eventually, but he doesn't speak for everyone.

Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Vance Worley didn't sound very enthused about the idea of helmets for pitchers after Fox announcer Tim McCarver proposed it during Thursday night's broadcast:

Ditto for minor league pitcher Michael Schlact:

However, Schlact did end up changing his tune when somebody proposed the idea of wearing some sort of "armored lined" hat instead of a helmet:

What Schlact, Worley and every other pitcher who's against wearing helmets needs to realize is that some sort of armored lining is exactly what equipment designers and manufacturers are going for with "helmets" for pitchers.

If pitchers ever do end up wearing helmets, they won't be wearing batting helmets. For that matter, they won't even be wearing the helmets that base coaches wear. The protection will be much more lightweight, and ideally much more subtle.

Rosenthal noted in his report of the situation that one compromise involves some sort of foam or Kevlar lining being placed on the inside of pitchers' caps, exactly the kind of armor lining Schlact admitted being open to.

Image via the Boston Globe.

Elsewhere, companies like Easton-Bell Sports have designed lightweight prototype of helmets for pitchers to wear (h/t Boston Globe). Their design is admittedly pretty clunky, but you can easily see what they and other equipment companies are going for. They recognize that pitchers don't want to wear anything that will throw them off, so they're trying to design something that won't throw them off.

No slam-dunk solution has come to light yet. But at this rate, it's just a matter of time before a slam-dunk solution does come to light. When that happens, MLB will be behooved not only to recommend helmets for pitchers, but to adopt them completely as an everyday aspect of the game.

There will be whining and complaining if and when the change is made, but the whining and complaining won't persist forever. Hitters eventually got used to helmets. Catchers eventually got used to both helmets and masks. If they are forced upon them, pitchers will eventually get used to their own helmets, whatever shape they may take in the future.

And indeed, helmets for pitchers are already commonplace in some youth leagues and high schools. In a few years' time, MLB will be dealing with a crop of young pitchers who are actually accustomed to wearing some sort of extra protection out on the mound.

When helmets for pitchers are adopted by Major League Baseball, the payoff, ideally, will be that nobody would ever have to worry about a line drive to the head of a pitcher causing a concussion or something much worse. The ball would hit the helmet, the pitcher would shrug, and everyone would go about their business.

It would be a lot like what happened in Game 2 of the World Series, sans the negligence. The tough guy gene that all ballplayers carry would never again threaten a pitcher's health.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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