J.A. Happ Scare Should Be Last Straw for Forcing Pitcher Helmets into MLB

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J.A. Happ Scare Should Be Last Straw for Forcing Pitcher Helmets into MLB

It's time, Major League Baseball. It's time to make sure pitchers aren't going out to the mound unprotected. It's time to introduce protective headgear and make it mandatory.

Do it before something really bad happens. Stop pushing your luck.

MLB and the Toronto Blue Jays got lucky on Tuesday night. Blue Jays lefty J.A. Happ was hit on the side of his head by a screaming line drive off the bat of Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Desmond Jennings, and he was hurt so bad that he had to be wheeled off the field on a stretcher.

Fortunately, the news on Wednesday is good. 

According to Gregor Chisholm of MLB.com, Happ only suffered a head contusion and a laceration to his left ear. The Blue Jays said he was "responsive and doing well" at the hospital earlier in the day, and he was released form the hospital Wednesday afternoon.

Cue sighs of relief all around. As terrible as the scene was on Tuesday, Happ is going to be fine.

But I'll repeat something that I've said before: We should all realize that this could have been a lot worse.

At least nobody was killed, which should be considered a real possibility with these situations. We're talking about hard objects traveling at speeds of roughly 100 miles per hour making direct contact with flesh and bone protected only by a baseball cap. A perfect combination of speed and placement could lead to a horrible Ray Chapman-esque tragedy.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Fister gets checked out by the team's trainer after being hit.

I said it after Brandon McCarthy got hit in the head by a line drive off the bat of Erick Aybar last September, an incident that resulted in him having to undergo brain surgery. I said it again during the World Series after Doug Fister nearly had his head taken off by a Gregor Blanco line drive that Wired estimated was traveling 99 miles per hour.

And each time I've mentioned it, the only thing I've been willing to say about helmets for pitchers in Major League Baseball is something along the lines of "maybe it's time."

Today's the day I'm ready to ditch the "maybe." This needs to happen now. 

I'm not looking to wag my finger at anybody. I know that pitchers are resistant to the idea of wearing protective headgear. Not even McCarthy, who was said to be in a life-threatening situation last September, was jumping at the idea of wearing protective headgear on the mound.

“In this game, we obsess over little things to make sure everything is just right, and all of a sudden someone is trying to put a bulky helmet on you that you’ve never worn before,” McCarthy told Wired. “Honestly, it sounds like asking a pitcher to throw with the opposite arm.”

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
McCarthy managed to walk off the field under his own power last September after being hit.

McCarthy speaks for most, if not all, major league pitchers. Put helmets on them tomorrow, and the result would be many out-of-whack and annoyed pitchers.

Not that this is going to happen tomorrow, mind you. As much as I'd like to see it happen for my own peace of mind, I realize the best I can hope or ask for is that protective headgear for pitchers is made mandatory as soon as functionally possible.

To that end, MLB needs a more practical option. 

Major League Baseball has looked into its options but has yet to be satisfied by any of them. According to William Weinbaum of ESPN.com, MLB was still working with a pair of companies—Unequal Technologies and EvoShield—as of spring training, but there is still work to be done. 

That MLB isn't starting totally from scratch is the good news, and it must be understood that when terms like "helmets" and "protective headgear" are tossed around in conjunction with pitchers, the idea isn't to make them wear anything too bulky like batting helmets.

The Easton-Bell design via Wired.

There are helmet-like designs out there, such as the Easton-Bell prototype that was profiled by Wired in 2011, but the two options supposedly favored by MLB are both padded linings. One is made of Kevlar, the stuff bullet-proof vests are made of, and the other is a sort of foam/gel lining.

Protection like this could be placed inside the hat, where it wouldn't be noticeable to the naked eye and, ideally, lightweight enough not to disturb a pitcher's rhythm. 

Major League Baseball obviously knows more about its options than I do. If the league isn't satisfied with its current options, I'll trust its judgment. I'll also heed the warning that neuropsychologist Michael Collins gave to ESPN.com: Just any kind of padding isn't necessarily better than none.

What's clear, however, is that MLB has been taking something of a wait-and-see approach to protective headgear for pitchers. The league is working, but it doesn't appear to be in any rush. 

That must change.

What MLB needs is a goal, and that goal must be no later than Opening Day of 2014. If pitchers still aren't wearing protective headgear by then, the league will officially be pushing its luck way too far.

While pitchers have never safe been when on the mound, they might be particularly at risk in today's game.The Steroid Era may be long gone, but big, strong hitters have not disappeared. All ballplayers are generally in better shape nowadays. Bunts are becoming more rare, and there are plenty of line drives being hit.

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Per FanGraphs, the league's line-drive rate has been well over 19 percent from the start of 2011 until now. Since such things first started to be tracked in 2002, there has yet to be a three-year period in which the league's line-drive rate was over 19 percent each season. That could change by the end of 2013, as the league's line-drive percentage is over 20 percent for a second year in a row.

In addition, pitchers are also throwing harder. Baseball Info Solutions (via FanGraphs) has been tracking the league-average fastball velocity since 2002, a year in which the average heater was 89.9 miles per hour. The average heater has risen to over 91 miles per hour every year since 2009.

Strong hitters, harder fastballs and a steadily high amount of line drives? That's a scary combination if there ever was one.

The McCarthy, Fister and Happ incidents could just be coincidence, but this the time to speculate. 

Get it done, MLB. And soon. 

 

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

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