In the aftermath of significant, life-threatening head injuries suffered by pitchers, MLB has informed its 30 clubs that padded caps have been approved to provide some head protection against line drives flying back at the mound.
According to ESPN's Outside the Lines, a product, with help from the Players Association, has been launched with the purpose of protecting pitchers.
Now, a new task emerges for the sport: Convincing pitchers to wear the product on a daily basis.
The announcement, although exciting and important, is just the first step.
Dan Halem, MLB executive vice president for labor relations, was ecstatic about the potential for safety and future growth of the technology.
"We're excited to have a product that meets our safety criteria," Halem told Outside the Lines, adding that baseball will continue its efforts to come up with more options. "MLB is committed to working with manufacturers to develop products that offer maximum protection to our players, and we're not stopping at all."
Per the OTL piece, five pitchers—Oakland's Brandon McCarthy, Houston's Mickey Storey, Detroit's Doug Fister, Toronto's J.A. Happ and Tampa Bay's Alex Cobb—were hit in the head with batted balls between Sept. 5, 2012 and June 15, 2013.
In the span of less than one year, five pitchers, including Fister on the World Series stage, had their lives hang in the balance when a baseball came careening at them, affording even top-tier athletes little time to move out of the way.
While the rash of pitcher injuries grew in a quick span, the issue for Major League Baseball has been around for years. From San Diego's Chris Young to Houston's Billy Wagner to Boston's Bryce Florie, the sight of a bloodied, dazed pitcher walking off the mound is all too familiar to baseball fans.
Unfortunately, the names listed above and video evidence of unsightly and grotesque injuries won't change the mindset of some pitchers.
Amazingly, despite falling victim to one of the most famous incidents in the history of batted-ball injuries, Brandon McCarthy didn't react positively to the new technology. As he told Jayson Stark of ESPN, the new cap is "too big" and doesn't "pass the eye test."
In sports, comfort trumps safety. For an athlete to perform best, mental and physical comfort is a necessity. In the NFL, it's routine to see skill players (wide receivers, running backs, defensive backs) eschew standard padding for more comfort and the perceived ability to move more fluidly.
The new caps, per OTL, will have seven ounces of weight more than the prior, non-padded cap. That may seem like a small amount for peace of mind, but could be looked at as another obstacle or distraction in a craft that desperately attempts to simplify things.
While some pitchers will adopt and adapt early in the name of safety, not everyone will be willing to go the extra mile for peace of mind.
Alex Cobb, one of the recent line-drive victims, spoke about his incident as a "pink elephant" (video below, per MLB.com) and references the need to put worry and fear out of sight and out of mind. If that mindset is prevalent among pitchers with a past injury, they may not want to be reminded of it every time they put on their cap.
Comfort issues can be overcome, but knowing that protective head gear is in the cap could lead pitchers to thinking about the possibility of being struck. If that thought process begins, it's unlikely many pitchers would jump at the chance to wear the new technology.
When asked by OTL if he would wear the cap, J.A. Happ, despite his recent injury, wasn't sure due to the feel and comfort.
"I'd have to see what the differences in feel would be. Does it feel close enough to a regular cap? You don't want to be out there thinking about it and have it take away from your focus on what you're doing."
Furthermore, if the cap looks different or fits atop a pitchers head strangely, jokes will ensue. In 2009, on the path back from a concussion, New York Mets third baseman David Wright wore a new helmet designed to keep him safe in the event of another erratic pitch striking him in the head.
When he took the field looking like a bobble-head, the commentary and comedic banter commenced among the media and fans.
Although the new, padded cap will be bigger in weight, it won't be a gigantic version of the old caps, thus a David Wright situation is unlikely to occur. Still, some players won't be receptive for reasons of comfort or the inability to block out why a padded cap is necessary.
In time, the sport could consider making the new equipment mandatory, but until then it's impossible to predict how many pitchers will actually wear the new gear. Hopefully, protected or not, baseball doesn't go through another year of scary moments on the mound.
Yet, as morbid as it may sound, one of the only ways for the message to get across is more instances of injury to pitchers during game action.
This announcement is a major step for the long-term safety of pitchers, but it's only one step. The key will be in convincing pitchers of how important the new technology may be in saving careers and lives.
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