Enough Is Enough, MLB Must Pursue Change to Protect Its Pitchers

Will Carroll@injuryexpertSports Injuries Lead WriterMarch 20, 2014

Morry Gash/AP Images

The crowd was in awed silence as Aroldis Chapman was laying face down in front of the mound, as detailed here by Reds beat writer C. Trent Rosecrans of The Cincinnati Enquirer. The 99 mph fastball had come right back at him, who knows how fast, and struck him directly above the eye.

He writhed in pain but remained on the ground, and the medical staffs from both teams got to him very quickly. But in that moment, in the silence that covered the field, we all had a vision of just how bad this could be.

Chapman is lucky, getting away with only a cut and a fracture above his eye. I'm not minimizing the injuries, but it could have been significantly worse. Yes, much worse. 

We've seen this before. Over the past few years, we've seen several pitchers and felt that dread as they lay on the field.

Bryce Florie may have looked the worst, due to the blood and gore, but Brandon McCarthy's was as devastating medically as I can remember. The fact that he's back and pitching is pretty amazing. I could go on with J.A. Happ, Doug Fister and others, but the point is made. This isn't that unusual an occurrence.

Worse, we've seen similar increases at lower levels. There have been deaths both from head injuries and in children being struck in the chest, stopping their heart instantly. 

Add in the increased exit velocity of balls and entrance velocity of pitches, and you have physics equations that challenge the strength of a skull.

It's taken years for us to come to terms with the severity of concussions in sport, but for ball strikes, you have a different set of circumstances. It's high velocity with low mass, but focused in a very small spot and without the benefit of a helmet or pads. 

So with a known problem, the issue is now finding an acceptable solution. MLB approved its first protective device for pitchers this offseason, but it has been a failure thus far. The IsoBlox hat has been described as "ugly" and "heavy" by pitchers, though as far as I can tell, few have even tried it on.

At least two teams' players told me this week that IsoBlox did not come through their camp to show off the device. Most equipment manufacturers send reps out to show off their new bats, gloves and other devices.

One protective company, EvoShield, has become nearly ubiquitous with their gear, though few use the protective batting gloves that are, in my opinion, EvoShield's best protection.

EvoShield is working on its own protective device, as is another company with advanced materials called Unequal Technologies. EvoShield has a proprietary gel that hardens, making a custom hard shell.

Unequal uses Kevlar, the bulletproof fiber, to create a protective barrier. Unequal's technology is being used widely in extreme sports like snowboarding, where it was implemented by Olympic and X Games athletes.

A couple of seasons ago, I used Unequal's padding designed to go inside a football helmet to craft a very crude protective layer for a hat. You can see in this picture that it is hardly professional, but it's possible. I did that in 10 minutes using existing materials and a hat. You'd think that in a year, MLB could help come up with something better.

William Carroll

Instead, we're left with a hat that's rejected and other technologies like pitching helmets, such as this one from Easton, on the shelf as well. While the technologies work, players simply refuse to wear them.

Until there's a technology that is both effective and comfortable, the adoption rate is going to be extremely low. Even pitchers who have been hit, like McCarthy, are not wearing the new hats and have actually been vocal against any rule requiring a pitcher to wear a protective device.

Even with a protective hat, either the IsoBlox one available now or the ideal one I hope is developed soon, Chapman wouldn't have benefited. The ball hit him under the cap's level. It's used as a reason for why pitchers won't wear the devices, but while it wouldn't prevent or reduce all injuries, it's better than what they have now. 

Brandon McCarthy
Brandon McCarthyPaul Sancya/Associated Press

At some level, players are responsible for their own safety. While MLB could mandate their use (if collectively bargained, of course), there's really no reason to do so.

MLB should make use of its standing at the pinnacle of the sport to develop something that pitchers would wear and that would be even better for younger players. If there was a solution, more than a small minority of youth leagues might require them, and lives could be saved.

The story of Gunnar Sandberg is one every fan should be familiar with. The consequences he's had since being nearly killed by a comebacker is enough to scare any parent or fan of the game. The story of Dylan Williams is just heartbreaking. Eight-year-old boys shouldn't die playing a game.

Pitchers could wear their own device now, as long as it didn't get in the way. Ryan Sadowski, a pitcher in the Giants organization, went old school and put a plastic piece inside his helmet. This was originally done for batter protection before the development of what we now call batting helmets.

J.A. Happ
J.A. HappCharlie Neibergall/Associated Press

Those helmets probably looked odd, and we know that players fought them, just as hockey players resisted shields and football players resisted facemasks.

Baseball could easily require them in the minor leagues, but again, I'm not advocating that position. I do think that MLB should take a leadership position in developing a better product, one that players would wear. If Brandon McCarthy won't wear one for himself, maybe he'd wear one for Dylan Williams.

Aroldis Chapman was lucky, just like McCarthy, Florie, Happ and others. Lucky is relative, since most wouldn't find facial lacerations, skull fractures and concussions very lucky.

There's going to come a day, though, as it has at lower levels, when some pitcher isn't going to be lucky. He won't get up. The silence won't lift. 


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