Texas Rangers pitcher Dustin Nippert has been placed on the disabled list. He came out of Monday’s game after a line drive off the bat of the Detroit Tigers’ Austin Jackson hit Nippert on the head. To everyone’s relief, Nippert was not seriously injured, and the decision to place him on the DL is reported to be “just a precaution.”
However, it raises in my mind the issue of whether MLB could be doing more to protect pitchers from these incidents, which happen to at least a couple of major league pitchers every year, and probably a lot more in the minors and amateur baseball.
In particular, I am reminded of the San Francisco Giants’ Joe Martinez, who finally broke out of the minors at age 26 and made the Giants out of spring training at the start of the 2009 season. On April 9, in only his second appearance of the season, Martinez took a line drive to the head off the bat of the Brewers' Mike Cameron, which fractured his skull.
Martinez ended up missing half the season, and although he did come back and is currently pitching for the Giants, it devastated what was obviously his best opportunity to establish himself as a major league pitcher and have a significant major league career.
Later in the 2009 season, Giants prospect Ben Snyder took a line drive off his head in an Eastern League game. He missed several weeks as a result.
Baseball history is littered with pitchers felled by line drives, most notably Herb Score back in 1957.
What bothers me about it is that the technology certainly exists to protect pitchers if they get beaned by line drives. Although pitchers cannot be expected to wear hard helmets like hitters do, I could envision something akin to a hunting cap with flaps that cover the ears and temple containing foam or something similar to protect against serious injury when a pitcher takes a line drive off his skull.
Of course, any such new cap would look decidedly unsexy and would probably be extremely uncomfortable in hot weather.
The question, I guess, is whether these types of injuries happen often enough to justify a new piece of equipment to protect pitchers’ heads. I note that in the last 20 or 30 years, hitters have begun to wear all kinds of body armor covering their elbows, shins, and feet.
There are rules about which hitters can wear body armor (I believe a hitter has to have had a prior injury to the covered area necessitating a trip to the DL). Needless to say, many players get hit on the elbow by pitched balls, and many hitters foul balls off their feet and shins, with significant injuries resulting.
As salaries get ever higher, both players and their teams have an increased incentive to adopt new technologies to protect players from preventable injuries. However, with only a couple of major league pitchers getting drilled in the head each season, there doesn’t appear to be much call to do something to protect them.
Amazingly, no major league pitcher has ever been killed by a line drive. The only major leaguer ever to be killed while playing the game was Cleveland Indians SS Ray Chapman, who died after being struck in the head by a rising fastball from New York Yankees side-armer Carl Mays (Catcher Doc Powers may have died as a result of crashing into a wall at Shibe Park on April 12, 1909, but the facts are uncertain).
The fatal pitch was delivered at twilight, and Chapman may have had trouble picking the ball up out of Mays’ hand, because Chapman made no effort to get out of the way.
Chapman is mainly remembered today for being the only major-leaguer ever to be killed by a pitched ball, but he probably would have had a Hall of Fame career had the incident not occurred.
Players did not wear batting helmets in those days, and batting helmets were not introduced until the early 1950s. The major change made in response to Chapman’s death was to require that clean, white baseballs be in play at all times.
MLB also banned the spitball after the 1920 season, grandfathering two pitchers from each major league team. Carl Mays was a spitball pitcher, but it was most likely a fastball that killed Chapman.
Prior to the Chapman beaning, only a few baseballs were used in each game, and as soon as a new white baseball came into the game, the team in the field would throw the ball around the infield. Almost all the players in those days chewed tobacco or licorice, and they’d spit in their gloves so that they could dirty up the ball as soon a clean one came into the game, because they didn’t want the opposing team to have the opportunity to hit a clean white baseball.
With only clean white baseballs in the game, batting statistics exploded in the 1920s.
At least nine minor league players have been killed on the field of play since the 19th century. You have to figure that at least one of those nine was a pitcher killed by a line drive through the box.
Knowing how human nature works, I suspect that nothing more will be done to protect pitchers until a line drive kills a major league pitcher during a game. Frankly, I think it’s amazing it hasn’t happened already.
As players get progressively bigger and stronger (and they are much bigger and stronger as a group now than they were 50 years ago), and hit the ball harder as a result, it’s only a matter of time before a pitcher gets killed by a line drive. It may take another 50 or 60 years, but I’m certain it will eventually happen if nothing more is done to protect pitchers.