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It Is Major League Baseball's Turn to Finally Address Player Safety

Mike Rosenbaum@GoldenSombreroMLB Prospects Lead WriterSeptember 12, 2014

Sep 11, 2014; Milwaukee, WI, USA;  Milwaukee Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy (20) checks on Miami Marlins right fielder Giancarlo Stanton (27) after Stanton was hit by a ball in the fifth inning at Miller Park. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports


Jeff Passan @JeffPassan

Tooth lodged in cheek. Hole in lip so big doc's index finger fit in it. And get this: Giancarlo Stanton still wants to return this season.

And just like that, Giancarlo Stanton’s MVP-caliber season came to a tragic end.

Batting in the fifth inning of Thursday’s game against Milwaukee, Stanton was struck flush in the left cheek by an 88 mph fastball from right-hander Mike Fiers. The two-time All-Star fell to the ground immediately, clutching the left side of his helmet as blood streamed off his face.

After lying at home plate motionless—he did kick his foot while writhing in pain—for what seemed like an eternity, Stanton was transported off the field on an ambulance cart and immediately taken to the hospital.

The 24-year-old required stitches for facial lacerations and suffered multiple facial fractures as well as dental damage, per Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan on Twitter. Passan also noted that Stanton still has a tooth lodged in his cheek and a hole in his lip so big the “doc’s index finger fit in it.”

Stanton’s facial injuries aren’t expected to require surgery, but it’s almost a foregone conclusion that his season is over—which is a real shame.

Stanton is arguably the front-runner to win the National League’s MVP award this season, as he currently paces the league with 37 home runs and 105 RBI. Unfortunately, the slugger’s consistent production was also the driving force behind the Marlins’ success this season and the reason they’ve hung around in the playoff hunt longer than anyone expected.

Seeing Stanton’s remarkable season come to an abrupt and gruesome end Thursday makes it difficult to consider the situation in a positive light.

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Major League Baseball has worked to improve the safety of its players in recent years, encouraging hitters/pitchers to use specially made helmets/caps and implementing strict rules regarding home plate collisions.

PHOENIX, AZ - AUGUST 24:  Alex Torres #54 of the San Diego Padres delivers a pitch against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the seventh inning of a MLB game at Chase Field on August 24, 2014 in Phoenix, Arizona.  (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)
Ralph Freso/Getty Images

However, Stanton’s tragic and gruesome injury is sure to launch a new discussion about safety in baseball.

In terms of baseball injuries, there’s nothing more terrifying than a player being struck in the head or face with a ball, whether it’s a pitcher getting hit by a comeback line drive or a batter taking a pitch to the face.

Either way, it’s always ugly.

Associated Press

While hitters are required to wear helmets and have the option to wear as many protective guards as they desire, pitchers are completely defenseless and vulnerable on the mound, while the presence of a foreign object (such as something potentially used for safety reasons) is grounds for ejection and likely suspension.

MLB does offer a special protective cap for pitchers, but it’s a relatively new creation inspired by the comeback line drive injuries suffered by Brandon McCarthy, J.A. Happ and Alex Cobb over the past three seasons. However, only one player, left-handed reliever Alex Torres of the San Diego Padres, has worn one in a major league game.

McCarthy experimented with the cap, but he, like most players, found the design too unappealing aesthetically to consider using it in games.

Per MLB.com:

It just needs to keep making progress, and I'm confident that it will. The company is committed to keep moving forward and making the changes, but it's hard to say when I would wear it or when it would be ready on a personal level for me."

[...]

The only issue is it's still not there. It doesn't have enough wear and tear in it yet to see how it basically reacts to game [situations]. Does it feel good over the course of a few innings or games? The times I've thrown with it were indoors where it's 55 or 60 degrees, but what happens if it's 90 or 100 and you sweat? Those are kind of the issues that we have to get past.

Yet, while the cap has the potential to save a pitcher’s life in the event of a batted ball to the head, it doesn’t protect him from a batted ball to the face.

Obviously it depends on how he finishes his delivery and also whether he’s right- or left-handed, but a pitcher still exposes his face and head to a potential comebacker with every pitch. Actually getting hit is an incredibly rare occurrence and therefore impossible to prevent.

Every year, countless players suffer concussions after being struck in the helmet with an errant offering. It’s scary every time, but there’s rarely a reason to believe they won’t make anything short of a full recovery, both physically and mentally.

A pitch to the face doesn’t come with the same optimism, however.

Sure, it has something to do with being able to see the actual physical damage; but it’s also a reality that too many great careers have been derailed, albeit temporarily in some cases, after taking a pitch to the face.

The most famous example is former Red Sox legend Tony Conigliaro, who suffered a cracked left cheekbone, dislocated jaw and damage to the retina as a 22-year-old during the 1967 season.

Tony C. missed the entire 1968 season but came back strong in ’69 and ’70, but his vision deteriorated quickly shortly thereafter and essentially ended his professional career (save for an uneventful 21-game stint with Boston in 1975).

Then there was Andre Dawson, who had his 1987 NL MVP campaign with the Cubs interrupted in early July when he was drilled in the face by Eric Show. The injury sent The Hawk to the hospital, where he received 24 stitches to close wounds in his lip and cheek.

Prior to Stanton’s injury, Jason Heyward was the most recent batter to get hit in the face. The Braves outfielder caught a fastball right in the right cheek last August against Mets left-hander Jonathon Niese, resulting in a broken jaw and a painful end to his season.

This year, Heyward has used a special helmet that features an elongated right earflap that runs down his face even to his jawline. The helmet obviously has added value for Heyward given his previous injury, but it also could be the start of a new wave of precautionary safety measures for hitters.

Buster Olney of ESPN.com (subscription required) suggested something similar Friday in his response to the Stanton incident:

We know this because already we see players in Little League and softball and in cricket wear helmets that also include facial protection. We know this because after Jason Heyward was drilled in the face by the Mets’ Jon Niese, he started wearing a helmet with a flap that curls around the front of his jaw -- protection he continues to wear to this day. You can see it here

Face flaps for helmets are like safety belts in cars in the ‘70s -- they are available, they could prevent serious injury, and as Heyward and others have demonstrated, there is really no downside to wearing one, just as there was no strong counter argument to wearing a helmet, beyond personal comfort.

While it’s doubtful that players would jump on board with the idea of a revised (read: more complicated) helmet—the helmet designed specifically for concussions is yet to catch on—it does have the potential to at least protect hitters in instances when they struggle to recognize a pitch, which seemingly is what happened with Stanton on Thursday.

In general, the last thing a hitter expects is to see a pitch coming at him, let alone one seemingly on a collision course with his face and/or head. Plus, when a hitter keys on a specific pitch or portion of the zone, such as a curveball away, he’s less likely to get out of the way of an inside fastball.

Basically, getting drilled with pitches is part of being a hitter; guys will get hit, and there’s no way to prevent it.

The only regulation currently in place to protect players (besides concussion tests) is the one pertaining to home plate collisions, which literally is still being defined. Therefore, it’s difficult to envision a scenario in which MLB implements a rule that in any way restricts a hitter, such as moving each batter’s box farther off the plate.

Stanton’s injury is unlikely to spur a widespread safety overhaul in the major leagues, but it does present an opportunity for young hitters to learn how to deal with hit-by-pitch situations.

Specifically, it should encourage coaches from all levels of the game to teach players how to react to a potential hit by pitch, turning their shoulders inward toward the plate so as to either avoid or absorb the impact of an errant pitch.

Stanton’s season-ending injury has added a new layer to an ongoing dialogue about the safety of baseball players, and it’s a dialogue that could go on for a long, long time.

At the same time, the possibility of Stanton wearing some variation of a protective helmet upon his return has the potential to make a greater impact on the game than any new set of rules.

And let’s face it: Major League Baseball certainly isn’t going to find a better poster boy for hitters’ safety than Giancarlo Stanton.

#GetWellGiancarlo

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