Just So 'I Don't Die': MLB Superstars Crave More Protection

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterMay 4, 2018

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 21:  Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals at bat during the game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium on April 21, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
B/R

Washington Nationals teammates Bryce Harper and Max Scherzer had the same thought last winter.

The game is getting faster. Baseballs are flying out of pitchers' hands at record speeds and jumping off bats with even more velocity.

A little more protection couldn't hurt.

The answer for Harper: He joined the growing number of hitters to add a C-flap to his helmet, which provides cover for his face as well as the top and side of his head.

"I just thought it would be a good idea," Harper said.

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 02: Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals in action against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Nationals Park on May 2, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Scherzer agrees. He wonders when some enterprising equipment man will come up with something comparable for a pitcher.

"They haven't brought anything to me that has felt comfortable enough to wear," he said. "I would be interested in a hat insert. Not that it would really prevent a concussion—just in case that if I do take a shot that I don't die."

No major league player has been killed by a baseball since 1920, when Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman died after being hit on the head by a pitch from Carl Mays of the New York Yankees. But every year, batters and pitchers are hit on the head, often for doctors to tell them they were fortunate the ball didn't strike a few inches to one side or the other.

Helmets have been mandatory for hitters since 1971—although those who played without one before that were allowed to continue to do so. Earflaps became mandatory 12 years later, again with a clause allowing older players to play on without them.

No one would think of questioning the use of either now, but no one has come up with anything similar for pitchers. The closest was an oversized padded cap Alex Torres wore while pitching for the San Diego Padres and New York Mets in 2014 and 2015.

Alex Torres watched Rays teammate Alex Cobb get hit in the head and decided to wear extra protection for the rest of his career with the Padres and Mets.
Alex Torres watched Rays teammate Alex Cobb get hit in the head and decided to wear extra protection for the rest of his career with the Padres and Mets.Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

The Torres cap never caught on. Other pitchers considered it too cumbersome. Besides, it didn't cover the most vulnerable parts of the head, leaving the face and temples unprotected.

"Realistically, the best thing they could do to protect pitchers would be some type of safety goggles," said Ron Darling, who pitched for 13 seasons in the major leagues and now works as a commentator for SNY and MLB Network. "But it can't be obtrusive."

It's understandably tougher to develop something that would work for pitchers, because their full body is in motion while delivering a pitch. But if anything, hurlers are in greater danger than hitters.

Through May 1, 40 balls had been hit with an exit velocity of at least 115 mph, according to MLB.com's Statcast. While it's true more pitchers throw harder than ever, the fastest pitches recorded by Statcast this season were 101.9 and 102 mph sinkers by Jordan Hicks of the St. Louis Cardinals.

That's still plenty hard enough to do serious damage if it hits you in the face. Giancarlo Stanton was hospitalized after being hit just below his left eye by a Mike Fiers pitch in 2014. Stanton suffered broken bones and jaw damage, and he needed more than 20 stitches to close lacerations. He missed the season's final 17 games.

When Stanton returned in 2015, he wore a helmet with a facemask similar to those used by football players. He has continued to wear extra protection when he bats against right-handed pitchers, switching in 2016 to use the same C-flap Harper, Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Yoenis Cespedes and many others now use.

Stanton, who bats right-handed, doesn't generally use the extra protection against left-handed pitchers, believing he gets a better look at the ball and is more able to react to a pitch that rides up and in. Against right-handers, though, he wouldn't consider going to the plate without it.

"They're throwing too hard," Stanton said. "We don't always have the reaction time. We're zoned to see a pitch in the zone, not at our face. We already barely have enough reaction time to hit the ball. Our bodies are much slower than our hands. Even if you do see it, you can be looking straight at it, and it could hit you in the face."

Trout began using the C-flap this spring.
Trout began using the C-flap this spring.John McCoy/Getty Images

Stanton, Harper and others say the C-flap doesn't interfere at all with their vision. They say it becomes a standard part of their equipment. It definitely offers protection, as Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Keon Broxton told MLB.com last year that wearing the C-flap "saved my life" when an Antonio Senzatela pitch hit him. As it was, Broxton suffered a small nasal fracture and needed stitches from the 92.6 mph fastball.

So what exactly is a C-flap?

It looks like part of the helmet, but it's an accessory developed by Dr. Robert Crow, a former Atlanta Braves physician. Crow told ESPN.com he designed it in the mid-1970s and had it patented in 1987. Crow sold it to Markwort Sporting Goods in 2004. Markwort now sells the flaps to Rawlings so they can be attached to helmets.

In the past, the flap was used mostly by players who'd been hit in the face, as Stanton was. Now that's changing, thanks to stars like Harper and Trout and to teams like the Brewers, who, according to that same ESPN.com story, have made the flap mandatory for their Class A and rookie league players.

"I can definitely see it becoming mandatory," Rawlings executive Mike Thompson told ESPN.com's Paul Lukas. "You want to protect the assets, right? There's really no downside to it, and now you have the best guys using it."

The best guys include Trout, who told Bleacher Report he started using it after being hit in the head by a pitch this spring.

"I was thinking about it before then, just adding more protection," Trout said. "Guys are throwing harder nowadays, and they pitch me inside so I need to protect my face."

Even pitchers understand why hitters want the extra protection. In fact, Boston Red Sox left-hander David Price said he has a C-flap on his own batting helmet, which he'll use in interleague road games.

"It's a good idea," Price said. "Hopefully guys do it just so they can protect themselves."

That's fine for hitters. But Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez and others wonder why such protection is only for batters:

"Put an L-screen up [in front of the mound]," Price joked.

Like Scherzer, Price hasn't found a practical answer for protection he can wear on the mound.

"Super Mario," he said, referring to the padded hat Torres wore. "It was about eight pounds of extra weight on your head. It was super-heavy. It was big. And it only protected the top of your head. It didn't protect your face."

The Torres cap actually weighed eight ounces, not eight pounds, but the point remains that despite efforts encouraged by MLB and the Major League Players Association, there still isn't anything that can win widespread acceptance from big league pitchers.

There has to be a better answer, but Price fears it will only come after someone is seriously hurt. He pointed out how baseball pushed for extra netting to protect fans after a Todd Frazier foul ball injured a young fan at Yankee Stadium last season.

"Nothing's going to happen until something bad happens on that mound," Price said. "It's very unfortunate. I don't have an answer for it. But I think if we can put people on the moon, I think we can make a hat that protects pitchers. MLB just needs to put some money up and figure this out."

Come up with something workable and players will use it, as proved with the C-flap.

No one wants to die.

                            

Bleacher Report's Scott Miller contributed to this report.

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

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