Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Another Shot to the Head

It's happened again in baseball: a pitcher hit in the head by a line drive, crumpling on the mound as the stadium goes silent.

This time, it was Toronto's J.A. Happ, struck by a ball off the bat of Tampa's Desmond Jennings. The sound of the ball hitting Happ's skull was as audible as its impact with the bat.  Jennings wound up at third with one of the stranger triples you'll ever see.

Happ didn't see it. He was on his knees, head cradled in his hands.  Eight minutes later, he left the field on a paramedics' backboard.  It looks like he escaped the fate of former A's pitcher Brandon McCarthy, who sustained a potentially-deadly subdural hematoma when he was hit last season.

But how many more of these do we need to see before baseball does something? A pitcher takes the mound wearing a New Era 59Fifty cap on his head: a few ounces of fabric that may protect his eyes from the sun but certainly don't protect his skull from batted balls.

Those balls get there in a hurry. The ESPN Home Run Tracker provides data on the ball-off-bat speed of home runs. 100 MPH is routine; some leave the bat as fast as 111 MPH. Remember: the pitcher, after striding toward home plate, is maybe 54 feet away from that bat. I've seen studies that show a pitcher can react and deflect a ball in .368 second. Yes, that's just over a third of a second.  But a ball that leaves the bat at 111 MPH gets there sooner--something like .345 second.

Numerous researchers have suggested the best thing a pitcher can do to protect himself is to finish his delivery the way the old-timers did: in a balanced "fielding position", facing home plate. Watch a few games today and see how many guys do that. Wait--I'll save you the few hours.  The answer is: not many.

There are no rules prohibiting a pitcher from wearing some kind of protective liner inside his cap. Yet nobody at the big-league level is wearing one. Don't expect them to; athletes are notoriously slow to adopt the very protective gear designed to keep them whole.

If change is to come, it will probably have to be mandated.  I think of hockey and cycling, both of which essentially had to drag their professional participants kicking and screaming into wearing helmets (and the NHL still doesn't mandate eye protection, despite some awful incidents over the past few years).

Major League Baseball says it is working with a number of companies large and small on a protective cap liner. But baseball also says if anything is developed, it wouldn't be mandatory, partly because the sport is afraid to, in the words of one official, "give a false sense of security".  Translated: we're afraid of getting sued.

It's time to get past this. Do we really need to wait for someone to be killed or maimed for life?

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