By the Blouin News Sports staff

MLB pitchers safer in 2014; still a long way to go

by in Baseball.

Standing just 60 feet, six inches from the batter, a pitcher has less than a second to react to some batted balls. Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Standing just 60 feet, six inches from the batter, a pitcher has less than a second to react. Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Major League Baseball has finally agreed on a design for a protective hat for pitchers. As little as ten months ago, MLB was balking at several prototypes. The complications were mostly over keeping the hats aesthetically the same, but structurally more protective — which proved to be rather difficult.

Pitchers stand just 60.5 feet away from the batters’ box upon starting their delivery; and depending on the pitchers’ motion can end up anywhere from 55 to 50 feet away by the time the ball reaches home plate. Balls batted directly back their way average 83 miles per hour and can reach over 100 miles per hour. This gives a pitcher approximately one-third of a second to dive out of the path of a line drive.

Pitchers Brandon McCarthy, Joe Martinez, Chris Young, J.A. Happ and Alex Cobb, among many others, have all been hit with injury-inducing line drives over the past few seasons. The new protective caps will provide some comfort for these pitchers — but how much longer will it be before they are just as protected as batters? Can they even be that protected and still pitch? This is the struggle MLB faced while developing the protective pitchers’ cap.

Batters, who wear helmets, frequently suffer concussions when they’re hit by a pitch, but concussions are preferable to the hemorrhage McCarthy suffered, which required emergency brain surgery.

A major league catcher wears a full protective facemask and a helmet; they are the most protected in the game. But catcher’s headgear would be too bulky for a pitcher to wear on the mound. Having little visual distraction is a key element for a pitcher’s success, so facemasks are out of the question. And helmets would likely be too much of a distraction, both for the batter and the pitcher. A pitcher’s wind-up and mechanics can be very sophisticated: many pitchers lift their arms up above their head where a helmet would get in the way. So a helmet won’t be approved either.

The new hats, designed by 4Licensing Corporation subsidiary isoBlox, use “plastic injection molded polymers combined with a foam substrate” which will essentially spread the impact of a line drive throughout the cap to minimize the directness of a hit. The caps will protect pitchers in the front of the head from speeds up to 90 miles per hour and on the sides up to 85 mph. Unfortunately, the hats will leave 60% of the head without protection, with the biggest concern being the face. Padre’s pitcher Chris Young, who was struck right between the eyebrows by an Albert Pujols line drive and suffered many broken bones in his face as well as a skull fracture, would not have benefited from the use of the new protective cap.

MLB understands this cap is just a starting point for increasing the safety for its pitchers. With players getting bigger and stronger — pitchers throwing harder, batters swinging faster — the likelihood of such injuries will only increase. It will always be a dangerous occupation, but how can the risks be minimized? That is something MLB struggled with in getting this far with the development of a protective hat, and will likely continue to struggle figuring out the rest.