Head injuries are among the most life threatening injuries an athlete can sustain. In 2013, there were two notable pitchers hit by line drives that caused career threatening injuries. On May 7th, Toronto Blue Jays pitcher J.A Happ was hit by a line drive off the bat of Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Desmond Jennings. Happ immediately collapsed on the mound and stayed on the ground for 11 minutes before being taken off the field on a stretcher. Happ suffered a fractured skull and sprain knee ligaments because of the impact and fall. It would be three months before the pitcher would return to the team.
One month later, on June 15th, Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Alex Cobb was struck in the head by a line drive off the bat of Kansas City Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer. Cobb was also taken off the field on a stretcher and suffered a mild concussion with a cut above his right ear. It wouldn’t be until August 15th, two months after the horrific injury, that Cobb was able to return to the pitcher’s mound.
Quite possibly the most notable occurrence of a pitcher being hit by a line drive was Oakland Athletics pitcher Brandon McCarthy. On September 5th 2012, the 29-year old right-hander was struck in the head by a line drive off the bat of Erick Aybar, one month before the Athletics would make the playoffs. McCarthy was able to walk off the field, but underwent surgery to repair a fractured skull and to release cranial pressure caused by a brain contusion. McCarthy would not pitch again that season and the following June, now a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks, McCarthy suffered a seizure while out to dinner with his family caused by the injuries suffered almost a year before.
On Tuesday, Major League Baseball announced a way to try and prevent more serious head injuries from occurring by unveiling a new protective hat for pitchers. The newly approved padded-hat will be introduced in spring training and made available for all 30 teams. The use of the hat for pitchers is optional.
The hat is manufactured by 4Licensing Corporation, a subsidiary of IsoBlox, which manufactures protective gear and padding for athletic wear. The company says that the hat increases the padding around the front of the skull by a little over half-an-inch and a full-inch on the sides of the hat where the temples are located.
The soft padding that increases protection is made of “plastic injection molded polymers combined with a foam substrate,” according to the company. The increased padding is designed to diffuse energy that allows up to 90 mph on frontal impact and 85 mph to impacts to the side of the head.
“What we’ve given [pitchers] is a product with protection they’ve never had before,” said 4Licensing chief executive officer Bruce Foster. “It changes the game for them.”
The increased thickness adds up to seven ounces to the weight of the cap which currently weighs 3-4 ounces, according to Foster. IsoBlox is working with New Era to get the padding fit into the MLB custom fit caps. Additionally, isoBlox will soon release a skull cap that can be worn under standard adjustable hats to help increase protection for collisions to the head. The removable skull cap is expected to hit the market soon.
The new hat technology will not prevent head injuries from occurring, but rather reduce the damage done by hits back to the mound. Many pitchers, after suffering these career threatening injuries, re-evaluate their pitching delivery with the help of their coaching staff. The belief in doing so is that the pitcher will finish his delivery more squared to home plate in order to position himself to be in a more defensive stance in the situation a line drive comes back at them.
ESPN Outside the Line did a story shortly after Happ’s injury and reported that 12 pitchers have been hit by line drives in the past six seasons. When asked by ESPN if Happ would embrace the new cap, the left-hander said he was not familiar with the new technology, Happ would go on to say;
“I’d have to see what the differences in feel would be — does it feel close enough to a regular cap? You don’t want to be out there thinking about it and have it take away from your focus on what you’re doing.”
IsoBlox believes that they can make a serious mark on the league with this new technology, but that it probably won’t be embraced by all major league pitchers. Professional athletes, especially baseball players, are creatures of habit and it is believed players will be reluctant to wear the new hat that doubles the existing weight they are familiar with.
The challenge for Major League Baseball and isoBlox is going to be marketing the new technology to youth baseball leagues to get them familiar with the new headwear. These injuries are not likely to go away with the development of this new hat technology, but the fact that the MLB is embracing these changes means they want to protect the future big leaguers to come.