Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Will MLB's New Padded Caps Play a Role in 2014?

Major League Baseball has approved the use of padded caps for the upcoming 2014 campaign. The protective headgear will be fair game for pitchers who choose to use the newest safety feature in an attempt to decrease the severity of an injury should they be in the sports' scariest situation - a comeback line drive.

In September of 2012, then-Oakland A's pitcher Brandon McCarthy was struck by a ball off the bat of Los Angeles Angels infielder Erick Aybar. The impact triggered internal bleeding and forced McCarthy into emergency surgery to relieve the pressure on his brain. McCarthy has since returned to the mound for the Arizona Diamondbacks, but even after learning about the allowable padding for pitchers, he has stated that he will not be using it.

"Nobody wants this to work more than me," he said. "But we tried to take this as far as we could and see if its something that could work, but it just wasn't there."

McCarthy has several issues with the cap, the most glaring of which was it's failure of the eye test.

"It's just too big," he said. The cap is a half-inch thicker in the front, and an inch thicker on both sides above the ears. With the added protection, the hat will cause problems on a hot day and it will not fit how a normal cap would.

These may not seem like particularly egregious issues, but to a baseball player, trust me, this could wind up having a much more adverse effect on a pitcher. Baseball players are some of the most superstitious beings on the planet. Left-handed pitchers in particular rank just a few percentage points of strangeness behind Russian hockey goalies.

"You can't pitch a day game in St. Louis wearing it, or a day game in Baltimore. I've thrown in it in optimal conditions, inside where it's cool, and your head gets itchy. If your head moves a tick, you feel it. You notice it."

Nationals pitcher Chris Young has also shared in the horrifying experience of a head-high comebacker (good but scary link to some of the worst incidents since 2008). "Look, if there's something out there that meets the safety standards and is not going to hinder performance, guys will wear it," he told ESPN's Jayson Stark. "Guys do care about safety now. Everyone is starting to understand the importance of brain injuries and head injuries, and nobody is more at risk than pitchers.

"But, I'm not overly optimistic."

Luckily, these sorts of occurrences are still a rarity in the sport. Young is spot-on in saying that no player is more at risk than a pitcher. If a batter draws the short straw and takes an errant fastball to the head, at least he has a helmet on. Pitchers have what, one-sixteenth of an inch of material, plus maybe some lettuce to protect themselves? Every pitcher wishes that there was some way to know he could be safer on the mound, but the fact still remains that if this is something that is going to hinder performance, pitchers will simply be unwilling to don the new lids.

The MLB may be at an impasse, because looking at the options, there are not many paths to travel down when looking for a hat/helmet hybrid that wouldn't be visually gaudy. But for now, at least they have taken the initiative.

There are players who would wear it.  I just went to Google search Matt Clement.  I typed in 'Matt Cl-,' and auto-filled after his completed name was "hit in head." There are pitchers who's hearts are still in the game, but all it took was that one unlucky line drive to take their heads out of it.

As of now, I see this new safety feature having a far greater impact on past incidents than it will have in preventing future ones.  Maybe players will experiment with the caps in Spring Training, but only time will tell if these protective hats are to have a role in Major League Baseball.

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