Protecting the pitcher: The lesson of Brandon McCarthy

I’ve always been reluctant to make it mandatory for pitchers to wear protective headgear, especially helmets, which are clunky and might not stay properly in place due to the violent nature of the pitching motion. But now, after the Brandon McCarthy situation, I’m ready to change my mind, at least partially.

McCarthy, a talented right-hander who has been part of Oakland’s surprising starting rotation, is now in stable condition after undergoing brain surgery to relieve an epidural hemorrhage, a brain contusion, and a skull fracture. Yet, he remains in a potentially life-threatening situation several days after being hit in the head with a line drive off the bat of the Angels’ Erick Aybar. Given the seriousness of his injuries, it is time for Major League Baseball to seriously consider protective headgear for pitchers.

Pitchers are fewer than 60 feet, six inches away from home upon delivery of the ball; the reaction time is incredibly small, even for elite athletes like major league pitchers. Based on a sampling of opinion from other writers at The Hardball Times, the average line drive comes back at the pitcher at about 80 to 85 miles per hour. The line drive that caromed off the right side of McCarthy’s head last Wednesday could have been going even faster, perhaps 90 or more mph. (The speed of a home run ball is generally 100 mph or faster.) Given that many pitchers are off balance and not in fielding position at the conclusion of their motions, it is unrealistic to expect most pitchers to be able to evade a line drive targeted for the head.

I’m still concerned about the awkward nature of a helmet, especially one that could shift during the process of winding up and throwing, and so could affect the pitcher’s line of vision. Perhaps a better solution would be to fit pitchers with a protective liner worn under the cap. It’s true that the liner wouldn’t protect the face or the ears, but it would at least cover the top part of the skull.

Jackie Robinson wore a leather liner under his cloth cap during the ’40s and ’50s, out of fear that some headhunting pitchers had racist motivation. More recently, fiber or plastic liners were worn by a few position players in the 1970s: Bob Montgomery, Tony Taylor and Norm Cash come to mind as the last three players to bat without helmets. Though I’m not sure if any of the three were actually hit in the head with pitches during their careers, the bottom line is that all three escaped the game without serious injuries to their heads.

I think it’s time to do something before one of today’s pitchers has to endure what McCarthy is experiencing. Or worse. One of these days, we’re going to see another fatality related to an on-field happenstance, something that will be a tragic sequel to Ray Chapman in 1920. And right now, the pitchers are the most vulnerable people on the field; they are the ones that need the most help.

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  1. Tom B said...

    Any moment, any player on the field could get hurt like this.  Overreacting to one pitcher getting hit in the head (which, if it was a real concern would happen much more frequently).  Batters (and catchers) get hit by thrown balls with full helmets on and it doesn’t help them.

    This is just like the 1b/3B coaches being required to wear helmets.  One guy gets hurt, everyone else suffers.

    Yes, it is unfortunate that McCarthy is in this situation, but messing up every other pitcher in the league by forcing them to wear a helmet?  Reactionary and un-helpful.

    “Given that many pitchers are off balance and not in fielding position at the conclusion of their motions, it is unrealistic to expect most pitchers to be able to evade a line drive targeted for the head. “

    Maybe if proper pitching mechanics were taught, they would be in proper position to field a ball hit back at them.

  2. Mitch said...

    I guess I’ll take (what I hope is) the troll bait.

    Tom, I’m not sure base coaches wearing helmets is exactly suffering. And in the incident I think you are referring to, a man was killed, not hurt.

    I’m curious as to what those proper pitching mechanics are. Covering up in the fetal position after every pitch?

  3. JR said...

    And then there’s:

    “Batters (and catchers) get hit by thrown balls with full helmets on and it doesn’t help them.”


  4. Shane Tourtellotte said...

    I confess to bridling a little at the notion that sports, or any physical activity, can and should be made “perfectly” safe.  Now, this is not what Mr. Markusen himself is saying, as attentive reading of his article will show.  But it is a mindset that often quickly enters discussions of this kind, and is devilishly hard to refute without looking like an ogre.  Nothing in life is perfectly safe, and baseball is just a step or two down the scale from crossing the street, depending on the traffic in your neighborhood.

    But if you look at that replay (as I have, more than once), it’s easy to start reconsidering a little.  Prompt, advanced medical attention may well have saved Brandon McCarthy’s life.  One can’t help thinking that that same level of attention, cast back ninety years, could have saved Ray Chapman’s life, too.

    I would not mandate anything, but I would permit some innovations.  If a pitcher wants to wear a specially lined cap, or even a helmet, I think the rules should accommodate him without requiring it of everyone.  There will be a slippery slope risk, and I’m guessing a pretty high one, of a creeping mandate.  I’d take the risk, in hopes of postponing the day that there’s another fatality in MLB.

    Thanks for a thoughtful look at the issue, Bruce.

  5. Richard Chen said...

    I’ll avoid the meat of your article, for there’s little to add.

    One thing I’ve wondered about McCarthy’s injury is whether there’s any benefit to waiting for him to walk off on his own power. I say get the stretcher out there immediately for a head injury and cart him off to the hospital. Maybe it’s a fear of spinal damage, though the trainers are there. Or maybe there’s a possibility he might have continued pitching, though I thought on replay that he kind of convulsed.

  6. Bad Bill said...

    Thanks for the article, but I’m not convinced.  Three points:

    First, it is not clear that the proposed solution (cap liner) would accomplish what it’s there for.  It’s difficult to see exactly where this ball impacted McCarthy’s noggin, but it looked to me as though it was below the cap (which, note, didn’t go flying off his head), and not in a part of the head that a liner would cover.  The liner certainly wouldn’t have protected Chris Young from what Albert Pujols did to him a few years ago, or Herb Score long before that, and so on.  A solution that doesn’t actually solve the problem is at best a stopgap, and often misguided.

    Second, why is it so outrageous to stress teaching of followthrough into fielding position as one of those things a pitcher has to learn?  Fielding technique is required of every position (DH isn’t a “position”, is it?), and catchers who don’t learn how to avoid damage while blocking the plate, or second basemen who don’t learn how to avoid take-out slides on double plays, are also in constant peril.  They just don’t make it through the minors without either learning to do it or having it violently shoved down their throats, by way of possibly career-ending collisions, that there’s something missing in their toolkit.  It’s not like following through into good fielding position is impossible for pitchers; many do it.  All should.

    Third, this may sound callous, but compare the number of pitchers who’ve been hurt by comebackers with the number of fans in the bleachers who have been hurt or even killed at games.  If baseball has a safety problem, I venture to say that the worst of it ain’t on the field.  Fix the big problems, then start on the smaller ones—even if a smaller one has a particularly unfortunate manifestation that catches our attention for a while.

  7. Bruce Markusen said...

    First off, thanks, Shane.

    Bad Bill, people in baseball have already talked about putting up a netting along the first and third base dugouts, just like there is a screen behind home plate, to protect the fans who are particularly close to the action. So I don’t think that’s a problem that being completely ignored; that is a problem that is already being looked at, and will continue to be looked at. It’s especially a concern in the new parks, where there is limited foul territory.

    Finally, I don’t think it’s outrageous to teach a pitching motion with a balanced follow through. But that seems to be a low priority today in this era of maximum effort follow-throughs. Coaching philosophy will have to change on that issue.

    I also think that common sense would help with that situation. Fans who sit close to the action need to pay attention when a batter is at the plate, especially if they’re on the opposite side. (For example, fans on the third base side when a left-handed hitter is at the plate.) It’s also a good idea for fans in those sections to bring gloves with them. If I sat in those high-priced seats, I would.

    With regard to your first point, nothing short of a full mask and helmet will completely protect the pitcher’s face and head. But since that kind of equipment is probably not practical for a pitcher, why not try the next best thing (a liner) that would at least offer some level of protection? Partial protection is better than no protection, is it not?

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