Seeing Detroit’s Doug Fister pitch against the Red Sox on Wednesday this week made me cringe. However, my feelings had nothing to do with how he dominated the Red Sox. I was remembering last year’s World Series, when a line drive scorched up the middle hit Fister in the head. The ball hit him so hard that it ricocheted all the way to center field in the air. Amazingly, Fister was OK. He even stayed in the game and later joked about having a hard head, saying that his dad told him “as long as I got hit in the head I was OK”.
But imagine if the angle had been just a few centimeters different– if instead of caroming forward, the ball had hit him straight on. Wired Magazine did an analysis of the ball that hit Fister and said it was probably going only 99 mph. Suppose that instead of Gregor Blanco at bat, it had been a power hitter who got everything into it.
I predict that in five years, all pitchers in baseball will be wearing helmets, and possibly even face masks. They will think it ridiculous that pitchers in our time were not protected, just as we shudder when watching the old videos of hitters hitting without helmets. I just hope that what precipitates the adoption of helmet use by pitchers is something other than a pitcher being killed on the field by a ball up the middle. This tragedy is likely to occur unless a change is made.
How can we predict that this will happen? Well, it has already happened to a batter.
On August 16, 1920, when Ray Chapman of the Indians squared around to bunt, he was hit in the head by the ball. He lost consciousness, and died the next day. Chapman, pictured above, had been a well known player, with the nickname “Chappie.” He had led the American League in both runs scored and walks in 1918. Shortly before the 1920 season, Chapman married Kathleen Daly, and there was conjecture it was going to be his last season. Sadly, it was.
This death contributed to the requirement that batters wear helmets—thirty years later!
Pitchers are even more vulnerable than hitters. Hitters are aware that a ball is coming at them every pitch, and are crouched in a batting stance. On the other hand, pitchers finish their motion in a vulnerable stance, and, because a hit up the middle is rare, they cannot be fully prepared for it when it does occur.
On June 15 of this year, Tampa Bay Ray’s pitcher Alex Cobb was hit by a line drive and sustained a concussion. The video showing this is very disturbing. On September 5 of 2012, Brandon McCarthy of the A’s was hit in the head and required brain surgery. He came back this year but he had a seizure. Immediately after these episodes there was a lot of talk about putting helmets on pitchers. Major League Baseball (MLB) even said last year that, “We think (helmets for pitchers is) possible for 2013 in the Minor Leagues”. Why not the Major Leagues, and why didn’t it happen in the Minor Leagues this year?
Baseball’s medical director, Dr. Gary Green, says, “The pitching motion is already prone to injury; if a helmet mucks with it, injuries could increase. It would be very hard to put helmets on pitchers, given today’s technology”. I disagree that our society does not have the technology to design a helmet for a pitcher. I just don’t think those who are profiting from baseball have enough sense of urgency yet to make this happen.
The company Easton-Bell unveiled this model in 2011 of a helmet for a pitcher. While rolling out the ideal helmet may be complicated, this model does look promising. Dr. Green instead predicts that padding inside the hat or some other insert is a more likely option for pitchers. This is baseball’s medical director?
It’s not like pitchers getting hit is a new phenomenon and there has not been ample time to prepare. In 1957, a rising pitching star named Herb Score, who had recently been named rookie of the year, was hit and had facial bones broken and damage done to his eye. His career was essentially over.
Another argument I have heard against a face mask on a pitcher is that it would make the game of baseball less telegenic. How telegenic would it be to see a pitcher die on the field? What sponsor would want to be associated with something like that?
It’s not a matter of “if” pitchers will eventually wear helmets, it’s “when”. There should be a dire sense of urgency to have something ready by tonight. Two great pitchers are pitching—Michael Washa and Clayton Kershaw — and they are putting their lives at risk.