Posted May 07, 2013

J.A. Happ’s injury a reminder of the urgency for head protection for pitchers

J.A. Happ, pitcher protection, Tampa Bay Rays, Toronto Blue Jays

Blue Jays lefty J.A. Happ was hit on the left side of the head by a line drive off the bat of Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Desmond Jennings in the second inning Tuesday night. Though Happ didn’t appear to lose consciousness, he was bleeding from the point of impact. After lying still (but not motionless, an important distinction) at the foot of the mound for roughly five minutes while being attended to by emergency medical technicians, he was strapped to an immobilizing backboard and wheeled away on a gurney.

For anyone twisted enough to want to watch it, here’s the video:

At the very end of that video, at roughly the 7:30 mark, Happ can be seen talking to the EMT wheeling him away and then waving to the crowd just as his gurney left the field. Still, the impact of his injury won’t be known for a while and could prove to be anything from minor to career-ending.

It hasn’t been very long since we last saw a scene like this. It was just last Sept. 5 that Brandon McCarthy, then with the A’s, had his skull fractured by a line drive. McCarthy required two hours of surgery to relieve an epidural hemorrhage and stabilize his fractured skull and didn’t pitch again that season, though he did experience a full recovery and has had no further complications from the injury this year as a member of the Diamondbacks.

In part because McCarthy is outspoken, well-spoken and media-friendly, many believed his injury would finally motivate Major League Baseball to find a way to protect their pitchers, arguably the most valuable and vulnerable players on the field. After all, baseball made helmets mandatory for base coaches after Mike Coolbaugh was killed by a line drive while coaching in a minor league game in July 2007, though it did take them until the following season to implement the rule.

Unfortunately, helmets are impractical for pitchers, so baseball needs to introduce a new piece of equipment to protect pitchers. And despite testing a variety of hat liners this past offseason, MLB has yet to find one it deems satisfactory simply because there is currently no cap liner that would sufficiently protect a pitcher from the impact of a line drive traveling more than 100 mph.

Even McCarthy agreed with MLB’s findings, saying, “The stuff that’s out there already is no good at all. It seems like it’s still a long way away. I don’t even care if it’s MLB-approved. I just want something that’s functionally approved by me.” The implication being nothing he’d seen met even that informal standard.

Indeed, MLB has no regulation against pitchers adopting such equipment, or even wearing helmets, on their own. McCarthy, a very forward-thinking player, would likely be the first in line to do so if something satisfactory existed (indeed, he told Outside the Lines in February he had experimented with facemasked cricket helmets in the offseason). Sadly, it does not.

Hopefully if any good can come out of the Happ incident Tuesday night, it will be that baseball and the companies involved, including EvoShield and Unequal Technologies, will double their efforts so the next pitcher to be hit by a comebacker will be protected when it happens.

13 comments
SephirothDZX
SephirothDZX

Part of the problem is that there's a good deal of pitchers who, after releasing their pitch, do not put themselves in an appropriate position to field the ball if it would come in to play (these are the same pitchers that usually have balls shoot between their legs or bounce off of them). I think reminding pitchers that they need to field their position would help a bunch.

John NoLastName
John NoLastName

And it's not just line drives to be concerned about. Every time the jagged end of a broken bat goes flying, there's the potential for serious, serious injury. It will happen sooner or later.

Jerry T
Jerry T

HaHa...blame the victim...a tried and true tactic from sexual assault to gun violence. 
You know, they once played hockey without helmets...same sort of objections were made when batting helmets were introduced!

And why not go back to leather helmets in football?...actually, there's some merit in that idea.

KevJord9
KevJord9

Here we go again. Another line drive and every blogger/reporter/media outlet starts screaming for baseball to protect its pitchers. Yet, not a single one of them ever says that maybe the pitcher (and pitching coach) are to blame. Watch the video (apparently, I'm sick and twisted for watching it) and you will clearly see Happ's body is facing third base when the ball is hit, leaving him in no position to defend himself or even field a baseball. Go back and watch every incident of the past few years and you will see the same thing in every one of them. McCarthy, Fister, Nicasio, and now Happ are all falling away from home plate (this is terrible pitching mechanics, by the way) leaving them defenseless. Baseball doesn't need to invent some new super-helmet or hat lining; they need to start educating pitchers and coaches on proper mechanics if they want to protect their pitchers.

Jerry T
Jerry T

I'm shocked, I tell you --shocked, that SI readers have nothing to contribute with respect to resolving this serious issue.

Jerry T
Jerry T

In designing new headgear, emphsis should be made in protecting the right side of the head for RHP an vice-versa.

In most, if not all, of the serious incidents I've seen, the greatest danger comes from line drives hit from low pitches. The brain's reaction time seems to be diminished for these, having evolved to be wary of  fast-moving threats from above.

Of course, it would never occur to MLB to raise the strike zone, lower the pitcher's mound or, heaven-forbid, move it back, even though the average pitch speed has increased by 20% since the current distance was established over 100 years ago.


lara.appleton
lara.appleton

oh shut up you two, you obviously know what he meant

PhD2014
PhD2014

So if people are twisted for watching it what does that make the person posting it.

Dozidotes
Dozidotes

"Twisted enough to watch it [the video]"? So, if I watch the video you put on your own news site, SI, I'm branded as "twisted" if I'm interested in seeing how the injury went down (no pun intended) and in seeing the positive things, such as how Happ was talking afterwards and how he waved to the crowd? SI, I take offense to your judgment of anyone who would want to watch the video!

Jerry T
Jerry T

@KevJord9 Yup...coaches need to tell pitchers not to throw fastballs, but rather to throw more curve balls and change-ups to give them more time to get into a better defensive stance!

RickMartin
RickMartin

@lara.appleton Yes, we know what he meant, but it was still uncalled for.  Please, by all means, insult your readers, Cliff Corcoran. You'll soon be writing for some weekly out of the Northwest Territories.

KevJord9
KevJord9

@Jerry T @KevJord9 Throwing a fastball has nothing to do with getting into a defensive stance. Not tucking the glove and falling away from the plate is poor mechanics and laziness.  I'm not the only one saying this anymore (thankfully).  If pitchers want to wear helmets, fine, but it's a far simpler fix to correct these bad mechanics and give them a chance to defend themselves. Not to mention chance of this happening are 2 in 700,000 (based on 2012 incidents and number of pitches thrown). It's just the latest knee-jerk, sensationalist journalism, reaction to a an extremely rare occurrence of which nobody has died.  As a matter of fact, all of the pitchers hit in the last few years have made full recoveries and are pitching in the majors again.  I wrote about this extensively at http://www.blakestreetbulletin.com/2012/12/07/line-drives-dont-kill-pitchers-but-bad-mechanics-might/

And your analogy to gun violence and sexual assault is patently ridiculous. Pitchers aren't forced to stand on the mound, throw pitches, or not move out of the way of line drives. Happ is not a victim of some crime. It's unfortunate what happened, but it was a rare, freak, accidental occurrence, unlike sexual assault and gun violence.

Jerry T
Jerry T

@KevJord9 @Jerry T Some pitchers would not be able to throw hard enough to get people out unless they put everything they've got into the pitch and subsequent follow-thru, precluding them enough time to get into defensive position...many of these with smaller stature.  So, the logical conclusion is to have these wear helmets for protection...or simply ban them from pitching in the majors.

I think a *parallel* solution would be to increase the time elapsed by moving the mound back a few feet (say at a rate of six inches per year).  Not only would this protect the pitchers, it would protect hitters, catchers and umpires as well.  In a pitching dominated game of today this would tend to help the offense...if it went too far, MLB would always be in a position to increase the size of home plate and the strike zone.  

When they reduced the height of the mound to ten inches in 1968, this helped out the offense, which had been suffering.  I think another reduction to six inches would improve the game as well as afford greater protection.

But with *money in charge*, these ideas will never be tested, since MLB has become completely calcified by it.