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The Strike Zone

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

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:

[mlbvideo id="26917245" width="600" height="336" /]

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.

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