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The Strike Zone

MLB approves new headgear to protect pitchers, but how much protection do they provide?

Alex Cobb, Rays The Rays' Alex Cobb missed two months last season after being struck in the head by a line drive. (Brian Blanco/AP)

On Tuesday, Major League Baseball announced that it has approved a padded cap, providing pitchers with increased protection against batted balls. While use of the cap is optional, this is a welcome addition to MLB's efforts toward increased player safety.

The movement to provide more protection for pitchers picked up momentum after A's pitcher Brandom McCarthy was hit by an Erick Aybar line drive on Sept. 5, 2012. McCarthy suffered a skull fracture and epidural hemorrhaging and needed emergency surgery. Other high-profile shots to the head since then sustained by Tigers' Doug Fister, the Blue Jays' J.A. Happ and the Rays' Alex Cobb  have increased awareness of the need for such gear, though an effort to approve a product for the 2013 season fell short.

The final product that's been approved may not have prevented the injuries of the aforementioned pitchers. Manufactured by a company called 4Licensing, the isoBlox Protective Cap, has a similar profile to the standard cap as far as coming down only to the top of the ears; McCarthy, Happ and Cobb were all struck below the cap line. Yes, the isoBlox looks kind of funny, though it certainly beats the sight of a pitcher leaving the mound on a stretcher.

According to 4Licensing CEO Bruce Foster, the padding in the new caps is made of "plastic injection modled polymers combined with a foam substrate" designed to absorb and disperse the energy of line drives up to 90 mph in the front (where the padding is half an inch thicker than standard caps) and 85 mph on the sides (where the padding is an inch thicker). The padding, which is sent to New Era — the maker of MLB's official custom-fitted caps — adds seven ounces to the standard 3-4 ounce cap.

According to MLB executive vice president for labor relations Dan Halem and MLB senior counsel for labor relations Patrick Houlihan, an MLB-commissioned study determined that the average line drive is traveling at 83 mph when it reaches the mound, so that mark was set as the threshold for approval. Even so, such line drives can still exceed 100 mph according to Greg Rybarczyk, creator of the ESPN Home Run Tracker, who cited the example of a 2006 Vladimir Guerrero drive that gave Rafael Soriano a concussion. Physicist Alan Nathan, who has served on panels advising MLB and the NCAA, said via Twitter that HITx/f data indicted that the drive that hit Happ was moving at 97.4 mph, while the one that hit Cobb was at 102.3 mph. "Clearly 100 mph is the right benchmark," he Tweeted, though he noted, "Regarding the 83-mph helmets: while most head impacts will occur at higher speeds, the helmets will surely provide some protection."

Indeed, while the new padding provides some protection above 90 mph, it's not at the same level as slower speeds. Said Halem, "Short of wearing a helmet, I am doubtful there'll be a product to protect against 100 miles per hour."

Even if the new caps fall short of protecting from the highest speeds, this is a significant step forward, and an improvement on earlier efforts towards such headgear, of which McCarthy was particularly critical. Last May, after Happ suffered a skull fracture due to a Desmond Jennings liner, McCarthy said via a series of Tweets, "Anybody taking the hard line stance today that pitchers should be wearing helmets, need to get out their tool kits and make a good one. Otherwise, you're accomplishing less than nothing… Want money? Invent something that protects pitchers heads at all levels, make a ton of it."

At the time of McCarthy's statements, MLB was reported to have tested nine devices and spoken to more than a dozen companies. It has yet to be reported how many additional products or companies were involved in reaching the point of an approved product. The league will continue to work with companies on other safety products. A forthcoming isoBlox product for use in youth leagues is a padded skull cap that will slide into standard adjustable caps.

McCarthy still isn't sold. He told ESPN that while he has tested the new protective cap, he wouldn't wear it in its current form: "The technology is there... It's proven to help. But I don't think it's ready yet, as a major league-ready product. And I told them that. I told them that's where it's at." Though grateful for the steps taken to this point, he cited the cap's size, its lack of snugness and heat retention, saying, "You can't pitch a day game in St. Louis wearing it, or a day game in Baltimore." He believes that such issues will limit the number of players who will wear it.

At the MLB level, the padded caps are just one part of a larger push to protect players, particularly when it comes to head injuries. In recent years, with the growing awareness of the debilitating long-term effects of concussions — not to mention the financial liability that a league can incur — MLB has approved safer batting helmets. In 2009, the oversized "Great Gazoo" helmet made its first appearance after David Wright returned from a concussion, though he quickly discarded it. Last spring, a new, less bulky helmet designed protect players from pitches up to 100 mph was not only approved and introduced but its use mandated by the Collective Bargaining Agreement, requiring all players to wear it. In 2011, MLB instituted a new seven-day disabled list for players who suffered them, as well as a detailed protocol which players had to clear before returning to activity.

Recent changes have moved beyond simply protecting heads. Back in December, MLB's Rules Committee began drafting a proposal to ban home plate collisions, something the players' union will need to sign off on before it becomes an official rule. Earlier this month, MLB announced that the union, the umpires and the teams have approved an expansion of instant replay, but in doing so specifically excluded the "neighborhood play" from review, thereby allowing middle infielders to continue phantom-tagging second base on forceouts before receiving the ball and then moving out of the way of an oncoming runner.

It remains to be seen how many pitchers adopt the new caps, which will be made available during spring training, but the hurdle of approving the new equipment is a major one to have cleared, and other products are likely to follow in its wake. Here's hoping the coming weeks find an announcement regarding plate collisions as well. While such changes may rankle traditionalists, baseball shouldn't be a contact sport except when bat meets ball. Besides, the the game is at its best when its best players are on the field instead of in the hospital.
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