Before Toronto pitcher J.A. Happ was hit in the head by a line drive last month and Tampa Bay’s Alex Cobb was taken off the field on a stretcher June 15, the mere suggestion of wearing protective headwear on the mound might have been lost, even on Braves left-hander Paul Maholm.
“For me, it wouldn’t have helped,” Maholm said.
Maholm was struck in the face by a line drive in 2004, his first full season in the minor leagues. He was pitching for Single-A Lynchburg when he hung a curveball to Casey Rogowski and never even saw the ball before it hit him flush under his left eye.
Maholm has three titanium plates in his face and a scar across the top of his head. And he was one of the lucky ones.
With every line drive to a pitcher’s head, Maholm gets asked for his reaction. It happened in September, when Athletics pitcher Brandon McCarthy suffered a brain injury after taking a line drive over his right ear. (McCarthy, who now plays for the Diamondbacks, had a seizure this month because of its effects.) Questions kept coming with the injuries to Happ and Cobb.
With each asking, Maholm’s stance seems to loosen. At least it did over the course of one conversation on the subject this week. His first few responses centered on how pitchers being at risk is “part of the gig.” He said he’s not a proponent of wearing a helmet or a mask.
But with a few more questions, not even especially probing ones, he eventually comes around to this:
“The unfortunate part is we’re not going to act quick enough until something tragic happens,” Maholm said. “And we’ll kind of wish we had changed something.”
The idea generating the most momentum is using protective inserts that fit inside a pitcher’s cap. Maholm figures the lure of the financial impact it could have for some entrepreneur or company is just the kind of enticement needed.
Several companies have already been working on prototypes, and Braves players, like others around the majors, had a chance to see one of them during spring training. It did not make a good impression.
“Unless they make some significant strides in the technology, it’s not going to happen any time soon,” Braves right-hander Brandon Beachy said. “It was bad.”
Rawlings, for one, has shown how quickly it can improve a product. Rawlings introduced the S100 batting helmet in 2009 to protect batters from pitches of speeds up to 100 mph. Players didn’t like its weight and bulk, so Rawlings came back with a lighter and smaller but similarly effective model. Use of the new S100 Pro Comp was mandated across the majors this season as part of the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
No one knows if the introduction of a cap insert would have helped Cobb, who was hit reportedly by a 102.4 mph line drive off the bat of Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer. Cobb spent the night in a hospital and was released the following day, diagnosed with only a mild concussion.
Still, some form of light protective headwear is an idea that even veteran pitchers such as Maholm and Tim Hudson are warming to.
“If I can’t tell it’s there, I’ll wear it,” Hudson said.
Of course the second part of Hudson’s answer was this: “If it’s something where I’m feeling like (The Great) Gazoo (from the Flintstones) out there when I’m pitching, I ain’t going to wear it.”
Maholm feels the same way.
“I’m not saying I wouldn’t wear anything,” Maholm said. “I’m just saying I don’t want to be out there thinking about it. If they have (an insert) for a hat that feels normal, then that’s great. But if they come up with helmets or masks, to me that might be going a little overboard.”
Pitchers don’t want a reminder to be apprehensive or tentative on the mound. They also want to be able to react quickly. A race car driver can get by with his head immobilized — NASCAR mandated the use of the HANS (Head and Neck Support) device in 2001 after the death of legendary driver Dale Earnhardt. For pitchers, a mere flinch can make all the difference.
“Honestly you don’t think about protecting yourself,” Hudson said. “After you throw, as soon as you see the ball coming off, that’s when you’re like ‘Oh (expletive).’ You’re making pitches, and you’re throwing. You hope to be in a decent fielding position to catch a ground ball. The last thing on your mind is ‘I’ve got to move my head out of the way.’ But if it comes your way, you hope to be in a decent athletic-enough position to get out of the way of it.”
Pitchers’ No. 1 priority on the mound is their effectiveness.
“Bottom line, nobody is putting anything on their head that’s going to affect the way they pitch,” Beachy said.
If the recent rash of these injuries is any indication, though, this issue isn’t going anywhere any time soon. In fact, Hudson has a theory that as the game distances itself from the steroids era, pitchers are going to see more balls hit up the middle.
“A lot of hitters might be having a better approach at the plate, staying the other way and up the middle instead of trying to hit homers,” Hudson said. “(As) more people have those kinds of approaches, you’re going to have more line drives up the middle. Instead of (with) that same pitch (before), somebody tries to yank it for a home run, and they may roll over it.”