Heavy, sweaty, itchy: Why pitchers won’t use protective caps

When he was with the A's, Brandon McCarthy (32) was hit in the head by a line drive on Sept. 5, 2012.

Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

PHOENIX — This was supposed to be the year.

Major League Baseball pitchers were finally supposed to be blessed with some protection – aside from merely their very human reflexes, of course – when a line drive came screaming at their heads, traveling faster than 100 miles an hour. The sort of line drive that nearly ended Brandon McCarthy’s career a couple of years ago, and has threatened the careers – and yes, lives – of many dozens or hundreds of other professional pitchers over the years. Last year, J.A. Happ suffered a grievous injury, too.

Because McCarthy’s injury was so traumatic, and because he’s among the most articulate, intelligent and publicly outgoing players in the majors, he became the poster boy for the invention and prospective adoption of protective headgear for pitchers.

When I spoke to McCarthy a year ago in spring training, he was already involved with that effort, and he seemed optimistic that something was coming soon. And when Brandon McCarthy’s optimistic, I’m optimistic.

Before any pitcher wears protecting headgear in an actual game, though, two things have to happen:

1. Major League Baseball must officially approve gear.

2. Actual pitchers must actually embrace and wear gear.

Six weeks ago, the first of those actually happened:

On Tuesday morning, MLB informed its 30 teams that it has approved such a product for the first time, after consultation with the players’ association, according to Dan Halem, MLB executive vice president for labor relations.

“We’re excited to have a product that meets our safety criteria,” Halem told “Outside the Lines,” adding that baseball will continue its efforts to come up with more options. “MLB is committed to working with manufacturers to develop products that offer maximum protection to our players, and we’re not stopping at all.”

Halem and MLB senior counsel for labor relations Patrick Houlihan said the threshold for approval was that the cap had to provide protection, at 83 miles per hour, below the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment standard severity index of 1,200. Severity indexes higher than 1,200 are considered high-risk for skull fractures and traumatic brain injuries. An MLB-commissioned study determined that 83 mph was the average speed of a line drive when it reaches the area of the pitching mound.

Those numbers throw up a red flag. Aren’t pitchers usually going to catch or deflect or evade the average line drives? I wonder how fast the line drives that struck McCarthy and Happ traveled. Faster than 83 miles an hour, I’ll wager.

AROUND THE HORN

Which isn’t to say the new headgear wouldn’t provide some protection against faster liners. It just seems that 83’s merely a good start, considering how many of the most dangerous drives must be faster.

Still, some protection is better than none. Which brings us to the second step, and the reason you’re probably not going to see anybody wearing one of these things this season: Pitchers hate the thing, as Tyler Kepner wrote in the Times:

In an effort to protect pitchers from line drives, Major League Baseball approved a padded-cap design Tuesday for optional use this season. But a pitcher whose injury helped accelerate the effort, Brandon McCarthy of the Arizona Diamondbacks, deflated much of the excitement by declaring he would not use it.

McCarthy, who needed emergency surgery after he was struck in the head by a liner while pitching for Oakland in 2012, worked on the product with M.L.B. and isoBlox, the cap’s manufacturer. But he told ESPN that even though baseball had approved its use, he thought the cap was too big, too hot and too itchy for him to wear.

“Hopefully, in a couple of years, they can come up with something that everyone wears and that you don’t notice it being on your head while you’re out there,” McCarthy said, adding later, “But right now, it’s just not there.”

–snip–

Pitcher Brett Anderson of the Colorado Rockies posted a photo of the cap on his Twitter account, with the message “I’ll pass on the Super Mario Brothers inspired padded hat.”

It’s easy to focus on the look of the thing, but this isn’t really about that. As Kepner notes, “The padding in the isoBlox cap more than doubles the weight of the cap. The company said a typical cap weighed three to four ounces, and the insert added an extra seven ounces.”

But that vastly understates the weight difference. If a typical cap weighs three-and-a-half ounces and the insert adds an extra seven ounces, the padding triples the weight. Maybe ten-and-a-half ounces doesn’t seem like a lot. It is.

Monday night in Scottsdale, McCarthy reached deep into his locker and pulled out a Diamondbacks cap fitted with the foam inserts. After running my fingers all around the padding, I asked him if I could try it on and yes, it felt strange.

Granted, no stranger than batting helmets must have felt to players in the 1950s when those were introduced. But there’s a big difference: A batter actually wants to keep his head still, while a pitcher can’t keep his head still. Yes, there will be custom fittings for major-league pitchers who want them, but I’m not sure the caps will be practical in the amateur ranks.*

(Note: I didn’t get a photo of McCarthy’s cap, but you can get an idea of what it looks like here. And yes, isoBlox is selling less sophisticated, lighter inserts for (presumably younger, amateur) pitchers, for a cool $59.95 … which brings up another question, though. In a world where it’s already incredibly expensive for kids and teenagers to play baseball, who’s going to pay for all these new inserts? Are we happy to continue the trend toward nobody being able to play youth baseball except the rich and the foreign? Ah, but that’s an issue for another day.)

The new protective headgear for major leaguers isn’t just blocky and heavy — it’s also, as McCarthy pointed out, warm. Just remember how sweaty you’ve seen pitchers on television (or how sweaty you became, if you ever pitched). Now triple the weight of your cap, and imagine throwing 30 pitches in the fifth inning of a game in Texas in August against the best hitters in the world. McCarthy told me that when he tested the new headgear over the winter, he was dripping with sweat after just seven or eight minutes.

Again, it’s easy to focus on the look of the thing, and the look is an impediment to adoption. But I think if the thing actually worked — if it offered significant protection and didn’t keep the pitcher from pitching well — that one pitcher would wear it, and then others would wear it. But as McCarthy told ESPN.com, “it’s just not there yet.”

If McCarthy won’t wear it, probably nobody will because being protected while doing your job is irrelevant if you can’t actually do your job.

It’ll get there, eventually. But it won’t be easy, and it might not be fast.

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