What is the best way to protect baseball pitchers?

I recently had the pleasure of talking with Mike Oliver, the Executive Director for NOCSAE, and Dr. Gary Green, the Medical Director for Major League Baseball, for a book I am writing. I reached out to Dr. Green to discuss safety efforts in baseball and to Mr. Oliver to better understand helmets and other protective equipment in sports. After the injury I describe below, I wanted to include their thoughts in my latest newspaper column. I expect more attention will be focused on protective equipment for baseball pitchers in the coming months and years.

A scary event last night at Yankee Stadium will undoubtedly renew calls for baseball to find better ways to protect pitchers.Older baseball pitcher throwing

Yankees pitcher hit by line drive

A line drive rocketing off the bat of Minnesota Twins’ shortstop Eduardo Nunez struck New York Yankees rookie pitcher Bryan Mitchell in the face. The ball knocked off the right-hander’s cap, and Mitchell fell to the ground. Seconds later he rose to his knees and lifted his head as blood poured down his face.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi later told ESPN, “It was really, really scary. It seems like your heart just drops into your stomach, and you are scared for the kid. You see blood coming out. … I was really worried.”

Mitchell walked off the field with a towel on his face and with his arm around the team’s athletic trainer. Doctors at New York-Presbyterian Hospital diagnosed him with a small nasal fracture. They released the pitcher from the hospital, but the team will continue to monitor Mitchell for concussion symptoms.

The risks to batters and pitchers

Injuries to batters, like Giancarlo Stanton and Jason Heyward, hit in the face by pitches have brought attention to batter safety in recent years. Pitchers face similar risks.

I talked to Mike Oliver, the Executive Director for the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE), about the risks to players hit by line drives.

Also read:
Should baseball pitchers wear helmets?
Should Major League Baseball adopt breakaway bases?

“Honestly, I can’t see that a player in the field has less exposure to an injury than a batter,” Oliver argued. “Arguably, it’s bigger, because the ball comes off the bat typically faster than it came in. A batter is at risk of getting hit by a pitched ball, but a baserunner or a defensive player is at risk of getting hit by a batted ball. I would think head protection ought to be at least as robust as the batter’s helmet, particularly if you’re talking about protecting the face.”

Serious, but fortunately rare, events

These events, while both frightening and potentially catastrophic, are fortunately rare. I discussed pitcher protection with Dr. Gary Green, the Medical Director for Major League Baseball. He estimates that a batted ball hits a pitcher in the head one or two times per season. With roughly 750,000 pitches thrown in Major League Baseball every year, about one ball in every 300,000 pitches or so results in head or facial injuries to a major league pitcher. Youth pitcher facing forward

Padded caps not enough

In response to several high-profile injuries to pitchers in recent years, including Brandon McCarthy, J.A. Happ and Alex Cobb, MLB and helmet manufacturers have tried to create padded caps to prevent skull fractures. Few players currently wear them.

Four MLB pitchers have been struck in the head this season, according to the New York Times. The ball hit each pitcher below his cap line. A padded cap would not have helped in any of those events, including protecting Mitchell’s nose.

The problems with facial protection for pitchers

Dr. Green notes that adding facial protection could be problematic. Such a shield would probably require a chinstrap, interfering with a pitcher’s head motion and vision.

Oliver agrees that adding facial protection could be challenging because it couldn’t be added to the current baseball caps. “The face guard,” Oliver explains, “has to be worn with the head protection because it needs that rigid system to support the blow and manage the energy.”

If baseball wants to mandate helmets, or even helmets with additional face guards, it would best start at the youth level. Dr. Green thinks that if a Little League pitcher started wearing a protective cap, it would begin to feel normal as he progressed to high school, college and the minor leagues.

Technique changes might be better approach

He does, however, point out a potentially better way for young pitchers to avoid these injuries.

“The other way to prevent this, in addition to equipment, is proper pitcher positioning,” Dr. Green states. He points to former Atlanta Braves pitcher Greg Maddux, who always finished his follow-through with his face toward the plate and his glove raised. Maddux’s technique helped him win 18 Gold Glove awards.

Message for parents and youth coaches

That could be the important message for parents and coaches. “Teach proper pitching mechanics when they’re young so that they’re not falling off the mound, and they are in the proper fielding position to protect themselves as well,” Dr. Green says.

Also read:
Concussions in professional baseball
Discourage home plate collisions in baseball

Expect baseball to continue to research helmets and facial protection to better protect players. It probably won’t become mandatory equipment for years, if they ever are.

Head and facial injuries to baseball pitchers are fortunately rare events, but they can result in catastrophic injuries when they do occur. Baseball coaches and parents teaching better mechanics at an early age might be a good step even without better equipment.

Note: A modified version of this article appears as my sports medicine column in the August 18, 2015 issue of The Post and Courier.

What do you think? Should baseball adopt helmets with facial protection for pitchers? How else can we decrease these injuries? Share your ideas below!

References:
Yankees Game Turns Grisly in an Instant as Bryan Mitchell Is Hit. By Tyler Kepner. The New York Times. August 17, 2015.

Yankees P Bryan Mitchell has nasal fracture after taking line drive to face. By Andrew Marchand. ESPN.com. August 18, 2015.

13 Responses to What is the best way to protect baseball pitchers?

  1. I’m frustrated at baseball over this topic. Implement something now that would reduce the risk and move forward and continue to make progress. Even if the risk reduction is onlying 20%, it is a step forward. We have seat belts, abs, traction control, and in some cars collision avoidance systems. While the auto industry advanced baseball did nothing.

  2. There is a new (2 years?) helmet out by Schutt “Pitcher’s Protector” it works. I have tried several others without success. Others blocked vision or had other issues that interfered with normal pitching. The Schutt “Pitcher’s Protector” works perfect. There’s no chin strap so correct head measurement is important for correct size. Please take a look at this. Its basically a coaches helmet with a face guard. Its light weight and stays put even when the head wearing it is drenched with sweat and the pitcher can see clearly. No, I do not work for any manufacturer, retailer etc. I have a son pitching and recognize that head hits are rare but are very serious and it only takes one to destroy a career or worse. Please take a minute to look at this one. Why, because with your position you have influence. No high school coach wants to be the first with a pitcher wearing a helmet. If they are required then he has an excuse. Unfortunately anything new that can save injury or death has a stigma automatically attached. The good news is this helmet looks like a baseball helmet should. It won’t stop all injury from a direct hit but I believe it would prevent concussion at the very least and will protect eye sockets and face. Thanks for your consideration. Feel free to contact me for more information or discussion.

  3. My son has used a faceguard with helmet since he started pitching at 8 years old. He was told by myself and my wife “If you want to pitch, you have to wear head protection.”
    His first year, he wore his batting helmet with a face guard.
    Luckily, last year, Schutt made a pitching helmet.
    http://www.schuttstore.com/schuttstore/default.aspx?appname=Store&tabname=Categories&catid=Guards|Pitcher%27s_Protector
    (if the link doesn’t work, from the home page, go to Baseball/Softball -> Guards)
    It gives him open vision in U10 to pick off runners and has never bothered him. Several people have asked us about it.
    We have not seen a single kid besides him wear one.

  4. I am currently an Industrial Design student at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, MA, and a 4 year member of the Varsity Baseball Team at Wentworth as a pitcher.

    For my Thesis project I am looking to designing wearable product for pitchers, that can protect them from line drives.

    As important as giving pitchers a form of protection, preparing them for any situation is critical; including line drives in their direction. I think we often forget that as soon as a pitcher releases the ball they become a fielder (The closest fielder, besides the catcher, who is protected fairly well). The fact is line drives at the pitcher are a part of the game; it should be prepared for just like any other in-game situation. Avoiding it because it has a higher risk for injury is no excuse. How can you expect a youth player to handle a situation they’ve never experienced? They normally panic.
    Players can benefit from preparing for the worst because it does happen. We put these children in a difficult situation without preparing them how to react to it.

    As a pitcher since the age of 10, I’ve been lucky enough to not been seriously injured by a line drive.

    I think both a form of protection to disperse the impact forces and proper training for line drives are they way to go.

  5. When watching my college’s baseball games, I remember always feeling nervous for the pitcher. One of my friends was a pitcher, and he had a few close calls with the ball hitting him. I was scared for him, but I can’t imagine how scared HE was! Here’s hoping that baseball gear will take a step towards protecting pitchers. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Dr. Geier, I’m curious as to whether or not you have done any research or investigation into the helmet by Schutt that I and Rob Sinkko spoke of. I am natural born analytical thinker to the point it can hinder progress at times. Believe me when I say I have researched every product known to date and have tried many of them on my son while he pitched. We also tested the helmet through exaggerated head spin/snap, running/sprinting, jumping, sliding and peripheral vision ability. We were unable to find any negative impact from the wear of the helmet. I would really love for you to obtain and review the helmet and post your thoughts please. I don’t mean to be pushy but I really believe this is a helmet that works. I fear that if it doesn’t get the recognition and exposure it deserves the company might cancel production. For the life of me I do not understand why the company is not doing more to put this in the public eye. Surely they have a patten in place by now. I agree with Justin Voytek that both protection and training are key for prevention. I also have my son stand seven feet from me and use two tennis balls at once. I have him lean forward with his glove just at face level. I fast throw one ball toward the face area. As soon as he can get the ball out of the glove and start to throw it back I immediately throw a second one almost before the one he is returning leaves his hand. I then have him wear the helmet and repeat the process with baseballs. We do this in rapid fire succession for several minutes before most games. I hope this is strengthening his reaction time and creating a muscle memory habit of getting his glove in front of his face in case its needed. I’m not saying that its not possible for improvement to the Schutt helmet. But I am saying that I haven’t been able to determine what those improvements would be and it will definitely lessen impact to the critical areas of the head.I look forward to you comments and thoughts of the helmet and our drills.

    • Thanks for reaching out. I don’t do the mechanical testing on helmets, but i have discussed it with Mike Oliver, the executive director of NOCSAE. That’s the organization that does much of that work. Hopefully we will see helmets used more in baseball in common years!

  7. Saw your article on baseball head protection .I have developed a head piece and have tested it at the university of southern calif. USC and has shown to reduce head injuries up to 71%.My self and two major universities have been involved in this project and I am about ready to to market with it . This is not a HELMET .If possible I would like to discuss this further with you . The best way to contact me is by phone my cell is 909 227 3388 thank you Rich Fontana

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