Countdown to Spring Training: Day 29

Protective padding in pitcher’s caps is a newly approved feature for MLB players.


In the nearly 17 months since then-Oakland Athletics pitcher Brandon McCarthy was struck in the head by a line drive and suffered life-threatening brain injuries, Major League Baseball says it has received and tested numerous prototypes from different vendors for padded caps to provide some head protection against high-speed shots off the bat.

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.

A protective cap for pitchers received approval Tuesday to be worn in major league games. The skull cap for youth is the center; caps are on to the right and left.
“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 (NOCSAE) 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 is the average speed of a line drive when it reaches the area of the pitching mound.

The newly approved caps, manufactured by 4Licensing Corporation subsidiary isoBlox, will be made available to pitchers for spring training next month. Their use is optional.

There have quite a few scary incidents from Sept. 5, 2012 through June 15, 2013. Five different MLB pitchers were hit in the head by batted balls.

Here are the injuries:

Sept. 5, 2012: A’s Brandon McCarthy hit near left ear by Angels’ Erick Aybar’s liner Life-threatening brain contusion, epidural hemorrhage and skull fracture; had brain surgery and missed rest of season
Sept. 12, 2012: Astros’ Mickey Storey hit in face by Cubs’ Dave Sappelt’s liner Contusions to right hand and jaw (left game but pitched again three days later)
Oct. 25, 2012: Tigers’ Doug Fister hit on top of head by Giants’ Gregor Blanco’s liner Remained in game
May 7, 2013: Blue Jays’ J.A. Happ hit on left ear by Rays’ Desmond Jennings’ liner Fractured skull, ear contusions and sprained knee ligaments (went on disabled list, returned)
June 15, 2013: Rays’ Alex Cobb hit on right ear by Royals’ Eric Hosmer’s liner Concussion (seven-day concussion disabled list, returned)

The company says the caps are a little over half-an-inch thicker in the front and an inch thicker on the sides — near the temples — than standard caps, and afford protection for frontal impact locations against line drives of up to 90 mph and for side impact locations at up to 85 mph.

The soft padding, isoBlox says, is made of “plastic injection molded polymers combined with a foam substrate” and is designed to diffuse energy upon impact through a combination of dispersion and absorption techniques.

“What we’ve given [pitchers] is a product with protection they’ve never had before,” said 4Licensing chief executive officer Bruce Foster. “It changes the game for them.”

In addition to the added thickness, the padding increases adds seven ounces to the weight of a cap, which currently weighs three-to-four ounces, said Foster. The padding is to be sent to New Era to sew into MLB’s official custom-fitted caps.

“I think players who’ve been hit by ferocious comebackers will probably be early adopters,” said Foster. The new cap, he said, won’t interfere with a pitcher’s comfort or motion.

There is no rule limiting players as to the protections they can choose to wear, even without an MLB license, as long as what’s worn doesn’t interfere with play. Foster said the new isoBlox product provides some protection against speeds above 90 mph, but not protection at the same level as below that speed.

As they begin to offer the new product to major league pitchers — whose acceptance of changes in appearance and feel is an open question, both Halem and Foster said they see great potential for youth league players and their parents to embrace increased protection and evolving devices. Soon to hit the market, Foster said, is an isoBlox skull cap with the type of padding major leaguers will have at their disposal, except this will slide into standard adjustable caps and be removable.

“The major league market is never going to be a big market,” said Halem, “as not that many pitchers reach the majors and a limited number will use the caps, but the youth market is huge.”

For more on this story visit: William Weinbaum, ESPN