Thursday, March 20, 2014

Thoughts On Comebackers

Comebackers are usually good things for pitchers.  They are generally weakly hit balls back to the pitcher and result in easy outs.  Over the past few years, though, we have witnessed a sharp rise in the number of hard hit balls back through the box resulting in a series of serious injuries to multiple pitchers.  As Giants fans, we witnessed one frightening example a few years ago when Joe Martinez suffered skull fractures.  2 years ago, Brandon McCarthy of the A's underwent emergency surgery to drain a hematoma on the brain caused by a drive that went off the side of his head.  Last night, Aroldis Chapman was hit in the eye by a comebacker in a spring training game and suffered lacerations and fractures in the orbit.

It isn't just pitchers.  A few years ago, a minor league first base coach was instantly killed by a line drive that caught him on the side of the head lacerating his vertebral artery, the same injury that killed Dale Earnhart, the NASCAR driver.  It is no longer a question of if someone at the MLB level is going to be killed by one of these comeback drives, but when.

To its credit, MLB seems to be taking the problem seriously introducing helmet-like caps for pitchers to wear.  To their uncredit, many pitchers are balking at wearing the protective headgear.  The problem, as I see it, is the caps are not adequate to protect the pitcher from the most serious potential injuries.  The most serious injury potential comes from balls that hit in the temple area and the orbits of the eyes.  To have effective protection, a helmet would have to cover the temples and there would have to be some type of cage in front of the face.  I'm thinking of something similar to lacrosse helmets.

Pitchers will fight any changes tooth and nail.  We've already seen that.  Pitchers need every bit of peripheral vision they can muster to keep track of base runners and fielding positions.  Anything that so much as gives them the feeling of reduced visibility will be hated.  On the other hand, are we really prepared to watch a star pitcher die on the field from a violent encounter with a hit baseball?

To me, safety has to come first.  Protective headgear for pitchers may take some getting used to. It may take away a small amount of peripheral vision.  Whatever adjustments need to be made, I am confident they are doable and something the players can all learn to live with.  MLB needs to move this issue to the very top of its to do list.  They are sitting on a ticking time bomb.  The first pitcher to die in action could meet his fate today or tomorrow.


  1. Yikes!

    Are pitchers safer driving home from the park than they are pitching?

  2. No need to compare this with driving: clearly many have died driving, none yet pitching.

    But to DrB's point, it is like the Sword of Damacles, hanging there always, waiting for that first one that finally gets pitchers moving towards acceptance of this. And it seems be to be getting closer and closer, with McCarthy's scary situation, and now Aroldis. And star player or scrub/AAAA pitcher, any death would be a great shock to the game. I agree that safety has to come first.

    But the balking to usage is nothing new in sports for safety. Catchers hated all the equipment. Hitters hated the batting helmet. In hockey, they hated the helmet. So this is not unexpected. And using death as an impetus won't really have any effect on the players, it might make them balk even more.

    For these guys are like warriors, they broke through the fear of facing a baseball long ago. And they had to, I remember the first and last time I took the batter's box to face a pitcher throwing a hardball (up to that point, I had been using the pitching machine's yellow dimpled ball), and how that fear gripped me (of course, it didn't help that the father of the pitcher purposefully built on my fear with some comment about getting hit...). They got through that long ago, and are blind to the dangers of this. They had to, however they did it, in order to continue playing, else the fear will grip them too and they would never make it as an amateur, let alone a major leaguer. So death is not really something that registers with them.

    The league must just implement this (after consulting with the MLBPA, of course) and move on. The minor leaguers will be forced to learn and adapt. Most probably, this hat will be grandfathered to all current major leaguers (of course, the definition of current, is it NOW or anybody who has been a major leaguer previously; probably the latter) so that they can choose to not use the hat. Most probably, in today's litigious world, they will have to sign a waiver of liability in order to pitch without the hat. This has been the way it has worked in the past, Gordie Howe was famous (since he played deep into his 40's) for being one of the last hockey player able to play without a helmet. So current players will have a choice, and eventually everyone will be wearing this. But the league needs to move quickly, and see how long it has been since McCarthy was hurt? Hopefully they can get something done by next season.

    1. I remember now: the father told me about how his son was hit in the face with a pitch, how it bloodied his mouth.

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