When it comes to the topic of concussions, the National Football League is almost always the first major sports league entering the discussion. After all, a movie centered solely on publicizing the league's concussion problem has garnered nearly $40 million in box office sales up to this point. And while baseball is not necessarily considered a "contact sport" like football or hockey, Major League Baseball should continue to be proactive on the issue as one should not immediately dismiss the impact of concussions on its players, particularly those subject to significant, repeated head trauma (i.e. catchers).
For completeness sake, here is the formal medical definition of a concussion, via the American Association of Neurological Surgeons:
"A clinical syndrome characterized by immediate and transient alteration in brain function, including alteration of mental status and level of consciousness, resulting from mechanical force or trauma."
According to Spotrac's MLB Disabled List Tracker, there were 11 concussion-related disabled-list stints last season. Back in 2011, MLB instituted a concussion policy where the injured player is placed on a seven-day disabled list, instead of the customary 15- and 60-day lists. If the concussed player required more time to clear the league's concussion protocol, he can be retroactively transferred to the 15-day DL or, if necessary, the 60-day DL.
While MLB's 11 does not come anywhere close to the 182 reported cases in the NFL this season, one must remember that the NFL (from the front office to the coaches to the players) is taking the matter much more seriously than they have in seasons past. Heck, some NFL players are retiring after just one season. The NFL absolutely has a long way to go, as shown by the failure to remove then St. Louis Rams quarterback Case Keenum from his week 11 matchup against the Ravens, but at the same time, there is no denying the progress the league has made on the issue, even though the designated medical spotter continues to fail at stopping the game (fortunately, Big Ben removed himself from the game on this one).
Here is where I challenge Major League Baseball to be even better. According to this 2012 article by Jon Morosi for Fox Sports, there were 11 reported concussions during the 2011 MLB season. With knowledge and awareness of the issue as high as it has ever been, the league had the exact same amount of documented concussion cases in 2015 as it did in 2011? I find this hard to believe.
Now, to be clear, I am not at all wishing for more concussions to occur, but rather, given that 30 teams, consisting of at least 25 guys per team, play 162 games per season, I strongly believe more than 11 concussions occur in a given season. Yet, only 11 led to disabled-list stints last season (the same amount in 2011), so operating under the belief that it is likely that more than 11 occur in a given season, it is clear that the condition is still being under-reported, despite heightened awareness surrounding the issue.
Of course, I know home plate collisions were all but eliminated in 2014, but how often did those even happen anyway? Plus, one of the main cases behind the rule being developed had nothing to do with a head injury at all, but rather a leg injury, involving one of the league's brightest stars in Buster Posey. Thus, while banning home-plate collisions has undoubtedly helped remove a handful of concussions each season, catchers still have another part of the game to worry about, and it is something that happens much more frequently: foul tips to the mask. With pitchers throwing harder than ever (average fastball velocity in 2015: 92.4 MPH, the highest in the PitchF/x era), it follows that the foul tips experienced by catchers are harder than ever as well.
No matter what rules are dreamed up, there is simply no way for MLB to limit the effects of foul tips to the mask. While we may be getting closer to replacing home plate umpires with robots (even though there will likely still have to be an umpire back there voicing ball versus strike calls), there will always be a need for a catcher. And as long as there is a pitcher throwing a ball to the catcher, you better believe the batter is going to be swinging the bat. With all three players going nowhere soon (and if they do, we no longer have baseball), foul tips to the mask will continue to happen.
No, I am not asking for MLB to futilely spend millions of dollars on the research and development of better, more protective catcher masks or to come up with some unique netting contraption behind home plate to protect the catcher's head. Frankly, I am asking for the league to become more vigilant on the matter. While catchers are widely believed to be the toughest players on the diamond, the medical staff should not ever give them the benefit of the doubt.
Don't get me wrong, I am all for speeding up the game, but when a catcher gets hit by multiple foul tips in a game, or even an inning, for that matter, as I have seen happen to Yadier Molina on numerous occasions, he needs to be thoroughly examined by the medical staff as soon as possible. One must understand that the MLB season is a long, grueling marathon played in the heat of summer, and because of this, many concussion symptoms can be missed or simply attributed to the effects of a "long season." I'd rather not leave it up to chance, not when medical professionals are trained to distinguish the difference between the two.
Finally, in an article published on MLB.com, St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny opened up on the topic of concussions and how it personally affected his career behind the plate:
"By a count later documented by the Giants training staff, Matheny said he suffered as many as 25 concussions as a catcher, the last one knocking him out for good after a series of six foul tips deflected off his mask during a three-game period early in the 2006 season. Matheny was left so stunned after the last one that he couldn't concentrate. It was May 31, 2006. He didn't know it at the time, but he had played his last game."
Twenty-five concussions? Surely, with what we know today, Matheny's career would have ended much sooner if it had taken place in this decade. Matheny already played a role in the development of the "Posey rule," and by all accounts, it seems to have helped. Yet, why stop there? Given the manager's extensive history with concussions during his playing career (and the neurological effects he will likely have to deal with in the future), I hope he now plays a part in improving MLB's concussion policy going forward.
P.S. While my article mainly addresses the significance of concussions in catchers, know that it is in no way limited to the behind the plate. First baseman Justin Morneau has dealt with concussions throughout his 13-year career, and we all know what happened to former Reds outfielder Ryan Freel (rest in peace).