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Head Protection for Pitchers? The Time is Now

On May 9th Memphis Redbirds pitcher and Cardinals prospect Daniel Poncedeleon was hit in the head by a line drive from Iowa Cubs First Baseman Victor Caratini. Video here. Poncedeleon collapsed immediately and lay fairly motionless for a while. Emergency medical staff came and took him to a local Des Moines hospital where he had surgery to relieve pressure on his brain. As of the last updates I could find he was still being kept in the ICU for observation but was coherent and able to answer questions.

This unfortunately is not a new trend. Over the last few MLB season we have seen pitchers Matt Shoemaker, Alex Cobb, J.A. Happ, Jimmy Nelson, Dan Jennings and others take line drives off of the head. If you've ever seen video of one of these incidents you just have to look at the faces of the players who hit the ball that strikes the opposing pitcher. I'll never forget seeing Tommy Pham visibly shaken up as he ran out a double after he hit Jimmy Nelson. The stadium gets quiet and the feeling of competition is suspended as players and fans just worry for the pitcher. As athletes become stronger and pitchers throw harder it only makes sense that baseballs are flying off the bat at tremendous speeds. To protect fans Major League Baseball stadiums across the country extended netting down the first and third baselines to protect fans from line drives hit into the stands. Does the next logical step include providing head protection for pitchers?

Say that a ball that comes off the bat at 100 mph is hit at the pitcher who by now is about 56 feet from home plate and is off balance. At 100 mph or 146.667 ft/s the pitcher has a little less than 0.4 seconds to react. The harder the ball hit, the less time he has to react. When discussing the Poncedeleon incident with my father he said to me "I'm surprised someone hasn't died because of this yet." He's absolutely right. In 1920 Indians player Ray Chapman was hit in the head by a pitch while batting and he died 12 hours later. Now we see that hitters wear batting helmets to protect from this type of incident. Base coaches are required to wear helmets for protection. You could argue that the pitching mound is the most dangerous spot on the baseball diamond. Head injuries have become one of the hottest debated topics in sports recently.

Yes, I realize that baseball is not a "contact sport" but we've seen a lot of changes that hitters have made with the extensions to protect their jaw and face while batting. In 2014 we saw Padres pitcher Alex Torres wear a hat that contained energy diffusing protective plates. I don't know if this is the answer or not, but it sure seems like a step in the right direction.

I, for one, am tired of watching these incidents happen multiple times each season and just thinking to myself "boy that's unfortunate I hope he is okay". Major league baseball has already taken steps to protect its base coaches and its fans. Now we need to seriously look at protecting the players, starting with pitchers. I do not know what the right answer is. Do we expand upon the design that Torres used? Do we make them wear helmets? Is there a new design out there that is less cumbersome? I don't know. What I do know is that the time to have this discussion is now and not after we are forced to read the headline MLB Pitcher Dies After Being Struck in Head by Line Drive.