UPDATED | Cincinnati Reds closer Aroldis Chapman was struck in the face with a line drive during a spring training game on Wednesday. The scary mishap left him collapsed on the mound before being taken off the field on a stretcher with fractures above his left eye and nose, and the remainder of the game was canceled. Chapman has a mild concussion and will have a metal plate inserted to repair a bone above his eye.
The frightening moment raises the question, once again, of whether and how to protect pitchers from the potentially deadly force of baseballs hit back toward them on the mound. Like every pitcher in Major League Baseball, Chapman stands 60 feet 6 inches from home plate and then lunges himself a few feet closer to deliver each pitch. He stands exposed as the batter swings, relying on his reflexes and dumb luck to avoid balls that can come off the bat at more than 100 miles per hour.
This system works most of the time, as no MLB pitcher has ever been killed by a batted ball. Pitchers get hit on a regular basis, but more often than not the ball strikes them on a leg or an arm or the ribs, is defected by a glove, or lands a glancing blow to the head. (The only player to die from an injury sustained on the field is Ray Chapman, a batter hit by a pitch in 1920.) Direct impacts are occasional but ugly. In 1957, Cleveland Indians pitcher Herb Score was left with fuzzy vision and a shortened career after taking a batted ball to the right eye. Two years ago, Brandon McCarthy, then with the Oakland Athletics, needed surgery to relieve an epidural hemorrhage after being hit in the head.
Earlier this year the league approved the use of reinforced caps for pitchers. The isoBLOX hats, made by 4Licensing (4LC), use “uniquely formulated protective plates” to absorb and disperse energy. The plates are made of plastic polymers arranged in hexagons beneath the cap’s outer fabric. Presumably the isoBLOX cap would not have helped Chapman yesterday since the ball struck him in the face, but it’s the best option currently available to protect pitchers.
When MLB approved the isoBLOX, McCarthy, now pitching with the Arizona Diamondbacks, said the protective gear for pitchers was “headed in the right direction but not game ready.” He described concerns about fit, weight, and heat retention. Other pitchers have complained that the hats are too different from the norm and don’t look cool.
Bruce Foster, chief executive officer of 4LC, says there are no players using the isoBLOX hats yet and adds that the company has been meeting with players and teams over the last few weeks of spring training. He says 4LC has gone back to MLB’s hat manufacturer, New Era, with modifications to the caps’ “overall look, comfort, and breathability” that the players want. Foster expects to have a prototype in the next few days, and sometime around the end of spring training and the beginning of the regular season, the company will revisit players and teams with the new model in hand.
“Any pitcher who is interested in trying a model of the approved protective cap should contact their equipment manager so that we can provide a custom-fitted model in his size,” writes MLB spokesman Mike Teevan in an e-mail. “We will schedule any interested player with a fitting.”
(Update adds comments from Major League Baseball.)