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Baseball explores ways to keep players' heads in game, literally

Improved helmet technology is already in use for batters, and protective headgear for pitchers is being discussed — though it could be a tough sell with big leaguers.

February 26, 2013|By Gary Klein, Mike DiGiovanna and Dylan Hernandez, Los Angeles Times
  • Oakland pitcher Brandon McCarthy holds his head after being hit by a line drive.
Oakland pitcher Brandon McCarthy holds his head after being hit by a line… (Doug Duran / MCT )

Angels pitcher Tommy Hanson occasionally experiences a short, unsettling dream.

It comes just as he dozes off, and ends abruptly before he can reach a deep sleep.

"A lot of pitchers have that kind of dream," Hanson said, "where the ball is coming at your face and you're jolted awake."

The nightmare became reality for two major league pitchers last season.

In September, Brandon McCarthy of the Oakland Athletics suffered a skull fracture that required surgery after a line drive off the bat of Angels shortstop Erick Aybar struck him on the side of his head.

Less than two months later, during the World Series, Detroit Tigers pitcher Doug Fister was hit in the head by a line drive. Fister was not seriously injured.

Those incidents fast-tracked a move by Major League Baseball to increase safety for pitchers.

"It's an issue that was on our radar," said Dan Halem, senior vice president for MLB. "The timetable got accelerated after Brandon McCarthy in terms of trying to be proactive in finding a solution."

When spring-training games began last week, major league hitters were required to wear new, bulkier batting helmets that reportedly offer more protection from 100-mph fastballs.

MLB had also hoped to test approved protective headgear for pitchers this spring. Standing less than 60 feet from home plate after the follow-through of a pitch, they have almost no time to react to line drives traveling in excess of 100 mph. But potential safety products are still in development.

Dr. Gary Green, medical director for MLB, said several companies were working to hone devices that can fit inside pitchers' caps without hindering their performance. The goal is not simply to prevent concussions, but to protect players from injuries with potential catastrophic results.

"It's not about coming up with something," Green said. "It's coming up with the right thing."

Pennsylvania-based Unequal Technologies Co. and Georgia-based EvoShield are among the manufacturers seeking solutions to meet MLB's standards and ultimately win approval from the Major League Baseball Players' Assn.

Unequal Technologies has produced "military grade composite" devices "fortified with Kevlar," one that weighs 3.9 ounces and is one-eighth of an inch thick, another that is 2.9 ounces and one-sixteenth of an inch thick, said Rob Vito, founder and chief executive of the company. The smaller product is available only to professional players.

The goal, Vito said, is to meet the demand for something that can be concealed, is lightweight and flexible, and can absorb the impact of a baseball traveling at high speed without the player's being injured. Vito said several teams have placed orders for independent testing.

Justin Niefer, co-founder and director of product development for EvoShield, said his company was working to apply its "gel to shell" technology to the project. Its products — a wrist or elbow guard, for example — conform to the body part.

Micky Collins, director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Sports Medicine Concussion Program, worked with McCarthy in the aftermath of his incident.

Collins, a former college baseball player who has a PhD in clinical psychology, said "anything that can be done to mitigate that risk is a positive step" but added that potential for serious injury remains because caps protect only about 40% of the head.

McCarthy, for example, was struck close to the temple. He suffered an epidural hemorrhage, a brain contusion and skull fracture.

In December, the Arizona Diamondbacks signed the 29-year-old right-hander to a two-year, $15.5-million contract. Last week, from behind a screen, McCarthy pitched live batting practice for the first time since being injured.

"It was honestly completely normal," he told reporters afterward. "Anything you thought would have been there really wasn't." He might appear in a spring game — where he won't be behind a screen — this week.

Several Angels and Dodgers pitchers said that, from a performance perspective, they were wary of any change in headgear.

"As a pitcher, you grow up your whole life doing something, and the last thing you want to do at this point is change that," Hanson said. "But it goes back to what it feels like on your head."

Said Aaron Harang of the Dodgers: "It's kind of hard to imagine having to throw with a helmet or something on right now. You've been doing it for so long without it."

However, the pitchers are cognizant of safety issues and open to exploring the possibilities.

For example, the new batting helmets have been used — by mandate — in the minor leagues the last two seasons. Major leaguers such as San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey tried them out last season before MLB and the players' union adopted their use for all players.

"I think that's how you do it," Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw said.

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