Brandon McCarthy's Skull Fracture Reignites Pitcher Safety Debate
I’ve always been reluctant to make it mandatory for pitchers to wear protective headgear, especially helmets, which are clunky and might not stay properly in place due to the violent nature of the pitching motion. But now, after the Brandon McCarthy situation, I’m ready to change my mind, at least partially.
McCarthy, a talented right-hander who has been part of Oakland’s surprising starting rotation, is now in stable condition after undergoing brain surgery to relieve an epidural hemorrhage, a brain contusion, and a skull fracture. Yet, he remains in a potentially life-threatening situation several days after being hit in the head with a line drive off the bat of the Angels’ Erick Aybar. Given the seriousness of his injuries, it is time for Major League Baseball to seriously consider protective headgear for pitchers.
Pitchers are fewer than 60 feet, six inches away from home upon delivery of the ball; the reaction time is incredibly small, even for elite athletes like major league pitchers. Based on a sampling of opinion from other writers at The Hardball Times, the average line drive comes back at the pitcher at about 80 to 85 miles per hour. The line drive that caromed off the right side of McCarthy’s head last Wednesday could have been going even faster, perhaps 90 or more mph. (The speed of a home run ball is generally 100 mph or faster.) Given that many pitchers are off balance and not in fielding position at the conclusion of their motions, it is unrealistic to expect most pitchers to be able to evade a line drive targeted for the head.
I’m still concerned about the awkward nature of a helmet, especially one that could shift during the process of winding up and throwing, and so could affect the pitcher's line of vision. Perhaps a better solution would be to fit pitchers with a protective liner worn under the cap. It’s true that the liner wouldn’t protect the face or the ears, but it would at least cover the top part of the skull.
Jackie Robinson wore a leather liner under his cloth cap during the '40s and '50s, out of fear that some headhunting pitchers had racist motivation. More recently, fiber or plastic liners were worn by a few position players in the 1970s: Bob Montgomery, Tony Taylor and Norm Cash come to mind as the last three players to bat without helmets. Though I’m not sure if any of the three were actually hit in the head with pitches during their careers, the bottom line is that all three escaped the game without serious injuries to their heads.
I think it’s time to do something before one of today’s pitchers has to endure what McCarthy is experiencing. Or worse. One of these days, we’re going to see another fatality related to an on-field happenstance, something that will be a tragic sequel to Ray Chapman in 1920. And right now, the pitchers are the most vulnerable people on the field; they are the ones that need the most help.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.
Read more great baseball stuff at The Hardball Times.