Major League Baseball announced that it has approved the use of padded caps to protect pitchers from hard-hit balls.
All 30 teams were informed Tuesday morning of the decision after consulting with the league’s players union. Use of the caps is optional.
“We’re excited to have a product that meets our safety criteria,” Dan Halem, MLB executive vice president for labor relations, told ESPN’s Outside the Lines. “MLB is committed to working with manufacturers to develop products that offer maximum protection to our players, and we’re not stopping at all.”
More than a year ago, then-Oakland A’s pitcher Brandon McCarthy was struck in the head by a line drive and suffered life-threatening brain injuries.
However, McCarthy, now with the Arizona Diamondbacks, said he tested out the new protective cap while throwing off a mound, playing catch and running, but does not like it.
“I won’t wear it in its current form,” he told ESPN.com.
In the last six seasons, 12 pitchers have been hit in the head by line drives, including five pitchers during a five-month stretch in 2012 and 2013. One of the pitchers, Toronto Blue Jays left-hander J.A. Happ, suffered a fractured skull after he was struck in the left ear last May 7. He also sprained knee ligaments after falling from the hit.
Halem and Patrick Houlihan, MLB’s senior counsel for labor relations, said the threshold for approving the cap was that it had to provide protection at 83 miles per hour, which is below the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment’s standard severity index of 1,200. Severity indexes higher than 1,200 are considered high-risk for skull fractures and traumatic brain injuries. A league-sanctioned study found that 83 mph is the average speed of a line drive when it reaches the pitcher’s mound.
The caps, which are manufactured by 4Licensing Corporation subsidiary isoBlox, will be available to pitchers when spring training starts next month. According to the company, the caps are a little more than one-half inch thicker in the front and an inch thicker on the sides — near the temples — than standard caps. They allow protection for frontal impact against line drives of up to 90 mph and for side impact of up to 85 mph. The soft padding, according to isoBlox, is made of “plastic injection molded polymers combined with a foam substrate.” It is designed to diffuse energy upon impact through a combination of dispersion and absorption techniques.
The padding also adds seven ounces to the weight of a cap, which typically weighs three-to-four ounces without it. The padding will be sent to manufacturer New Era to sew into MLB’s official custom-fitted caps.
“I think players who’ve been hit by ferocious comebackers will probably be early adopters,” 4Licensing chief executive officer Bruce Foster told ESPN. He added the new cap will not interfere with a pitcher’s comfort or motion.
However, McCarthy said he informed both parties before the announcement that he did not consider the cap to be “a major league-ready product.”
“The technology is there,” he said. “It helps. It’s proven to help. But I don’t think it’s ready yet, as a major league-ready product. And I told them that. I told them that’s where it’s at.”
McCarthy said the cap is too big, the extra padding causes too much heat in the head area and it does not fit comfortably. He said if those issues are not corrected, only a few players will wear it.
Happ told ESPN he was not familiar with the new padded cap and “I’d have to see what the differences in feel would be — does it feel close enough to a regular cap? You don’t want to be out there thinking about it and have it take away from your focus on what you’re doing.”
Four of the five pitchers who were hit in the head since Sept. 2012, including McCarthy, Happ and the Tampa Bay Rays’ Alex Cobb, were struck below the cap line. However, the league has not considered protective headgear for pitchers with broader coverage, including visors, masks or helmets, according to Halem.
No rules limit players using protective wear, even without an MLB license, as long as it does not interfere with play.
An isoBlox skull cap with the type of padding major league players can use that slides into standard adjustable caps and is removable will hit the market soon.
“The major league market is never going to be a big market, as not that many pitchers reach the majors and a limited number will use the caps, but the youth market is huge,” Halem said.