Over the past couple of years we’ve seen three cases of a pitcher getting hit in the head by a line drive, resulting in a lot of talk about needing to protect pitchers. The first occurred last year when Juan Nicasio (Rockies) was hit, falling to the ground and breaking his neck. The second occurred this September when Brandon McCarthy (A’s) was hit, resulting in emergency brain surgery to stop a brain hemorrhage and repair a fracture skull. Finally, during the World Series, Doug Fister (Tigers) took a hit that caromed all the way into centerfield before hitting the ground. This last one seemed to be the final straw for everyone, including announcer Tim McCarver, who immediately blurted that something needed to be done. On that, I couldn’t agree more.
Unfortunately, in typical knee-jerk fashion, the reaction has been to address the result instead of the problem, with discussions of helmets and Kevlar hat linings the only solutions currently being discussed. While these two things add a slight amount of protection, they don’t actually address the problem – bad mechanics are putting pitchers in danger, not the line drives.
Take the example of Mike Coolbaugh, a minor league first base coach for the Rockies who was killed by a line drive in 2007. The reaction to this was to mandate that all base coaches wear helmets, even though the ball hit Coolbaugh in the neck. See the problem here? How, exactly, does a helmet protect one’s neck? Whether the league was a in hurry to look like they were doing something or simply didn’t ask the right question, base coaches are no safer than they were before from this particular accident happening again. The question they answered was “how do we protect a coach’s head if he gets hit by a line drive” when it should have been “why did he get hit by a line drive?” That way, the solution becomes keeping him from getting hit again. This is the exact same approach they are taking with this new problem, using the flawed logic that no coaches have died since the helmet mandate, even though you can count on zero fingers how many times a coach has been hit in the head by a line drive since. It’s also incredibly easy to throw helmets on pitchers and claim that baseball is protecting pitchers, without doing any work to solve the real problem. That is, until a pitcher gets hit in the neck or spine (I’ll explain in a minute) and everyone realizes the problem still exists; line drives sometimes hit pitchers.
Before I go on, you should know that I’m not just some talking head throwing out an opinion; I’ve experienced this first-hand. When I was 18 years old, I was pitching in a tournament in Albuquerque when the hitter smashed a line drive directly at my head. I had just enough to time to raise my pitching hand in front of my face before the ball hit my hand and ricocheted into the right side of my jaw. Had my hand not taken the brunt of the impact, there’s no telling how much damage I would have sustained, but that’s not what truly saved my face. That I was in a good fielding position – the result of years of practice, coaching, and sound mechanics – is what saved me. This is why I know what the real problem is that needs to be addressed and what probably would have saved all three of these pitchers from getting hit or at least getting hit as badly as they did.
I have watched video of all three of these pitchers getting hit and all three of them were in no position to protect themselves. In fact, all three of them were facing away from home plate and not in position to even field a baseball, let alone protect themselves from line drives. Fister’s is especially bad, as his follow-through leg is still above his head, crossing in front of his body when the ball hits him. But why are they in this position? All three of them are exhibiting the same bad mechanics that seem to have been adopted by the majority of pitchers in order to increase velocity.
(I also believe this is the reason we have seen significant spikes in pitcher injuries, including Tommy John surgery, but that’s a discussion for another day.)
If we break down their mechanics, it becomes very obvious why they are ending up facing away from home plate. As each of them approaches their release point, keep your eyes on the glove hand and you’ll notice it drops and swings around behind their bodies. This added momentum helps force their body to swing around and is a sign that the pitcher is not in control of their own body. This wouldn’t be quite so bad, but the pitchers aren’t even trying to slow down their bodies, and the two things together make it impossible for them to drop into a fielding position. Proper mechanics have a pitcher tucking their glove into their bodies, which helps keep the body under control and has the added benefit of increased pitch control for the pitcher. Going back to the glove positioning, as the ball is approaching the pitcher, each of them has their glove behind their thigh, increasing the amount of time it takes to raise it up to their heads in defense. Couple this with their turned bodies and they have essentially removed any chance of being able to raise their glove in time to catch the ball, or even deflect it. If you’ve ever wondered why Greg Maddux had such impeccable pitch control and won 18 Gold Gloves (yes, EIGHTEEN), it’s because his mechanics were flawless and he was always ready to field the baseball.
The other facet to this issue is the ridiculous amount of attention it’s getting. Don’t get me wrong, player safety is important and I cringe every time a pitcher takes a line drive off of any part of his body, but it’s been completely blown out of proportion. In my professional life, I work in the security field and one of the main principles is weighing risk versus reward. In other words, evaluating the probability and impact of an event against the cost in money, resources, and time of trying to prevent or mitigate that event. In this case, it’s extremely easy to argue that absolutely no action should be taken because a) sports inherently have risk and pitchers know this and b) the odds of it occurring are virtually zero. According to baseball-reference.com, in 2012 there were 184,179 plate appearances and 3.79 pitches per plate appearance. Two line drives out of 698,038 potential liners results in a probability of occurrence of .000287%. Next, we look at impact, which ranges from no damage (Fister’s case) to death, which has yet to occur in major league baseball (McCarthy’s case is currently the worst case). In all three instances, the player recovered and has since pitched again in the majors. With that in mind, the long-term impact of these line drives is zero and we can say that everyone clamoring over this issue is literally worried about nothing.
I suppose that’s not entirely fair, since the immediate impact is injury, so what we’re left with is the potential for death as the only risk – which brings us back to helmets. Since the risk of injury is .000287%, adding a helmet has an extremely tiny affect on that percentage due to how low it is already. Plus, as I said earlier, a helmet only covers a portion of the head and none of the neck or face. And, if the pitcher is practicing good mechanics, he will be facing the plate and rendering the helmet useless anyway.
By now, you’re probably under the impression that I am against helmets for pitchers, which is not the case at all. If a pitcher feels like he is safer wearing a helmet, then he should wear a helmet. If you ask me if I would wear one, my answer is no (and I pitched for several years after my own incident). My point is that there isn’t a single so-called baseball expert – announcers, coaches, analysts, writers, and players included – breaking down the events and explaining why these injuries occurred. They’re all so focused on the result of the event that they can’t see the cause of the event. What’s more, fixing the mechanics of all of these out-of-control pitchers might have the side-effects of better pitch control, reduced injuries, and improved defense. At a minimum, they would at least have a chance to protect themselves rather than hoping the ball doesn’t kill them.