J. A. Happ lived the pitcher’s worst nightmare, feeling the impact of a line drive off his cranium. While he did not dodge the bullet, it seems baseball has since he will recover. Doug Fister gave us a momentary scare in the World Series last year when a ball hit his head, but it was only a glancing blow. Darin Downs can empathize with J. A. Happ, having been struck in 2009, and has made a full recovery. Many others have crumpled on the mound in recent years including Brandon McCarthy, Juan Nicasio, and Joe Martinez. The game needs to change to protect the pitchers.
Baseball is often slow to act and shows little creativity. Performing enhancing drugs were banned well after it became an obvious issue. Bud Selig provided no options for the 2002 All Star game when in extra innings the teams ran out of pitchers, and he simply called the game a tie. But sometimes baseball leads the way, as we are reminded with the movie 42 that baseball was on the forefront of racial integration. MLB.TV is over a decade old, and was fairly innovative when it debuted. So let’s try to help the game’s braintrust protect our heroes going forward.
The conversation starts with the obvious solution of a helmet. This could be the Gene LaMont-style plastic head covering that looks like it might protect a Little League batter, or headgear used in soccer to protect against concussions. Base coaches are now required to wear helmets in response to the death of first base coach Mike Coolbaugh in a minor league game. But he was struck by the ball in the throat, so a helmet would not have changed the outcome.
To the helmet we can add a face shield. This could be the girls’ softball-style guard, and thus could be marketed to attract more female fans. Or the plexiglass face shield occasionally seen in the NFL could be used to hide the pitcher’s face and allow him to seem more sinister. If it were low enough, we would be spared having to see Valverde’s beard.
Pitchers could be required to have better mechanics so that they land in fielding position, ready to protect themselves. Jim Kaat stresses this, and he says he learned it by imitating Billy Pierce. He never saw Pierce, only hearing games on the radio, and still learned to land square to the batter with his hands ready. Baseball could fine pitchers if they fall off to one side too much, like the NFL is assessing fines for certain types of tackles. Justin Verlander used to turn almost 180 degrees toward first base on his follow through, though I have a hard time equating him with Ray Lewis.
A softer baseball could be used. They do it in T-ball to protect our kids. Who is more valuable, our progeny or our pitchers?
Pitchers could use bigger gloves. Jack Morris likes small gloves for pitchers as it is better for balance, but hey we are talking life and death here.
The allowable bat dimensions could be changed to reduce bat speed. If the barrel is slower when making contact, the ball’s initial velocity will be slower. The pitchers will gain a split second of reaction time, and have better odds of catching the ball or ducking. Bat speed can be reduced by requiring a thicker handle. This has the added benefit of fewer broken bats and a reduced risk of injury from splintery helicoptering barrels.
The mound back could be moved back. But that is heresy. The idea is to increase the distance from the batter a little to allow more reaction time, so alternatively the batter’s box could be moved back a few feet. This could have some odd unintended consequences.
During batting practice the pitcher is behind an L-screen. The screen may be a bit awkward for live action. How about a screen that pops up in front of the pitcher only when a ball is coming his way? It would have to react very fast, think of it as an airbag for pitchers. There are plenty of airbag engineers in Detroit, the Tigers could lead the way.
A player could be stationed in front of the pitcher. He could be designated the sacrificial fielder. He would also be handy for fielding bunts and those biannual popups that fall in between four infielders surrounding the mound. The Rays’ Joe Maddon might go for this, or even start doing it on his own, since he loves to over-shift the defense. I wonder which Tiger would be most suitable for this role? If moving the fielder is too much of a change, we could just station the second base umpire there. But we need the umpires from the 1980’s, before they became image-conscious.
Could we have a force-field around the pitcher? This one may take a while to develop.
There are ten ideas for the commissioner’s office. Do you think any are actually feasible?