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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Protective Cap For Major League Pitchers -- Needed Change?

In an often awkward post delivery stance on the mound, a Major League Baseball pitcher has approximate one-third of a second to 
react to liners screaming at him from the bats of opposing players 
at a reported average of 83 mph and a recorded high of 108 mph. 
A hit to the head often causes devastating injury and can be fatal.

In the nearly 17 months since then-Oakland Athletics pitcher Brandon McCarthy was struck in the head by a line drive and suffered life-threatening brain injuries, Major League Baseball says it has received and tested numerous prototypes from different vendors for padded caps to provide some head protection against high-speed shots off the bat.

In a similar devastating injury, Toronto Blue Jays J.A. Happ also suffered a fractured skull and sprained knee ligaments on his fall after he was struck in the left ear on May 7, 2013.

Now, 4Licensing Corporation subsidiary isoBloxa has designed and manufactured a helmet that has been approved by the major leagues to protect these players. All 30 teams were informed Tuesday  morning (January 28, 2014) of the decision after consulting with the league's players union. The newly approved caps will be made available to pitchers for spring training next month. Use of the caps is optional.

The threshold for approval was that the cap had to provide protection, at 83 miles per hour, below the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment standard severity index of 1,200. Severity indexes higher than 1,200 are considered high-risk for skull fractures and traumatic brain injuries. An MLB-commissioned study determined that 83 mph was the average speed of a line drive when it reaches the area of the pitching mound.

According to isoBloxa, the caps are a little more than a half-inch thicker in the front and an inch thicker on the sides -- near the temples -- than standard caps, and afford protection for frontal impact locations against line drives of up to 90 mph and for side impact locations at up to 85 mph. The soft padding is made of "plastic injection molded polymers combined with a foam substrate" and is designed to diffuse energy upon impact through a combination of dispersion and absorption techniques.

IsoBloxa will send the padding to New Era to sew into MLB's official custom-fitted caps. Of course, the padding will likely increase the heat factor pitchers face in summer games. A cap currently weighs three to four ounces. The padding adds seven ounces to the cap.

The two pitchers mentioned above ironically have reservations about wearing the protective gear.

Brandon McCarthy, now with the Arizona Diamondbacks, told ESPN he would not wear one of the protective hats because "it is too big" and "doesn't feel quite right."

“I’d have to see what the differences in feel would be—does it feel close enough to a regular cap?” Happ told ESPN. “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 have been hit in the head since September 2012, including those most seriously injured, were struck below the cap line. MLB, however, hasn't contemplated exploring protective headgear for pitchers with broader coverage, such as a visor, mask or helmet.

This reluctance to dress Major League Pitchers in equipment that may prevent season-ending injury is interesting to say the least -- what with pitchers' high salary contracts and the tremendous care taken by the management with pitch counts, required rest, extended conditioning, etc.

Is it the weight of added protection, the psychological effect of change, or just the fashion-conscious pitchers reluctance to wear anything not deemed "hot gear" that draws opposition. I bet if pitchers were permitted to be paid for sporting visible 4Licensing Corporation logo on the new caps, most of them would gladly bear any inconvenience.

MLB didn't make the use of helmets or protective cap inserts mandatory for batters until the National League required them for the 1956 season. Helmets weren't required until the 1971 season and, even then, they weren't mandatory for players already in the big leagues. An earflap on the side of the head facing the pitcher was required for new players starting in 1983.

Several years ago, MLB introduced larger batting helmets that offered increased safety. But big leaguers mostly rejected them, saying they looked funny and made them resemble the Great Gazoo, a character on the "The Flintstones" cartoon series.

IsoBloxa sees great potential for youth league players and their parents to embrace increased protection and evolving devices. The company said it hoped that the product would be used widely at the youth levels and gradually would become more popular. A youth skull cap, to be placed under a child’s adjustable cap, sells for $59.99.

Baseball-Related Injury

Research confirms the majority of the sports-related injuries seen in America’s youths are preventable. The importance and prestige placed on high achievement in athletics in America today have led to the increase in overuse injuries in adolescent athletes. These are injuries that are easily avoidable when the proper precautions are taken and decisions are made based on the best interests of the athletes long term health and future instead of what will promote the athlete fastest in the sport at that point in time. 

In some rather dated research from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in 1996, the commission analyzed the 88 reports it received of baseball-related deaths of children between 1973 and 1995. It found that 68 of the deaths were caused by ball impact and 13 were caused by bat impact. Of the 68 ball impact deaths, 38 resulted from blows to the chest while 21 deaths were caused by a ball hitting a player's head.

Of the 162,100 hospital emergency-room-treated injuries in 1995, most of the injuries (almost 75 percent) occurred to older children ages 10 to 14. This age group represents about half of the total number of children playing baseball.

More recently, Bradley Lawson, Dawn Comstock and Gary Smith of Ohio State University filtered data to research information about baseball-related injuries to kids under 18 from 1994-2006. During that period, they found that more than 1.5 million young players were treated in hospital emergency rooms, with the most common baseball injury being being hit by the ball, and typically in the face.

The good news is that the annual number of baseball injuries has decreased by 24.9 percent over those 13 years. The researchers credit the decline to the increased use of protective equipment. Gary Smith said:

"Safety equipment such as age-appropriate breakaway bases, helmets with properly-fitted face shields, mouth guards and reduced-impact safety baseballs have all been shown to reduce injuries. As more youth leagues, coaches and parents ensure the use of these types of safety equipment in both practices and games, the number of baseball-related injuries should continue to decrease. Mouth guards, in particular, should be more widely used in youth baseball."

While accident-related injuries are down, preventable injuries from overuse still seem to be a problem, according to author Mark Hyman. In his recent book, Until It Hurts, Hyman admits his own mistakes in pressuring his 14-year-old son to continue pitching with a sore arm, causing further injury.

Surprised by his own unwillingness to listen to reason, Hyman, a long-time journalist, researched the growing trend of high-pressure parents pushing their young athletes too far, too fast. Hyman told Livescience:

"Many of the physicians I spoke with told me of a spike in overuse injuries they had witnessed. As youth sports become increasingly competitive — climbing a ladder to elite teams, college scholarships, parental prestige and so on -- children are engaging in a range of risky behaviors."

One expert he consulted was Dr. Lyle Micheli, founder of one of the country's first pediatric sports medicine clinics at Children's Hospital in Boston. Micheli estimates that 75 percent of the young patients he sees are suffering from some sort of overuse injury, versus 20 percent back in the 1990s.

 (Dan Peterson. "Youth Baseball Injuries: Good and Bad News." June 12, 2009)

Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, offered these points of interest:

  • More than 110,000 U.S. children younger than 18 years of age are treated each year in emergency departments for baseball-related injuries.
  • The most common mechanisms of injury are being hit by the baseball and being hit by the bat.
  • The face and the upper extremities (shoulders, arms, hands) are the most commonly injured areas of the body.
  • Adolescents between the ages of 13 and 17 years are more likely to have been injured while sliding than younger children.
  • Injuries that are the result of sliding are more likely to be fractures and need hospital admission than injuries caused by other mechanisms.
  • Children younger than 5 years of age with a baseball-related injury are more likely to be injured at home and to sustain injuries to the face than older children.

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