Is MLB Headed Toward Protective Batter’s Masks?

Miami Marlins v Milwaukee Brewers
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In separate games within minutes of one another on the night of September 11, Chase Headley of the Yankees and Giancarlo Stanton of the Marlins were both hit in the face by Major League fastballs. It turned out to be one of the scariest nights of the year and was enough to call into question the equipment batters wear in the box. As catcher’s gear has improved with time, coaches now wear helmets, and pitchers have started wearing protective headgear, it is time protective batter’s masks or other options in safety gear become part of the discussion at MLB headquarters.

Fall of an MVP

Stanton is the leading position player in the 2014 National League MVP race and is without question one of the game’s top young sluggers with 37 home runs and 105 RBI through 145 games. Without Clayton Kershaw’s season for the ages, Stanton would be the unanimous NL MVP. His entire season is in question after he suffered multiple facial fractures, dental damage, and skin lacerations following the impact of an 89-mph fastball to his face.

Chase Headley, who has been a solid performer for the Yankees since his July trade, took the brunt of a 96-mph fastball to his face that same night. Though the pitch did not fracture any bones after preliminary testing, Headley received stitches and was sent for neurological examinations the following day in New York.

Neither the batters nor the pitchers were at fault in this instance. There was zero intention on either pitch, making that part of the subject moot. However, an evaluation of the standard protective gear for batters by MLB officials is in order following the incidents.

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees
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Changes to protective player’s gear

Looking back at the history of baseball, there is a tradition of considering protective gear unnecessary at best and effeminate at worst. Chuck Rosciam’s exquisite look at the evolution of catcher’s equipment says all there needs to be said in a single couplet quoted from an 1880s baseball ditty: “We used no mattress on our hands / No cage upon our face,” the narrator bragged. It was a tune about how real men plied the catcher trade on the Reds of 1869.

No MLB catcher in his right mind would take the field without heaps of protective equipment in 2014. Likewise, no batter would step into the box without a helmet. Both species of protection didn’t come into being until injuries proved them necessary. First- and third-base coaches also used to take the field without helmets. Today’s coaches wisely wear them every pitch of every inning.

For a look at what protection batters could wear, the case of Jason Heyward is worth some attention. Heyward suffered a broken jaw in 2013 after being hit in the face with a fastball late in the season. He now wears a special batting helmet that has an extension ranging from his ear flap across his jaw and up to the edge of his mouth.

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It is impossible to say with certainty, but a similar helmet may have prevented the full extent of Giancarlo Stanton’s injury. Headley was struck at or near the same area, though closer to the center of his face. Headgear of the type Heyward wears probably would have helped both players.

After a number of ugly injuries to MLB pitchers, protective headgear is now approved for anyone taking the mound, but there are nearly no takers. Alex Torres of the Padres was the first to wear the special hat earlier in the 2014 season. The impact of batted balls to the head of pitchers like Alex Cobb (who started the game against Headley and the Yankees) prompted the need for these hats, yet batters are exposed to as much or more danger on every pitch. They are only one loose grip in a pitcher’s hand away from taking one on the chin.

A likely MVP and a starting Yankee player left the field one September night with injuries that, for all their horrific qualities, could have been worse. It’s time for league officials to explore the options for protecting all MLB batters in the box.