Pitchers haven’t felt the need to add to their equipment bags over the years.
Unlike hitters, who seem to wear a bigger piece of protective armor every season, a pitcher’s luggage typically consists of a glove, a pair of baseball cleats and maybe a scuffed-up baseball or two.
But they might need to find room for a new accessory in the near future, as a growing number of pitchers are experimenting with headgear designed to protect themselves from high-speed comebackers.
In step with the evolution are companies who are perfecting helmet designs that are both safe and comfortable for hurlers of all ages.
Pitchers stand anywhere from 46 feet from home plate in Little League to 60 feet 6 inches in high school and beyond, making them extremely vulnerable to hard-hit line drives, some travelling more than 100 mph.
“With the risk of head injury such a hot topic, I think if players don’t feel uncomfortable wearing extra protection, it will be something that more and more pitchers will use,” says Santa Margarita coach David Bacani.
Major League Baseball has also taken notice. The MLB and the Major League Baseball Players Association said during spring training that they’re making a “significant investment” in creating the HalfCap, which is part visor, part stocking cap with a protective earflap on the left side for right-handed throwers and the opposite side for lefties.
Jared Hughes, a 6’7” right-hander for the Pittsburgh Pirates who graduated from Santa Margarita in 2003, was among 20 major leaguers who volunteered to test the headgear during spring training.
Hughes, now beginning his sixth season as a reliever for the Pirates, was partly motivated to give the HalfCap a try after narrowly avoiding serious injury while pitching last summer.
Hughes threw a 91-mph fastball to Stephen Piscotty of the St. Louis Cardinals and he slugged it back at 98.1 mph. Hughes said he didn’t see the comebacker, but instinctively lifted his glove just in time to deflect the ball before it slammed into his cheek at full force.
“I’ll never watch that replay,” he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette afterward.
Gunnar Sandberg wasn’t so lucky. Sandberg was a junior at Marin Catholic High School in the Bay Area six years ago when he threw his fateful pitch. He was struck above the right temple by a line drive he claimed was clocked at 130 mph. Sandberg spent three weeks in a coma.
His recovery was long and tedious, but he beat the odds and was able to play baseball again. He also became a big advocate for head protection for pitchers and tested some of the earliest models.
The HalfCap is made by Boombang, a Los Angeles-based company that was selected from 20 others that make similar protective gear. Boombang was chosen because of the strength of its equipment and the design.
The MLB and players’ union reached out to pitchers who’d be willing to test the cap and Hughes didn’t hesitate to volunteer. He used the device during early spring training bullpen sessions, but didn’t experiment with the cap in game situations.
During spring training interviews, Hughes said he was likely still a year away from using a protective helmet during regular-season games, but was confident it would happen.
Don’t be surprised if a majority of pitchers aren’t far behind.