Sports

Pitcher Safety Against Liners Still Issue for MLB

The Associated Press
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Shortstop Yunel Escobar #11 of the Tampa Bay Rays reacts after pitcher Alex Cobb #53 is hit by a line drive against the Kansas City Royals during the game at Tropicana Field on June 15, 2013 in St. Petersburg, Florida.  (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

Shortstop Yunel Escobar #11 of the Tampa Bay Rays reacts after pitcher Alex Cobb #53 is hit by a line drive against the Kansas City Royals during the game at Tropicana Field on June 15, 2013 in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

Cleveland Indians reliever Vinnie Pestano has a recurring dream. A batter hits a line drive right back up the middle and it’s screaming toward his head.

He wakes up just before impact.

The real thing is a nightmare scenario that happens a couple times a season in the major leagues.

“Guys are bigger now and hitting the ball harder and we’re throwing the ball harder and when a guy hits one right on the screws bad things can happen,” Pestano said.

Most recently, it happened Saturday night in Florida.

Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Alex Cobb took a nasty shot off his head from the bat of Kansas City’s Eric Hosmer. That was the second time this season everyone in the stadium at a Rays game held their breath. In early May, on the very same mound, Toronto left-hander J.A. Happ took a nasty shot off his head.

Happ won’t return until July – at the soonest. There’s no timetable for Cobb yet, though he’s home from the hospital.

In the meantime, baseball is left to figure out how to protect pitchers before one gets hurt in a more serious way.

It’s not just a player’s health and livelihood at stake. Teams also lose money when their players are on the disabled list. While Major League Baseball has been auditioning various types of equipment to protect pitchers, nothing has made the cut yet.

Any gear would have to stay in place during the violent, whole-body motion of pitching, not hinder its effectiveness and, of course, effectively protect their heads in event of an impact.

“I really hope something gets done because it’s time to act,” Royals pitcher Bruce Chen said. “I know it will probably take a couple of years to get it done, but let’s do it. Too many guys are getting hurt.”

Every pitcher knows that any pitch could result in a ball flying 100 mph or more right back at his head. Not all of them agree that something must be done.

“No one’s forcing you to play this game, and we’re not children,” Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija said. “We’re playing big league baseball with grown men, so that’s the risk you take when you play this game.”

Samardzija played major college football as a wide receiver at Notre Dame before he went into professional baseball, so he knows about danger in sports, and is familiar with wearing a lot more protective equipment than he does on the mound.

He is adamantly against requiring pitchers to wear anything more than they do now.

“Absolutely not. No. This game’s been played the way it’s been played for a long time,” he said. “And when you sign up to play this game, no one’s forcing you to play. No one’s pulling you out there to do it. You’re choosing to do it. It’s what we love to do and obviously when you choose to play you take the risks that come with doing it.”

Each major league game has at least a couple hundred pitches thrown. And there are more than 2,500 games a season. Out of all those games and all those pitches, no more than a few have a pitcher getting hit in the head.

The rarity of those occurrences is such that most pitchers put it completely out of mind – out of necessity, if nothing else.

“If you think about it while you’re out there, you’re not going to get your job done,” said Chris Jakubauskas, who was hit by a line drive early in the 2010 season.

He sustained a concussion but recovered fully and is now in the Cleveland minor league organization, trying to return to the big leagues. He has more immediate problems than something that statistically improbable.

“When you take into account how many balls are put in play every single year,” Jakubauskas said. “The risk is there, if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, you just hope you’re in a place where you can protect yourself a little bit.”

Of the more than a dozen pitchers and managers The Associated Press interviewed for this story, the one thing they all emphasized was just how much bad luck it takes to be hit in the head.

Sure, when a player gets hit, everyone notices, but the vast majority of balls put into play come nowhere near hurting anyone. And even the close calls emphasize how unlikely it is for a pitcher’s head and a batted ball to wind up in the same place in such a way that the pitcher is unable to turn or get his glove up.

“That ball’s not big, so for that ball to hit me right there, the percentage of chance of that happening to me is not worth doing all the headgear,” Giants pitcher Jeremy Affeldt said. “Unless you have to, I’m for that. That’s just your livelihood, I’m not going to die. I’m not going to do it.”

Reds starter Mat Latos, meanwhile, actually calculated some chances.

“Let’s see. You have five starters. No, wait, you have, what, 12 pitchers on a team? Do the math,” he said, pulling out his phone to use the calculator function.

“You have 360 pitchers … and two have been hit in the head. It happens. It’s a terrible thing. When guys like Happ and Cobb get hit in the head, you feel terrible. It’s not because they’re your teammate or your friend. You feel terrible.”

Nevertheless, Latos was skeptical of mandating safety improvements.

“It is what it is,” he said. “You know comebackers can happen.”

And they will continue to do so. The question is what can be done to prevent these rare but dangerous incidents.

Helmets? Protective cap liners? A protective screen, like in batting practice? All of these have been suggested. None have been acclaimed in baseball. Neither by rookies or veterans.

“I’m not going to overreact to that because I’m not real sure a guy can pitch with a helmet to be honest with you,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “I can’t imagine a pitcher out there pitching with an ear flap on. … I hate to sound cold about it because I don’t mean to, but I’m not sure that’ll work.”

Ideally, baseball won’t have to find out.

“Hopefully it doesn’t get to the point where there is a mandate to wear something,” Pestano said. “Because that would mean something tragic has happened.”

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