One of the most surprising uniform-related developments in recent years has been the emergence of batting helmets as a new hotbed of design innovation. Twelve of the 30 MLB teams are now using matte-finish helmets instead of the standard glossies, and six teams are using three-dimensional helmet logos instead of conventional flat decals, with both numbers representing big increases from 2016. Last month the Braves took things a step further by introducing a helmet with a carbon fiber pattern on the shell.
The Braves helmet was the first MLB headgear to employ hydro dipping, a process that applies printed graphic patterns to three-dimensional surfaces. Hydro-dipped helmet designs have grown increasingly prominent in college football, auto racing and motorcycle racing, but so far they haven't had much of a presence on the baseball diamond.
That might be changing soon. MLB's helmet supplier, Rawlings, has invested in a new hydro-dipping facility, and several industry sources have indicated that the Braves' recent design was the first of several hydro-dipped MLB helmets that are in the works.
What might those new helmets look like? The Braves used a fairly neutral design (the carbon-fiber pattern could work -- or, depending on your point of view, not work -- for pretty much any team), but what if teams went with design themes tailored to their franchise names and identities? Would the results be appealing, appalling, or somewhere in between?
In an attempt to answer that question, your friendly uniform columnist enlisted the services of Angus O'Keefe, a design hobbyist who recently attracted some attention in the uni-verse by reimagining all 32 NFL teams as soccer clubs. O'Keefe, with some help from a graphic designer friend, Cody Whitmire, and a bit of Uni Watch art direction, came up with hydro-dipped helmet concepts for a bunch of MLB teams, many of which look surprisingly good.
Let's take a closer look, one team at a time:
1. Arizona Diamondbacks
This was an easy one. The D-backs already have snakeskin patterns on their caps and jerseys, so adding something similar to their helmet was a no-brainer.
Should they actually wear something like this? Absolutely! Like it or hate it, it fits in well with their current look. And hey, it's not like they could possibly look much worse out there.
2. Chicago Cubs
This one was more conceptual, using Wrigley Field's famous ivy as the basis for the helmet pattern. Clever, right? Unfortunately, there wasn't enough time to create a design showing Andre Dawson being rescued from the ivy.
Should they wear it? Sure, why not. And maybe they can do Wrigley's iconic brick pattern for an encore.
3. Detroit Tigers
Probably the most obvious designs of the bunch, with separate white and orange versions to match the team's home and road caps, respectively.
Should they wear it? Definitely. Traditionalists will howl, but come on -- these are too good not to wear. And besides, doesn't MLB deserve its own version of the Cincinnati Bengals' helmet?
4. Houston Astros
Back in the day, the 'Stros really pushed the outer-space angle in their marketing, even going so far as to dress the Astrodome's grounds crew in astronaut suits. So using the helmet shell as the canvas for a night sky's worth of stars is a classy way of updating that theme.
Should they wear it? Eh, maybe not. In theory, it's a great idea; in practice, the helmets would probably just look paint-splattered.
5. Los Angeles Dodgers
It was tempting to just create a pattern of Tommy Lasorda faces plastered all over the helmet (admit it, you'd love that), but instead the choice here was palm trees, which are among the most durable visual symbols of Southern California.
Should they wear it? It's a good concept, but somehow it just doesn't feel very Dodgers-y. This would make a very good design, however, for one of the teams that do spring training in Florida.
6. New York Yankees
The party line is that the Yankees' uniform is sacrosanct. In reality, the Yanks have worn their BP caps for a regular-season game, they're part of the matte helmet trend, they're wearing the annoying New Era logo on the side of their caps like everyone else, they'll be wearing pink for Mother's Day on the day they're retiring Derek Jeter's number, and they let CC Sabathia pitch in no-show socks (or maybe just no socks), so all bets are off. That said, giving their helmet a full pinstripe treatment would be too much. Restricting the pattern to the brim -- the same as on their spring-training cap -- feels about right.
Should they wear it? Sure, if only to hear the screams of anguish coming from Bronx old-schoolers.
7. San Diego Padres
You probably thought of this one already on your own. The Padres pioneered the camouflage trend and are still MLB's most frequently camo-clad team.
Should they wear it? The feeling here at Uni Watch HQ has always been that camouflage uniforms are problematic on several levels, but that horse has long since left the barn. If the Padres are going to wear camo jerseys, they might as well wear camo helmets, too.
8. Pittsburgh Pirates
Diamond plate has been vilified in uniform circles since the Oregon football team wore it in 2005. But it actually makes sense for the Pirates, because Pittsburgh is the Steel City and diamond plate is often made of steel. It also looks a lot better on a helmet than on a shoulder or thigh.
Should they wear it? And how. A very cool look.
9. Tampa Bay Rays
The top of the crown isn't an area people usually think about in terms of helmet designs (at least not since the Angels wore their halo helmets back in the 1960s), but the Rays have been elevating the profile of their sunburst logo in recent years, so that's the idea behind this design.
Should they wear it? Definitely. Anything to help liven up the Trop, right?
10. Washington Nationals
The Nats already have two stars and stripes jerseys (and that's not counting the separate design they'll wear for Independence Day), so this design concept gives them a helmet to match.
Should they wear it? There's such a thing as having too many stars and stripes, and this design is Exhibit A. It's a good example of how hydro-dipped helmets could take things too far.
Obviously, these designs are just concepts -- a series of "What if?" explorations. Do they represent the future of batting helmet design? Not necessarily. But they definitely represent one direction that helmet design could soon be taking, for better or worse.
Paul Lukas would like to thank Angus O'Keefe and Cody Whitmire for collaborating with him on this column. If you like this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, check out his Uni Watch merchandise, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.