Major League Baseball begins spring training without an approved choice of protective headgear for pitchers, and it's uncertain whether any product will receive approval in time for the regular season, MLB senior vice president Dan Halem told "Outside the Lines" on Monday.
Halem said baseball officials have spent the offseason considering and testing padded linings for caps, with the hope that by spring training, MLB would be able to approve and present to the players association multiple options for pitchers to try out on a voluntary basis.
"We're not going to approve a product unless our experts say it provides adequate protection," Halem said.
So far, said Halem, no new cap design satisfies requirements MLB set for providing head protection against high-speed batted balls. He said proposals from six companies are being considered, but that only two have submitted actual prototypes for MLB to test at a University of Massachusetts-Lowell laboratory.
As ESPN.com reported in December, among the padded linings for caps Halem said MLB is considering is one that features DuPont Kevlar, made by Unequal Technologies, and another that uses an advanced foam "gel-to-shell" product, made by EvoShield. Representatives of both companies told OTL that they have been making adjustments to what was originally submitted based on feedback from MLB.
"It may take multiple iterations," Halem said.
Halem said pitchers would not be violating rules by independently deciding to wear any type of padding -- or even a helmet, although neither MLB nor the manufacturing companies have considered helmets for pitchers. He didn't rule out a lined cap receiving MLB's endorsement and being ready for use by Opening Day, saying, "We'll see if the two companies that are farthest along can complete testing, satisfy our criteria, and then produce fast enough."
The issue of protecting pitchers against batted balls to the head was discussed by baseball officials as early as two years ago, Halem said, but the search for some form of acceptable protection accelerated after Sept. 5. That's when Oakland's Brandon McCarthy needed emergency brain surgery due to life-threatening injuries suffered from a line drive off the bat of the Angels' Erick Aybar.
McCarthy has been cleared to pitch and signed a two-year, $15.5 million deal with Arizona.
Halem said MLB doesn't have long-term data about the number of pitchers, who, like McCarthy, were struck by balls above the shoulders, but that it occurred three times in 2012.
Research by "Outside the Lines" found video of 10 incidents from the past five seasons in which batted balls struck pitchers in the head, beginning with 2008, when then-Padre Chris Young was hit between the eyes by an Albert Pujols liner, resulting in a fractured skull, broken nose and a susceptibility to infection that required him to stay home for the next eight weeks. Had the ball instead hit an inch either way, the 33-year-old Young said recently, he might've lost an eye.
A nine-year veteran, Young, now a free agent after two seasons with the New York Mets, said when he returned to action, doctors encouraged him to look into helmets and masks for protection, but he wasn't aware of anything suitable and didn't pursue it. Padded cap liners, said Young, would be a good start for the sport, but MLB should also examine possibilities for more protective coverage.
Neuropsychologist Michael Collins, director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Sports Medicine Concussion Program, cautioned against assuming that just any padding is necessarily better than none, for protection against serious head injuries.
"There is no current, existing panacea," said Collins, who worked with McCarthy on the pitcher's rehabilitation after his September episode in Oakland and eventually cleared him to return. Collins echoed what A's head athletic trainer Nick Paparesta said, that even an effectively padded cap probably wouldn't have limited McCarthy's injuries, because the ball didn't strike above the cap line.
There's an inherent and daunting obstacle to finding solutions, Collins said.
"It's a pipe dream to think we can create an effective study, because the incidences are so rare."
William Weinbaum is a producer for ESPN's "Outside the Lines" and worked with correspondent Steve Delsohn on an OTL report about MLB pitchers' safety and protective headgear that is scheduled to air Feb. 17 at 9 a.m. ET ESPN and 10 a.m. ET on ESPN2.