When then-Oakland Athletics pitcher Brandon McCarthy suffered life-threatening brain injuries after he was struck in the head by a line drive in September, Major League Baseball said it accelerated its efforts to come up with acceptable protective headgear for pitchers.
But with the season four days away, MLB senior vice president Dan Halem acknowledged to "Outside the Lines" on Wednesday that no safety device, such as a padded cap lining, will be approved in time for Opening Day.
"If I had a product that passed [high-speed impact] tests, it'd be out there tomorrow," Halem said.
MLB commissioned tests on two padded cap prototypes from EvoShield and received test data on two others from Unequal Technologies, according to Halem. But the results, Halem said, showed none of the four products from the two protective sports gear manufacturers were sufficiently effective against baseballs traveling at velocities that can exceed 100 mph.
Halem said that after an OTL report on the subject last month, his office received proposals and inquiries from companies beyond the six -- including EvoShield and Unequal -- with which MLB had already held discussions, and from unaffiliated individuals, but that nothing is in an advanced stage.
"Until we have a really good solution, we listen to everything," MLB medical director Dr. Gary Green said. "There's been progress over the last six months, but it's a slow process."
"We're committed to working with MLB, and all of us realize it's a longer project than initially thought," said Justin Niefer, vice president of business development for EvoShield, which makes an advanced foam "gel-to-shell technology" padding. "We accept the challenge, are intrigued by it and are working toward a solution."
Unequal president Rob Vito said his company has made improvements to the padding with DuPont Kevlar that it submitted for MLB consideration. He said he hopes to have McCarthy and other pitchers try out the updated version before sending it to MLB.
"I want to go to Major League Baseball with a product that not only tests well, but that players want to use," Vito said.
McCarthy underwent emergency brain surgery and a rehabilitation program before he was cleared to resume pitching. He signed a two-year, $15.5 million contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks and is expected to be their fourth starter.
After his first spring training game last month, McCarthy addressed the issue of protective headgear.
"The stuff that's out there already is no good at all," McCarthy said. "It seems like it's still a long way away. I don't even care if it's MLB-approved. I just want something that's functionally approved by me."
Halem said that although MLB hasn't approved anything, pitchers don't need his office's clearance to wear caps with padded linings. And if MLB does approve such a product, he said, the plan is for it to be offered on a voluntary basis.
According to Vito, Unequal has gone to major league teams on its own and has shipped its two padded cap prototypes -- that MLB declined to approve -- to 26 clubs, but he said he doesn't know yet whether any pitchers plan to wear them in games.
The head athletic trainer for the A's and the doctor who supervised McCarthy's rehabilitation both have said a padded cap probably wouldn't have protected him from the brain contusion, epidural hemorrhage and skull fracture he suffered when struck by the line drive off the bat of the Angels' Erick Aybar because the point of impact was below the cap line.
McCarthy spoke with OTL last month about the possibility of more extensive protective headgear.
"I purchased a couple of cricket helmets on my own to see if I could make something out of it, if it was something that worked," he said. "I actually feel like even with the face mask and all, I could get used to that quicker than I could with a half-shell [hard] helmet [like first- and third-base coaches and some catchers wear]."
Green said a crucial problem with various sports helmets, such as those worn by cricket batsmen, is that they generally move around too much to be suitable for a baseball pitcher's motion, which involves a lot of head movement.
With football helmets such as the NFL's, although the movement on the head is limited, Green said an important issue is, "What does the added weight do to the biomechanics?"
Green expressed serious reservations about helmets in general because of their possible hindrance to vision, comfort, performance and, yes, safety.
Although a statistic Green has cited is that the frequency of a pitcher getting hit in the head by a batted ball is but once in every 250,000 pitches, he stressed that MLB's approach to endorsing any innovation is an especially careful one.
"There is the potential with some products to make things worse," he said. "We don't want to just do something; we want to do the right thing."
William Weinbaum is a producer for "Outside the Lines" and produced the show's Feb. 17 report "Capping the Risk."