Early in spring training, 20 big league pitchers are expected to receive newly designed protective headwear resulting from a collaboration between Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association.
"A hybrid of a cap and a helmet" is how MLB vice president Patrick Houlihan describes the customized hats that weigh 10 to 12 ounces, depending on head size, have a carbon fiber shell and roughly resemble sun visors with extended forehead and temple coverage and single earflaps like batting helmets. The average thickness is about 0.7 inches and is greatest in places most susceptible to catastrophic injury, according to Boombang, the company hired to design and produce the headwear.
Research cited by Boombang showed that line drives to the side of the head -- a pitcher's most vulnerable area -- typically strike right-handers on the right and lefties on the left because of follow-through position, so the hats are righty- and lefty-specific.
Houlihan and MLBPA assistant general counsel Bob Lenaghan told Outside the Lines they are optimistic the pitchers will take a liking to the partial head covering supplemented with nylon New Era performance skull caps, and they hope it will lead to usage in games and other pitchers requesting their own.
Throughout the MLB/MLBPA project begun with Boombang in May 2014, input was solicited from pitchers, including the dozen who have been hit in the head by line drives since September 2012, said Houlihan. He added that the first group of pitchers to receive the new cap consists of some pitchers who have been struck, some who are opinion leaders and others who have expressed interest.
Tampa Bay's Alex Cobb, who suffered a mild concussion and experienced vertigo for two months after he was hit in the head in 2013, said he tried on a prototype for the new hat last year.
"It felt great and looks good, similar to a helmet with the top cut off," Cobb said.
Cobb said the shot off the bat that hit him probably would have struck the ear flap if he had been wearing the new product, but he is not prepared to commit to wearing it in a game.
"If I put it on and it's close to wearing a baseball hat and I've got nothing to complain about, I think I'd be open to it," said Cobb, who is an endorser for isoBLOX protective caps for youth leaguers.
The isoBLOX padded cap for big league pitchers introduced two years ago was the only one that had received MLB/MLBPA approval until now, but its bulky appearance hindered acceptance and only former Padre and Met Alex Torres, who ended last season in the minors, wore it in games.
"Our new product is not in any way, shape or form to elbow out isoBLOX," Houlihan said. "We hope this creates a market and we'll have multiple companies making great products."
The manufacturer of isoBLOX said Thursday that improvements to the product will be unveiled this year.
League and union officials declined to answer repeated questions about the amount of money invested in the joint project, other than to characterize it as a "significant sum" and "substantial outlay." They also would not discuss the cost of the hats, which at this point are targeted specifically for MLB pitchers, but versions could be made for minor leaguers and the college and youth markets if the response from the big leaguers is positive.
"This is a loss leader to address player safety, not a money-making venture," said Houlihan. "It's an unprecedented collaboration between us and the union to design safety equipment from scratch, and Boombang had no restrictions on materials or design."
CEO Tylor Garland said the 13-year-old, Los Angeles-based company engaged in an international search for the right technology and materials and tested hundreds of combinations, because "protecting against high-speed impacts with head safety gear is diametrically opposed to creating something thin and light.
"What we've accomplished," said Garland, "is a very lightweight solution that has solved that."
The new hats -- which Boombang says have a copolymer impact absorption layer and a foam liner -- "easily passed" laboratory impact testing at 85 mph and are "almost certainly" protective at higher speeds, according to Houlihan, who pointed out that liners lose several miles per hour of velocity by the time they reach the mound. Even the thicker Rawlings MLB batting helmets, which weigh 1.2 pounds, are not touted as protective at speeds above 100 mph.
A 101 mph liner off the bat struck pitcher Dan Jennings of the Marlins in the head in 2014. Last year with the White Sox, he became the first known pitcher who had been struck to start wearing protective headgear -- Safer Sports Technologies' SST Pro Performance Head Guard, a carbon fiber partial insert that has not been submitted for MLB/MLBPA approval.
At the time, Jennings said, "If it [getting hit in the head] happened again and I wasn't wearing anything, I'd feel pretty stupid."
But Jennings told Outside the Lines on Thursday that when he struggled with his pitching during a Triple-A rehab assignment last summer, he surmised he was thinking too much about the SST insert, which he found difficult to keep in place when he changed caps or took off his cap to pray. So even though it covered the area where he had been hit, he stopped wearing it.
"I live my life by faith, and everything happens for a reason now," said Jennings. "If you get hit a second time, then you're probably the unluckiest guy in the world. I like my odds now."
As for the new hat being rolled out, Jennings predicts a tough road for its adoption.
"I don't think many guys will wear anything unless it is mandatory," he said.
No type of head safety gear is mandatory for MLB pitchers, who can wear any such device as long as it isn't deemed to interfere with play or conflict with licensing agreements. But MLB pitchers acknowledge they are disinclined to make even slight changes to their feel on the mound or their routine and appearance.
At the end of last season, only Houston's Collin McHugh among MLB pitchers was known to be wearing protective headgear. McHugh said Thursday he is a big supporter of the SST insert and that he had not heard of the new MLB/MLBPA product.
Upon learning about it, McHugh said, "I'm super excited that MLB is getting in front of this with the players' association ... and when they started to have first- and third-base coaches wear helmets -- and we [pitchers] are closer to the plate and in a more awkward position -- it was just a matter of time before MLB introduced something for us."
McHugh said he expects to stick with what he has been using.
Cleveland's Jeff Manship said Thursday that he also was unaware of the new initiative. He said he has experimented in practice with the SST insert and might eventually use it in games, partly because it protects the temple -- the area where his brother was hit as a 12-year-old Little League pitcher, resulting in a concussion, while Manship was looking on from shortstop.
But also important, says Manship, is that such an insert doesn't change the traditional cap appearance.
"I'm definitely one of the guilty ones," said Manship. "I want to have it look right, which sounds terrible when you're talking about safety, but that's how it is."
Five MLB pitchers were struck in the head by line drives last year, four of them in the face. The new headgear doesn't provide facial protection, as the stated objective was preventing life-threatening injuries considered most likely to occur as Brandon McCarthy's Sept. 5, 2012, episode did when he was hit on the side of the head.
Houlihan, who began working for MLB the following day, said completing new headwear with facial protection in time for spring training was impossible, but it would be under consideration for the future.
One thing that isn't changing, regardless of what a pitcher wears, is the one-third of a second he has to react to line drives toward the head.
Jennings said he supports providing protective options but thinks a better understanding is needed to explain the apparent increase in the frequency of liners that strike the head.
"I look back at me being hit, and I don't think I could've been in better position," Jennings said. "There is no 'ready' for balls coming back at 100-plus mph, no stopping that.
"I didn't even see the ball."
Jennings said he embraces the suggestion by 16-time Gold Glove winner Jim Kaat that using softer baseballs could help.
"If it means there'll be fewer home runs, then move in the fences to compensate," said Jennings.
For now, however, baseball's focus is on what pitchers can wear to lessen the risk.
Regardless of how many pitchers use what he called the "version 1.0" hat in games, Houlihan said the project is a success because it offers "a viable, legitimate product that is the best available at this time."
Said Lenaghan: "It was a great experience and shows that, when we put our heads together on an issue, we can come up with good results."