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Catchers spring into action with new mask

Tyler Flowers was so impressed by the Force3 Defender mask, he didn't just make it his new gear, he invested in the company. Force3 Pro Gear

Atlanta Braves catcher Tyler Flowers remembers what it used to feel like when he'd be hit in the mask by a foul tip. "It was normal for me for me to have a sore jaw," he said. "It was so bad that sometimes I couldn't chew meat for a week or even two weeks at a time."

But Flowers says he doesn't have that problem anymore. For the past two seasons he's been wearing a mask, the Force3 Defender, that is becoming increasingly popular with MLB catchers. The Defender uses a spring-cushioned shock-absorption system that reduces the force of an impact. "I've taken numerous shots to the face, to the chin, all over the place, and I haven't had any repercussions from any of them," Flowers said. "There are probably bigger issues here, like concussions, but seriously, it's such a great thing to not have to worry about chewing my food anymore."

Flowers showed no ill effects after taking a pitch in the center of the mask during a 2016 game:

Flowers invested in the company and is now a part-owner of Force3, so he isn't a neutral observer. Still, his willingness to put his money where his mouth is -- literally, in this case -- speaks to how much he believes in the product.

The result, catchers say, is that even a full-on impact from a tipped fastball feels less forceful. "With the old kind of mask, it kind of shakes a little bit and there's no absorption," said Kyle Farmer of the Los Angeles Dodgers. "But with the Defender, you can actually feel the springs compress. You don't get that dizzy kind of starry feeling, and you don't have to take a little time to readjust yourself."

Farmer's teammate, Yasmani Grandal, also a Force3 investor, was similarly effusive. "It's like going from sleeping on concrete to sleeping on feathers," he said. "I've gotten smoked quite a bit this season. Umpires will ask if I need some time, and I say, 'No, I've got the good mask on.' It says a lot when the umpire's more worried about you than you are yourself." (Some MLB umpires have also been spotted wearing the Defender.)

The Defender mask is the brainchild of Force3 founder and president Jason Klein, a 40-year-old former minor league umpire. (Full disclosure: Klein was also an ESPN intern from 1997 to 1998.) "I had conceived of it while I was still umpiring in the late 2000s," he said. "But I couldn't tackle it then. It really needed to be a full-time thing -- the development, design, testing. So when I got out of umpiring in 2009, I started on it. It took a good five-plus years to develop it and fine-tune it."

The Defender's engineering premise is fairly simple and intuitive. Traditional catchers' masks, which haven't changed appreciably in generations, feature a wire cage with padding. But the Defender has two cages -- one inner and one outer -- which are separated by three pairs of stainless steel springs (one pair at each temple and another pair at the chin). The idea is that the outer cage and the springs absorb most of the force of an impact, with relatively little force being transferred to the inner cage and the user. The innovative design, which was recently granted a patent, looks a lot like a standard mask, with the telltale springs being the mask's primary visual signifier. If you want to see whether a catcher is wearing the Defender, look for the springs.

"I had been toying with an idea of getting some kind of suspension system in there, but we didn't know which springs to use, or anything else," Klein said. "It was literally trial and error with a lot of masks, a lot of springs, and finally we got it exactly where we wanted it."

Are there any trade-offs or downsides? Depending on which mask a catcher has previously been wearing, the Defender may be a few ounces heavier, which can take a couple of days to adjust to. Aside from that, nobody interviewed for this article could come up with any drawbacks.

The rise of the Defender, which also comes in a hockey-style model, exemplifies two current trends in sports equipment. First is the changing face of baseball headgear, which can also be seen in the increasing use of the C-Flap batting helmet attachment. And second is the sports world's growing emphasis on preventing concussions, which until recently had not been much of a concern for baseball catchers. Viewed in that context, the Defender is similar to the Vicis Zero1 football helmet, which, like the Defender, is a high-tech model from an upstart brand that has slowly but steadily gained popularity and has attracted several active players as investors.

But the similarities have their limits. NFL helmets are not permitted to carry a manufacturer's logo, so there are no endorsement contracts and players are free to wear a wide range of helmet models. But the world of MLB catcher's equipment is awash in endorsement deals from Nike, Rawlings and many other sportswear brands, with players often receiving up to $100,000 to wear a particular company's gear. As a result, several MLB catchers who've been spotted wearing the Defender declined to be interviewed for this article, presumably for fear of angering their equipment sponsors.

One exception was Royals catcher Drew Butera, who has a deal with Rawlings but has been wearing the Defender anyway and was happy to talk about it. "Rawlings is OK with me wearing it," he said. (A Rawlings representative confirmed this.) "I've been hit straight-on a few times, and I definitely notice the difference. You feel a lot less impact." Butera's teammate Salvador Perez, another Rawlings-associated catcher, was also wearing the Defender during spring training before he was injured just before Opening Day.

Flowers was the first MLB catcher to wear the Defender, in 2016. But he would have worn it sooner if not for his own endorsement deals. "I wanted to start wearing it in 2015, but at that time I was under contract to Under Armour, and they weren't very open to me wearing a different mask, so I had to wait," he said.

As a small startup, Force3 doesn't have the resources to give out six-figure endorsement deals. Flowers and Grandal, the two player-investors, are the only MLB catchers who have any kind of business relationship with Force3, and the company plans to keep it that way for now.

Nonetheless, Force3 expects a growing number of players to defect to the Defender, even without financial inducement. "It's true that the younger guys, they want to cash in and get their endorsement money," Klein said. "But the older guys who are established, that $100,000 means almost nothing to them. So we don't compete with the big companies, at least not directly. We just put our product out there, a product that's safer than anyone else's, and let it grow."

If that sounds like a surprising approach, consider this: In a sports landscape that's increasingly defined by high-profile branding, the Defender's look is fairly sedate -- no flashy design flourishes, no neon color accents. Even the Force3 logo is rather low-key. "The way we see it, the springs are our real logo," Klein said.

The Defender's market penetration goes beyond the big leagues. At the minor league level, it is the recommended mask for umpires in the Class A South Atlantic League, and Klein said many MLB teams are recommending it for their minor league catchers. (Several teams that were asked about this declined to comment.) The Defender is also fully approved for use in youth leagues.

The Defender's spring-based system may soon find its way beyond the baseball diamond. "We've already been working on masks for other sports, like hockey and lacrosse," Klein said. Force3 also has been approached by a construction company seeking to protect saw operators from recoil.

Paul Lukas did not take any fastballs to the face while reporting this story. If you like this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook and sign up for his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, check out his Uni Watch merchandise, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.