Scoggins: Can MLB do anything to protect pitchers from inherent danger?

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 19, 2013 - 12:00 PM

Getting hit in the head by a line drive, as Rays starter Alex Cobb was last weekend, is a fear for every pitcher.

Photo: Brian Blanco, Associated Press - Ap

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Scott Diamond hasn’t seen a replay of Tampa Bay pitcher Alex Cobb being drilled in the head by a line drive this past weekend. Nor does he want to watch it. Or hear that sickening thud of the ball ricocheting off Cobb’s head.

The Twins lefthander doesn’t need any reminder of the danger that lurks every time he releases a pitch.

“Just hearing about it is enough for me,” he said.

Unfortunately, that occupational hazard has become a sobering story line again for Major League Baseball after Cobb became the second pitcher in the past five weeks to take a line drive to the head. Combined with a terrifying incident last season, these cases underscore the risk that pitchers face and the need for MLB to identify safety measures that might decrease that risk.

“When it happens, it’s a frightening moment,” Twins starter P.J. Walters said, “but it’s something we deal with.”

That sentiment echoed throughout the Twins clubhouse Tuesday in conversations about two recent incidents and what, if anything, baseball can and should do to protect pitchers.

Cobb suffered what the Rays termed a “mild concussion” when he was struck in the ear. Toronto’s J.A. Happ suffered a skull fracture after being hit by a liner in early May. Those two survived relatively unscathed compared to Brandon McCarthy, who faced life-threatening brain injuries after being hit by a line drive while pitching for Oakland last September. He underwent surgery after suffering an epidural hemorrhage and skull fracture, and he endured a seizure earlier this month probably brought on by his injuries.

These incidents remain uncommon — MLB estimates that one in every 250,000 pitches results in a pitcher being hit in the head — but each one has the potential to be catastrophic. The ball that hit Cobb reportedly was traveling 102 miles per hour.

Baseball can’t legislate risk out of the game, but with technological advances and heightened safety awareness, it’s not enough for everyone to just throw their hands up and say, “Well, that’s baseball for you.”

But what is realistic? Let’s start by acknowledging that no easy solution exists. It’s not as if pitchers can outfit themselves in armor. Nor is it realistic to think they can pitch in a helmet or facemask. MLB medical director Dr. Gary Green said the league has consulted with as many as eight companies about developing protective headgear and/or padded hats, but that nothing is sufficient enough to introduce yet. It’s encouraging that MLB seems serious about addressing this issue.

Pitchers undoubtedly will resist anything that interferes with their vision, focus or ability to function normally, even if it significantly reduced their risk of head injury. That’s just the competitive nature of professional athletes.

“I’m one of those guys that if somebody said, ‘You have to wear a helmet,’ I’d rather take the chance that I’m either not going to get hit, or if I get hit that I’ll survive,” Twins closer Glen Perkins said.

Some sort of padded hat seems like a reasonable idea, although that wouldn’t necessarily provide protection in those instances when a pitcher gets hit in the ear or face, such as what happened to Nick Blackburn as a Twins rookie in 2008. Bobby Abreu’s liner hit Blackburn above the mouth and to the side of his nose. He suffered no broken bones.

“If there is a good spot,” Blackburn said, “I guess that would be it.”

Blackburn made his next scheduled start, but he admits that scare remained on his mind for some time, to the point that he even forgot about the tendinitis in his right elbow.

“My focus was on my face the entire time,” he said. “To be honest, it’s one of those things you don’t even want to talk about.”

The gravity of what happened registered during a conversation with his father, who told his son that he wouldn’t blame him if he decided to quit pitching. In his next start, a line drive missed Blackburn by about 10 feet, but, he noted, “my heart about jumped out of my chest.”

Every pitcher seemingly has a horror story. Vance Worley snagged a line drive by Chicago’s Alfonso Soriano a few inches from his face in 2011.

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