Big league pitchers could experiment with protective hat liners next season, hoping they can absorb the shock of batted balls such as the ones that struck Brandon McCarthy and Doug Fister in the head.
Major League Baseball medical director Dr. Gary Green presented ideas to executives, physicians and trainers at the winter meetings this week. Among the prototypes being studied is headgear made of Kevlar, the high-impact material used by the military and law enforcement and NFL players for body armour.
The liners, weighing perhaps five ounces or less, would go under a pitcher's cap and help protect against line drives that often travel over 100 mph.
MLB could implement the safety change in the minor leagues, as it did a few seasons ago with batting helmets, but would require the approval of the players' union to make big leaguers wear them.
"We're not going to force them on anyone," MLB senior vice-president Dan Halem said Monday. "We'd like to come up with a product or two, test it thoroughly with an independent laboratory and see if players are comfortable wearing them on an optional basis."
Halem had said baseball already was looking at options when McCarthy was hit in the head by a line drive in September. The Oakland pitcher was hospitalized with a skull fracture and brain contusion.
Hit in the head
Fister was hit in the head by a liner in Game 2 of the World Series. The ball flew 150 feet into centre field and, after Fister was examined by a Detroit trainer, he stayed in for several more innings against San Francisco.
Major league general managers discussed the issue during their meetings last month in California. Players' union chief Michael Weiner said there have been preliminary talks with MLB, and said the sides usually come together on safety concerns.
Many youth leagues mandate that pitchers wear helmets. Getting major league pitchers to try something may take time — finding the right comfort, fit and feel isn't easy.
"We might roll out something and have to tweak it a few times," Halem said.
Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro pitched against sluggers Willie Mays, Johnny Bench and Willie Stargell for years, and wishes there had been a similar product in his days.
"You wonder how guys don't get hit in the head more often," he said Monday. "That ball coming back at you, a lot of times you have no chance."
"I don't see how pitchers would like wearing something like that," he said. "If they make it a rule, maybe they'll have to. But I would guess that after some experimenting, they'll figure it out."