Should pitchers be required to wear helmets?

A line drive to J.A. Happ's head has revived an old debate about player safety

On Tuesday, Toronto Blue Jays pitcher J.A. Happ was struck in the head by a line drive that sent him crumpling to the ground. His left hand, cupped to his face, was covered in blood. Happ had to be wheeled off the field on a stretcher, and though he has since said the injuries are not too serious, the incident has rekindled an old debate: Should pitchers wear protective headgear?

Pitchers, more than anyone else on the field, are vulnerable to being drilled by hard-hit balls. They stand just sixty feet and six inches from the plate, and their follow-through can leave them in a defenseless position.

"At least nobody was killed, which should be considered a real possibility with these situations," says Bleacher Report's Zachary D. Rymer. "We're talking about hard objects traveling at speeds of roughly 100 miles per hour making direct contact with flesh and bone protected only by a baseball cap."

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According to ESPN's Outside the Lines, there have been 10 incidents of pitchers being struck in the head in the last five years alone. Calls to avert such incidents intensified last year, when the Oakland Athletics' Brandon McCarthy needed emergency brain surgery after being struck by a line drive.

Following that incident, McCarthy said he would consider wearing a helmet, but added that they should not be mandatory. On Wednesday, perhaps surprisingly, he pushed back against the need for pitcher-specific helmets — at least in the near future. While he suggested he was still open to wearing some sort of head protection, he said there just isn't a good option currently on the market.

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That echoes Major League Baseball's argument. MLB says it's actively looking for ways to protect pitchers, but that it has yet to find an effective piece of equipment. "We're not going to approve a product unless our experts say it provides adequate protection," MLB senior vice president Dan Halem said earlier this year.

(As Keith Olbermann notes, pitchers did once wear helmets, at least on one team. In the 1950s, the Pittsburgh Pirates insisted that all their players wear helmets while on the field, though that mandate was soon abandoned when the helmets proved too cumbersome.)

Design flaws aside, others argue that the issue is really a relatively minor one, since serious head injuries from comebackers are incredibly rare.

Here's Dan Diamond, writing in Forbes:

The incidence rate of Happ's injury is relatively low: Major League Baseball pitchers throw about 700,000 pitches each year, and about 0.0004% of the time — roughly two to three times per season — a batter's hit makes contact with a pitcher’s head.

Another way to think about that: The average pitcher is more likely to die in a car crash over his lifetime then get hit in the head by a line drive during his MLB career. [Forbes]

Still, proponents of the helmets say the precaution is worth it, given the potentially fatal consequences of not doing anything. The league already mandated that first and third base coaches — who stand 90 feet away from the plate — wear helmets, after a minor league coach was struck and killed by a foul ball in 2007.

"If standing 90 feet away from a batted ball can kill you, then what, exactly, does baseball think the risk is of standing 55 feet away?" asks NESN's Zach Stoloff.

"In short, there's just no reason to continue holding out on the issue of pitcher helmets," he adds. "Players will complain, but, just like batting helmets first and ear flaps after that, they will adjust, and the game will be safer."

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Jon Terbush

Jon Terbush is an associate editor at covering politics, sports, and other things he finds interesting. He has previously written for Talking Points Memo, Raw Story, and Business Insider.