In case you missed it, Toronto Blue Jays pitcher J.A. Happ was hit in the head by a line drive off the bat of Tampa Bay Ray Desmond Jennings on Tuesday night. After delivering a pitch to Jennings in the second inning, Happ was struck by a line drive off Jennings bat, sending the pitcher quickly to the ground. The ball eventually ended up in the bullpen area of the park, and Happ was taken from the field on a stretcher.
The good news is, it seems Happ is going to be okay. He gave a thumbs up to the crowd as he wheeled from the field, and all tests so far have come back normal. The bad news is, this kind of thing keeps happening. One of the absolute worst things I have ever seen as a sports fan was when Boston Red Sox pitcher Matt Clement was struck in the head by a line drive off the bat of (ironically) Tampa Bay Ray Carl Crawford back in 2005. Clement, like Happ, immediately went to the ground and, honestly, I thought he was dead. The way he fell looked just like the way a person falls when they are shot, and I truly believed that I had just seen a man die playing baseball. Luckily that was not the case. Clement came to and eventually even returned to playing the game, although he was never really the same pitcher he was before being hit.
Of course, these two examples are, fortunately, not the worst case. That, unfortunate, instance belongs to minor league coach Mike Coolbaugh who was struck by a line drive while coaching first base in a minor league game in 2007. The result of the Coolbaugh tragedy was a change in the equipment coaches were required to wear on the field. He is the reason that base coaches now wear those helmets instead of just the caps they used to wear in the 100-plus years prior to 2007.
This brings up the question, what can be done to protect the pitchers? Hitters by far end up getting hit in the head by the ball more often than anyone else in the game. However, they are protected by their batting helmet and you can be sure that those helmets have saved more than one life since they became required equipment in 1959. But hitters are not the only ones in danger. As you can see from the previous three examples, players, coaches and even fans being struck by batted balls are a real problem in baseball. It is, in fact, enough of a problem that baseball leagues at lower levels, where they are allowed to use aluminum bats, have begun to search for solutions to preventing these kinds of accidents from happen. I have read of multiple high school leagues that have banned aluminum bats in an attempt to protect the players on the field.
So, what can Major League Baseball, where wooden bats are already employed do? Honestly it seems like there is no easy solution. You could certainly argue that pitchers should have to wear helmets, just as the base coaches do. I have also read of a proposed Kevlar insert which could be used in pitcher’s hats that is now being tested although it has not been approved by the league or the MLBPA. At the very least this would give them a bit of protection, but short of that there seems to be little that can be done to keep them safe. They certainly can’t stand out there and pitch from behind a screen like they do in batting practice and making them wear a big, catcher’s style helmet (which would give them the most protection) would certainly screw up the way they pitch. Which means things like Tuesday’s injury to Happ are going to keep happening and, unfortunately, there is little that Major League Baseball can do about it.