JA Happ’s Head Injury

Providentially, he’s okay. He went to the Trop yesterday to visit with his teammates and has spoken to the media about his situation.

Let’s relegate the Blue Jays’ rotation issues to the back burner: frankly, they’re not that important right now. They’ll become important, but we’ll address it at a more appropriate time. There’s a lot of talk and virtual ink being spilled about the incident. I just read an article over at Fangraphs.com: it’s one of many. I am unsure what to think about some of the issues raised, notably the MLB rules regarding injured players and the prospective adoption of protective headgear for pitchers.

Regarding the first issue, I think a rule modification is in order. Simply put, play doesn’t stop until there’s a natural break that the umpire can use. Then the umpire calls time, and the injured player is tended to by the appropriate staff. This was thrown into relief in the Happ incident where Brandon Jennings kept running until the ball came back to the infield. A line drive off the pitcher resulted in a triple.

I’m in favour of a rule modification because it is often the case that the sooner medical help is given, the better the injured players’ prognosis will be. In the back of my mind, the image is of the Buffalo Sabres trainer running across the ice to staunch the flow of blood from Clint Malarchuk’s throat.

I’m against the second issue: protective headwear is unnecessary, in my opinion. I am attempting to walk the razor’s edge here, so allow me to explain what I mean. On the on hand, there have been several similar incidents recently (Doug Fister, Brandon McCarthy, JA Happ, etc.), and they are likely to continue. These events aren’t common by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s a once-per-year or three-times-in-five-years kind of frequency to them. I was horrified by what I saw in Tampa, and that is unlikely to change in future occurrences. Familiarity DOES NOT breed contempt: every time it happens it’s scary and unsettling.

On the other hand, career-ending injuries in these situations are rare and there’s only been one MLB player die as a result of sustaining an injury during a game (Ray Chapman, 1920). Ray Chapman played when: some pitchers still threw spitters; clean balls weren’t kept in play; batting helmets were a safety innovation that wouldn’t be adopted for another 30+ years; it was late afternoon/twilight (stadium lighting was also a later innovation); and Carl Mays was a unique pitcher—he threw Quisenberry style, but he threw very hard. These factors make it surprising that there weren’t more fatalities or career-ending injuries.

Another incident, this one in the minor leagues, occurred in 2007. Mike Coolbaugh, formerly a Blue Jays’ draft pick, was coaching first base when he was struck in the neck by a line drive. The impact was so great and the injury was so severe that Coolbaugh only lived for about an hour after being struck. It is because of this incident that MLB adopted the rule that base coaches wear protective helmets in late 2007. It was enforced at the start of the 2008 MLB season.

I don’t want anyone to die from injuries sustained in any sport. However, the extreme rarity of fatal injuries occurring in baseball suggests that protective headgear for pitchers (a kevlar bump cap, if you will) may be an overreaction.

I also wonder about the relevance of a ‘kevlar kap’, since the overwhelming majority of injuries—serious and otherwise—happen below cap level. It’s unrealistic to think, for instance, that JA Happ could have lowered his head and let the line drive carom off a kevlar kap and thus prevent a head injury. Human instinct is to raise the hands, not lower the head.

There’s also the difficult issue of the severity of the injuries being sustained. McCarthy’s injury was very serious, but he was out of hospital in six days. Happ left the hospital after his condition had been upgraded from ‘fair’ to ‘good’. Are these valid considerations?

What do you think?

Wes Kepstro

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  60. 60 bballgordie May 13, 2013 at 10:43 am

    If the head gear does not impair the pitcher in any way, why wouldn’t you use it? It may not happen often, but when it does happen it is most serious.

    • 61 Wes Kepstro May 13, 2013 at 1:28 pm

      I don’t know what you mean by “impair” or “most serious”.

      Part of the difficulty with safety cap technology right now is that they are a significant departure from the present ‘baseball cap’. If what you’re suggesting by “impair” is that they need to make one “close” or “virtually identical” to what they use now, they aren’t close to having that.

      If by “most serious” you mean “career-ending” or “career-threatening”, I disagree. The former doesn’t fit the broad sweep of reality; the latter is so vague as to be less-than-meaningful. Certainly there are individual cases (Herb Score; Mike Coolbaugh; Ray Chapman), but it’s doubtful that a ‘kevlar kap’ would have made a difference in any of those cases.

      If they can make a ‘kevlar kap’ that’s close to the present cap, I can’t see any reason not to use it. Heck, all players could use it, not just pitchers. I just don’t see much value to it. As far as I can tell, most of the injuries sustained occur below the cap: the difference made by a ‘kevlar kap’ would be negligible.

      I’m not anti-innovation, particularly when it comes to safety issues. Helmets (then ear flaps), catchers’ paraphernalia, chest protectors, leg/ankle protectors, arm protectors, etc., have all been positive. Have they saved lives? It’s hard to tell. Have they reduced injuries, serious and otherwise? There’s no question. However, I don’t advocate innovation for its own sake.


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