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Major league pitchers will have an opportunity to wear protective headgear this season, but even those who have been the victims of frightening line drives to the head will have to be won over in the delicate balance between safety and comfort.
Major League Baseball and the players union have approved the first cap with energy-diffusing protective plates, and versions also should be available for youth league players this spring.
The caps, which manufacturer isoBLOX says are heavier and slightly wider than traditional caps, will be available this spring on a voluntary basis.
Those custom fittings could be crucial, based on comments from Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon McCarthy, who had emergency brain surgery after being struck by a line drive in 2012 and has been involved with development of the new caps.
McCarthy tweeted the caps are, "Headed in the right direction but not game ready."
He cited snugness, weight displacement and heat retention as potential issues, all suggestions he has made to isoBLOX.
"He hasn't tried a custom-fitted version, one that includes tweaks he's suggested," company President Stacy Weiland said.
The version for major leaguers creates a crumple zone for the ball, and testing showed the caps absorbed impact up to 90 mph in the front and 85 mph on the side. MLB required the caps handle at least 83-mph impact -- found to be the average speed of balls hit past major league pitchers -- without traumatic brain injury.
The caps are about 1 inch wider than regular caps but add about 7 ounces to the normal 3- to 4-ounce cap.
The company is producing a one-size-fits-all skullcap version that will fit under youths' adjustable caps. That version, which is scheduled to be available in March and retail for $59.99, will handle slightly lower impacts.
MLB will consider similar products from other manufacturers as they become available.
For now, it's a matter of whether pitchers can get comfortable. Even isoBLOX officials admitted pitchers' headgear will be evolutionary from the youth leagues up rather than a sudden change at the major league level.
"It will look different until it doesn't," said Bruce Foster, CEO of 4Licensing, parent company of isoBLOX. "Nobody wanted helmets in hockey. Nobody wanted face masks in football."
Two pitchers who were hit by line drives on the same mound at St.Petersburg's Tropicana Field last summer had similar reactions when they returned after months on the sidelines.
"If it was functional and comfortable and didn't hinder performance, I'd definitely be for it," the Toronto Blue Jays' J.A. Happ said of enhanced protection.
Happ missed three months with a skull fracture from a line drive off the bat of Desmond Jennings, and he sprained his right knee from the fall after being hit.
Said the Tampa Bay Rays' Alex Cobb, who suffered a concussion: "Whether a pitcher wants to pitch in headgear or not should be up to him. But it definitely should be an option. Not too many people know what we went through."