Batting helmets have been mandatory gear for MLB players since the 1970s, and they have saved countless players from serious injuries or worse. The risk of being hit in the head or face with with a 90-mph pitch is obviously something that warrants protection, but isn’t the player who launched that ball at risk as well? A fastball can be returned just as quickly or even faster off the hitter’s bat, and a pitcher isn’t ready, he can also face injury. Even with the best reflexes, a pitcher might still be finishing this throw when a line drive comes straight at him. A full-size batting-style helmet might be impractical, but a compromise has been reached that could protect pitchers without impeding their abilities.
Working with the MLB and the MLB Players Association, manufacturer Boombang has engineered and constructed a product called the Half Cap, which is described as a “hybrid of a cap and a helmet.” It debuted in time for spring training this year.
Though the odds of a pitcher taking a shot to the head is very small at 1 in every 300,000 pitches, MLB still wanted to offer some protection for these players, who hold a position that is among the most vulnerable to get hit by a hit. “That’s still one too many,” said Robert Reich, Boombang’s strategy and research director. “especially if you’re the man on the mound.”
The specifications called for the cap to be lightweight, comfortable, and attractive so that pitchers would actually want to don them. Boombang consulted industry experts to find the ideal materials to construct the product. After several iterations and testing phases, designers chose a carbon fiber composite for the outer shell, which features an energy-absorbing impact layer. On the inside, a foam liner conforms to the players head, while moisture-wicking materials add to the comfort level.
The potential for risk to pitchers was made apparent in a string of incidents last year, as reported by CNET. Five pitchers were struck in 2015 (part of the 12 total who have been hit since 2012), including the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Archie Bradley, who took a shot to the face, and New York Yankee Bryan Mitchell, who suffered a broken nose and concussion. In August, Jared Hughes of the Pittsburgh Pirates barely avoided serious injury when St. Louis Cardinals hitter Stephen Piscotty smacked a line drive straight at his face. Hughes was saved by his fast reflexes, as he deflected the ball with his glove and caught a graze along his cheek. But he took the near-miss to heart, as he agreed to test out the Half Cap just a month later, along with 20 other pitchers.
“It’s light, sturdy and super comfortable,” said Hughes during a recent interview from the Pirates’ spring training complex in Bradenton, Florida. “It feels great … Sure, it may look silly and I might get teased, but that’s stuff I don’t care about.” He is joined by fellow Pirate pitcher Mark Melancon and Juan Nizasio. Atlanta Braves pitcher Alex Torres is also on board to try out the new gear.