Commentary

Protecting pitchers must be priority

After Alex Cobb becomes latest victim, it's time for MLB to act before it's too late

Updated: June 16, 2013, 1:06 AM ET
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

I would love to sit here and pontificate about how Major League Baseball needs to do something drastic -- and soon -- to ensure that pitchers are finally safe from ill-fated line drives through the box. It would be wonderful to never again endure the anxious, gut-churning moments that accompany a fallen pitcher being carried from the field, and waiting for him to flash a "thumbs up'' sign to let the crowd know that he's conscious and in good spirits.

Now for the reality check: Even commissioner Bud Selig can't just snap his fingers and declare everybody "safe.'' Pitchers, like wide receivers going over the middle or wingers chasing down loose pucks in the corner, are in a vulnerable position through the mere nature of their jobs. Short of moving the mound back 10 or 20 feet or making pitchers throw from behind a screen while clad in face masks, helmets and flak jackets, there's only so much baseball can do to safeguard them from harm.

[+] EnlargeAlex Cobb
J. Meric/Getty ImagesMedical personnel come to the aid of Rays pitcher Alex Cobb, after he was struck by a line drive.

But we've also reached the point where MLB needs to pool its best minds and form a task force, a special committee or a "who can design the best protective insert?'' contest, and make this issue a top priority. Because if there's one thing we can all agree on, nobody wants to see another Brandon McCarthy, J.A. Happ or Alex Cobb.

Cobb became the latest victim Saturday afternoon, when Kansas City's Eric Hosmer hit a line drive through the box in the fifth inning of a Rays-Royals game at Tropicana Field. He was taken to a local hospital, where tests showed that he had escaped a very frightening ordeal with what the team labeled a "mild concussion."

The incident occurred five weeks after Happ suffered a fractured skull on a Desmond Jennings liner at the same venue. And it happened two weeks after McCarthy, another member of the club, suffered a seizure in a Phoenix restaurant that appeared to be related to his September brain surgery to relieve the pressure from an encounter with a line drive.

Nothing spurs debate and the demand for quick solutions like a good scare. When San Francisco's Buster Posey suffered a career-threatening ankle injury after being decked by the Marlins' Scott Cousins in 2011, Posey's agent and some commentators and executives proposed outlawing home-plate collisions. Two years later, that rule has yet to be passed, but the Giants and some other teams have instructed their catchers to refrain from blocking the plate and to simply step aside as a means of preventing serious injuries.

Pitchers, conversely, don't have the luxury of weighing the dangers and assessing their options. Once the ball leaves their hand, their momentum is all forward. Batted balls travel at extraordinarily high rates -- Hosmer's shot was reportedly going 102.4 mph -- and time is not their friend.

In recent months, momentum has built toward the introduction of protective inserts that would fit beneath pitchers' caps. An insert wouldn't have helped Bryce Florie, whose career essentially ended when he suffered multiple broken bones and serious eye damage on a Ryan Thompson comebacker in 2000. And no one knows for sure how much it could have helped Happ or Cobb. But the law of averages tells you that if this recent spate of scary incidents becomes a trend, some pitcher in the future is going to realize the benefits.

[+] EnlargeRays and Royals
J. Meric/Getty ImagesPlayers for the Rays and Royals watch as Alex Cobb is tended to on the field.

The question, obviously, is how to introduce equipment changes seamlessly enough that they don't become too distracting and cause more problems than they resolve. But is it really that difficult? I have a mobile phone on my desk that can play music, pay my bills, allow me to buy a plane ticket and put me in touch with people all over the globe. At the risk of sounding overly simplistic, I have to assume that some budding inventor out there can devise a piece of equipment that makes a pitcher 10 or 20 or 40 percent safer on the mound.

I was in Scottsdale, Ariz., in spring training when McCarthy made his Cactus League debut six months after suffering a brain contusion, an epidural hemorrhage and a skull fracture on an Erick Aybar line shot. For all the anxious moments McCarthy endured, he said he won't wear an insert until the technology improves to meet his standards.

"It's not very good at all,'' McCarthy said in March. "Until the products are better, it's going to be slow-moving. I guess there are some entrepreneurs -- guys in the basement who are really putting them together -- and that's kind of where my hope lies. I'm hoping it's someone who's hungry and wants to fill this gap. I don't even care if it's MLB-approved. I just want it to be functionally approved by me.''

To this sentiment, we say "amen.'' It's terrifying to think that a pitcher out there might get killed by a batted ball one day. The only worse scenario will be if baseball fails to do everything in its power to address the problem first.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer

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