Time For A New MLB Concussion Protocol

0
1011

Baseball is a peaceful game, in which the only violence is supposed to be the smack of the wooden bat against the leather cover of the ball. However, the ball doesn’t always follow the path the pitcher intends, and sometimes there’s just no time to get out of the way. In light of the national conversation surrounding the subject and a recent spring training incident, Brandon Magee believes that it is time for a new MLB concussion protocol.

Baseball is considered a non-contact sport. There is no tackling of players like in football (or futbol), no hockey-style checking, and no fouling as seen in basketball. With renewed emphasis on following the written rules, collisions at home plate and injury-inducing slides in the infield are becoming much less common. However, baseball is still a dangerous game, in which a hard object is being thrown and hit at extreme speeds. Injuries, inadvertent as they may be, will continue.

In particular, pitchers and batters confront each other from a distance of just 60’6”, each accepting a unique risk. With pitchers throwing up to and sometimes over 100 miles per hour, an errant pitch can mean a stay on the disabled list and surgery for an unfortunate hitter. Giancarlo Stanton was hit in the face by a Mike Fiers pitch on September 11, 2014, ending Stanton’s season with multiple facial fractures and lacerations as well as extensive dental damage. On July 1, 2015, George Springer was struck on the wrist by an Edinson Volquez pitch, resulting in a non-displaced fracture. Springer would be out for just over two months while the broken bone healed, coming back to the Houston Astros on September 4.

Pitchers, however, may have it even worse. While batters may come to the plate with a litany of protective equipment – shin guards, elbow pads and, most important of all, batting helmets – pitchers are free of such armor. In particular, the head area is totally exposed to a line drive returning at a pitcher – finishing his delivery and now only 50 feet from the batter – at speeds routinely over 100 mph. There’s no chance to react beyond pure instinct, and pitchers are often drilled. On September 8, 2000, Bryce Florie was unable to avoid a line drive by Ryan Thompson. The scorched shot fractured his cheekbone and orbital socket, and damaged the retina. Perhaps it is a testament to the tenacity of Florie that he made it back to the major leagues the following season, pitching 8 2/3 innings for Boston in June and July. Those would be his last appearances in MLB.

These injuries, gruesome as they may be, are fundamentally unavoidable and will always be a fixture of the game. While MLB is currently working on headgear for pitchers that is more protective than the current ball caps, it is unlikely that we’ll be seeing pitchers sporting full facial protection any time soon.

However, while equipment changes to help prevent severe injuries are proceeding apace, we have to ask if MLB is doing enough to treat these injuries on the field after they occur, especially given what we learn seemingly every month about concussion symptoms, detection, and long-term effects.

On March 14, in a cactus-league game, Johnny Cueto’s first pitch was lined directly back at him by Billy Burns. The ball caromed off of Cueto’s forehead before landing out in right-center field. Manager Bruce Bochy and the San Francisco trainer both went out to the mound to assess the right-handed hurler. After the game, Bochy said this about Cueto’s prognosis:

He was treated for a contusion. We are going to monitor him tonight and tomorrow for any concussion symptoms.

A fair statement. Certainly the ball struck Cueto in such a way that a concussion was possible. And concussions should never be taken lightly. By definition, concussions can include problems with concentration, balance, and coordination. It certainly would be unwise to place any player on the field who is having trouble with those areas. Bochy appeared to realize the danger, saying:

Nothing scares me more than what happened, that line drive up the middle. [Cueto’s] first night game, the first pitch of the game, I’m sure he didn’t recognize it off the bat. I was hoping it was what it was, more of a glancing blow. Still, it caught him pretty good.

While I would argue that “caught him pretty good” is an understatement – the ball, after all, had a significant change in trajectory, bounding off Cueto’s head and making what was a line drive into a pop up before landing in the outfield – it recognizes the potential seriousness of the situation. Unfortunately, these words ultimately mean nothing in light of the manager’s action after the incident. Cueto did not leave the game immediately. Cueto did not leave after the inning. Cueto, in fact, pitched three full innings. In a SPRING TRAINING GAME. After being HIT IN THE HEAD by a batted ball. Cueto, as is typical of athletes, convinced the manager and the trainer that he should continue. As Bochy said:

He was fine out there. He answered all the questions. He wanted to stay out there. Guess it shows how tough he is, in a spring training game.

Cueto answered a series of questions he must be fine to continue! But are concussion tests definitive enough to keep pitchers in the game, after they have been hit in the head? On September 5, 2012, Brandon McCarthy was struck on the head by an Erick Aybar line drive. McCarthy did not appear to lose consciousness and was able to walk off the field under his own power. It was only after being taken to the hospital that a CT Scan revealed an epidural hemorrhage, a brain contusion, and a fractured skull. In the aftermath of Pete Rose’s admonition of Josh Donaldson leaving a playoff game after getting kneed in the head, McCarthy took to Twitter:

Let’s repeat that. Brandon McCarthy, after getting hit by a line drive that caused a fractured skull and extensive brain injury – injuries that have McCarthy on seizure medication to this day – was able to pass a concussion test. I am no doctor, but it appears to me that these concussion tests aren’t particularly valuable as a tool to assess whether one has an internal brain injury that could lead to death.

We should not forget that a blow to the head by a baseball has proved fatal in the past. On August 16, 1920, Ray Chapman was hit by a pitch thrown by submarine-style spitballer Carl Mays. Chapman may have never seen the ball the strike him, as scuffed, darkened balls were often kept in play as a cost-saving measure. The game was played during a foggy afternoon, making the ball even more difficult to see. The ball struck him flush, causing a depressed fracture three inches long and lacerating both sides of his brain. While the initial brain surgery appeared to put him on the road to recovery, Chapman did not make it through the night.

In response to this incident, Major League Baseball made modifications. Umpires were urged to stop using old darkened baseballs, keeping bright white baseballs in a game where, back then, the only light on the field was from the sun. While spitballers who were already in the game – like Mays, who continued to pitch through the 1929 season – were allowed to continue with their sticky repertoire, new rules for the 1921 season saw the pitch banned for all new pitchers in the majors. Batting helmets, however, would not become mandatory in MLB until 1971.

On July 22, 2007, the danger of a batted ball would again be displayed. Mike Coolbaugh, the Double-A Tulsa Drillers Batting Coach, was acting as the team’s first base coach in a game against the Arkansas Travelers. When Tino Sanchez slashed a line drive down the first baseline, Coolbaugh was struck in the neck. The impact was immediate and lethal, with the impact pulverizing his left vertebral artery. Coolbaugh was pronounced dead at 9:47pm, less than an hour after the initial impact, of a severe brain hemorrhage. In an effort to avoid future injuries to coaches, MLB enacted new rules for the 2008 season mandating the use of helmets for base coaches.

Major League Baseball has shown the ability to make quick adjustments in the wake of tragedy. Will it take another tragedy before realizing that true concussion testing can only be done OFF the field? That damage to the brain is immediate, but does not always present immediately or in ways that can be easily ascertained by a few questions? Baseball could and should be at the forefront of new concussion protocols which mandate that pitchers who are struck in the head by a line drive must leave the game due to possible injury.

While such a mandate would be a new wrinkle to the game, it would show the continued commitment MLB has in decreasing preventable injuries. Throwing a forearm shiver into the catcher was always technically illegal, but was an accepted part of the game until too many injuries during home plate collisions made it unacceptable to the majority of owners. Now, the rules have been modified to make these collisions and the resulting injuries less common. Multiple injuries at the second base bag last season led to a reassessment of the rules for sliding. While broken legs and fractured ankles are obvious injuries and result in players leaving the game, should we not treat a potential traumatic brain injury in the same manner? The fact that such an injury is “hidden” should not mean it can be ignored. Unfortunately, it often is. Just as it was a few days ago. If managers and trainers can not be trusted to override the will of the player for their own safety, the only solution is to take it out of their hands.

After all, isn’t a life more important than a win or loss?

Brandon Magee is our minor league expert; he has written about minor league travel, ranking prospects, a first round draft pick, and the MLB First-Year Player Draft.

Follow Brandon on Twitter @cuzittt.

LEAVE A REPLY