clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Evan Marshall and pitcher safety

New, 21 comments

Evan Marshall may not yet be back on the mound. But his return to Chase Field yesterday, three weeks after having his skull fractured by a line-drive, was itself something of a miracle.

Norm Hall/Getty Images

It's probably just misfortune for the Diamondbacks to have had two pitchers fall victim to similar events this season, considering it's not something I recall happening in previous years. [I remember one of our batters hitting an opposing pitcher in a similar way, the ball then ricocheting back into the seats behind home-plate]. Mercifully, this is rare, but these two incidents are also startlingly different in some ways. When Archie Bradley was hit, he was back at the park by the end of the game, and appears to have suffered no permanent physical damage. Evan Marshall, however, almost died.

"They didn’t know if he was going to make it through the night," said Evan Marshall's wife yesterday at Chase Field. His rehab doctor, Dr. Christina Kwasnica, elaborated: "It was a hit right in the wrong part of the skull, where the skull is thin. Right below there, there’s an artery. He had immediate bleeding. Even with the fastest medical care you can get, he was very close to having a very bad outcome." That's a pretty sobering thought. Sports injuries get blown out of proportion by some fans, but the bottom line is, people don't typically die from torn ligaments. What happened to Marshall is on an entirely different level. And sadly, he probably won't be the last.

To put into context just how vulnerable pitchers are, let's compare them to catchers. Catchers are about the same distance from the pitcher, as pitcher from batter. Catchers are able to get set up, know the pitch that's coming, are allowed to devote their full focus to receiving the ball; and are heavily armored, including a full face-mask, chest protector, gloves, knee-guards, etc. Pitchers have none of this, get no advance knowledge of intended location and have just completed the most stressful action in sport. Oh, and the ball can come back 20 mph faster than it went in. At that speed, the kinetic energy possessed falls roughly between a .22 and a 9mm bullet.

There is a somewhat cynical argument that says MLB only acts when a big-name is hurt, and that nothing will be done until an ace pitcher is seriously injured, rather than a guy little known outside Arizona, who was hurt in the minor leagues. However, there is some precedent. In July 2007, Rockies minor-league first-base coach Mike Coolbaugh was killed after being hit in the head by a line drive during a Texas League game. That winter, MLB mandated head protection as mandatory for both first- and third-base coaches. This was much quicker than helmets for batters were required: that took more than 50 years after the death of Ray Chapman in 1920.

Of course, the big difference is that popping a helmet on a coach has little or no impact on the game; in contrast,  the lightest kind of protective headgear for pitchers has the potential to disrupt significantly a process which relies hugely on mechanics, with a lot of moving parts. Strap a weight onto the piston-rod of your Ferrari, and see how well it runs. Such headgear exists, and has for a couple of seasons: Padres' reliever Alex Torres became the first to wear such a padded cap when pitching during a game, in June last year.

At the time, it was said that "interest in trying the cap has been nearly non-existent," and judging by the apparent absence of pitchers wearing padded caps now, remains that way. Considering it looks more like the kind of beanie a hipster in a Seattle coffee-house would wear, you can somewhat understand their reluctance. It's not even clear how much protection it would offer. While it might help against injuries like that suffered by Marshall. It would clearly have done absolutely nothing for Bradley, where the impact was on the face; if you look at recent major-league cases, most are like that, such as the recent incident involving Yankees' reliever Bryan Mitchell.

The same goes for former Diamondback Brandon McCarthy, seriously injured in a similar incident to Marshall in September 2012. He has been reluctant to wear protection on the mound, despite working with the maker of Torres's cap, isoBlox. Before the 2014 season, when still with Arizona, he said, "I don't think it's ready yet as a major league-ready product," citing in particular the cap's extra size and weight - it weighed about three times the weight of an unpadded cap. In McCarthy's opinion, "You can't pitch a day game in St. Louis wearing it, or a day game in Baltimore. I've thrown in it in optimal conditions, inside where it's cool, and your head gets itchy."

And that's the problem: comfort and usability basically trumps safety. McCarthy has been there, knows first hand the potential impact of such an incident - and still doesn't feel the protection offered isoBlox's product outweighs its disadvantages. There are alternatives, such as the carbon fiber head plate being developed by Safer Sports Technologies. This weighs only two ounces, and is designed to be inserted inside a standard sweat-band; the aim is to protect the most vulnerable part of the head when a pitcher follows through and rotates, from about the middle of the forehead to above the ear, on the side of their throwing arm.

Two pitchers have worn this in games this year,  Collin McHugh of the Astros and Dan Jennings from the White Sox, the latter having taken a line-drive to the head last August. Yet across all alternatives (and pitchers are free to wear what they want) barely a handful of pitchers adopt any kind of protection. If this is ever going to be implemented, it may need to begin in Little League, then gradually moving up through high-school and college as pitchers grow up with protection, and it seems entirely natural, because they never played any other way. Immediate enforcement could end pitchers' careers, like sound killed off some silent actors because they were unable to adapt.

But if - or, as we fervently hope, when - Evan Marshall returns to the mound, he'll join that elite fraternity of the Strange Headgear. As he put it yesterday, "If the worst thing that happens from all of this is I have to wear a funny-looking hat to continue my career, I’ll gladly take that,"