Protecting Baseball: Safer sports technologies develops protective caps
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By JESS KLEINSCHMIDT
The stadium grew quiet when Brandon McCarthy's body hit the mound. Erick Aybar had just hit a line drive off of the pitcher's head. Miraculously, McCarthy walked away on his own. Still, this raised questions on the protection of pitchers. Safer Sports Technologies may have developed a solution.
I sat down with CEO and Founder of Safer Sports Technologies, Matt Meier, who told me about the carbon fiber head guards he and his team designed.
"When I was 13 or 14 I was hit while pitching," says Meier. "It hit me in the leg and ricocheted on to my head, and ever since then I had the idea in the back of my mind. I have always liked creating things and seeing how things can be made better. In 2011, we got the opportunity to pursue this idea. That was when we started Safer Sports Technologies. It took a couple of years for research and development and it kind of went from there."
How they work is simple. The head guard inserts sit in the sweat liner of a baseball cap and protect the head, forehead, and above the ear.
The carbon fiber technology involves both ribbed and comfort, which disperses energy upon impact.
"The first product we came out with was completely handmade; layered kevlar and carbon fiber" said Meier. "It's a pretty detailed process. We had to adjust our production to keep up with demands. We transferred over to an injection molding process using completely carbon fiber, it's just slightly thicker than the original pieces than we had.
"It's not plastic, but it has a plasticy feel so if there's an impact, it's not going to risk any kind of cracking that could bring out shards."
(photo courtesy of Safer Sports Technologies)
When it comes to protective headgear, there have been quite a few apprehensive pitchers.
New York Mets pitcher Jerry Blevins told Joe Stiglich of CSN Bay Area last year that when isoBlox released caps with thicker sides, he had some concerns.
"The first thing is just looking at it," said Blevins. "If it looks like a baseball cap, that's the first step. People don't want to look foolish. Next is the comfort thing. It's not something where I'll be (accepting of the cap) having an effect on my job based on feel. I've got a job to do first and foremost."
Meier understood pitchers could be leery of the insert, but says the product he designed will make the process faster for a pitcher to get used to it.
"A lot of it is how mental a pitcher is. They have their comfort level and their routine. Any kind of adjustment to that routine is something that they are going to shy away from and I completely understand it. However those who have used it — Collin McHugh and Dan Jennings — have worked it into their routines. They didn't just get the piece, and throw it on, they took a while; throwing bullpens, long tossing with it before implementing it into their routines."
(photo courtesy of Safer Sport Technologies)
After the adjustment period subsides, I was curious about the reviews McHugh and Jennings gave on the product.
"They seemed really happy with it," says Meier. "It's going to feel different for a little bit, but it was something we designed for that adjustment period to be very quick. It's not heavy, it's not cumbersome. And before long, it feels like you're not even wearing it."
I also spoke to FanDuel's Will Carroll about the headgear. Not many people realize how severe the injuries a baseball to the head can be.
"Assuming this works, it is an option that could reduce the severity of head trauma," says Carroll. "We've seen pitchers like Brandon McCarthy, Doug Fister and others take shots off their heads. It's scary and potentially fatal. While a product like this isn't going to be fool-proof – many of the hits are below the hat line or to the face – it reduces the risk. Moreover, it reduces the risk for youth players who are closer and facing metal bats, as well."
So far, it seems Major League Baseball has been trying to make an effort to ensure their players are safe. Unfortunately, there have been situations where it doesn't seem like anything is being done. I asked Carroll if MLB has taken enough precautions as far as safety is concerned for these players.
"No," says Carroll. "But they've made an effort. The Isoblox helmet that Alex Torres wears — and yes, he's the only one — just doesn't pass the eye test. There's rumors that some other pitchers are wearing kevlar linings. I know I made one out of material in 2012 so it's not THAT hard. I wish they would do more, but I understand they want to do it right. I'm more disappointed in the players. Youth players aren't going to wear them until their heroes do. We need a David Price or Clayton Kershaw to walk out on the mound, show that he's wearing it, and then you'll see moms rushing to the store to get one and the kid won't complain."
At the moment, baseball and softball are the only two sports Safer Sports Technologies has their carbon fiber liners associated with, but Meier says there have been discussions in regards to branching out into other sports.