Can We Solve Baseball’s Other Catcher Concussion Problem?

Baseball may have seemed to have solved the catcher concussion problem when it instituted new rules governing the play at the plate in 2014. Despite some hiccups, eliminating the play at the plate seems to eliminate the main source of player on player in-game violence — and the other, the play at second base, is currently under scrutiny. Despite the odd pitch to the head and outfielder into the wall, that should make baseball one of the safest sports for a young brain. The numbers, especially for catchers, provide hope.

But there is still one repetitive play that causes concussions regularly for catchers — and there might be a fix to that problem, too. A fix that seems to come with even fewer ramifications for the game.

Concussions have been tracked better since 2011, when the seven-day concussion list was created. Since that time, catchers have made up 40% of all concussions according to Jeff Zimmerman’s numbers. But last year represented a low point for catcher concussions — there were only two recorded. And as catchers go, the overall numbers go.

Concussions

That’s a hopeful graph if you’re concerned about the health of your players. But there were still two concussions from catchers last year, and both came on similar plays. Yes, Yasmani Grandal was hit by a follow-through by Yangervis Solarte, and there’s not much we can do about big swings hitting catchers that we aren’t doing yet. But Grandal also got hit by a foul tip, and so did David Ross. Taking 90-plus mph batted balls to the face will eventually cause a concussion.

It did for John Jaso, who told us in September 2014 just how bad it can be for a catcher nursing a concussion suffered from a few foul tips. “Irritability, fogginess. I was keeping to myself. I was just playing through it, playoff push. It ramped up and I could not do it any more. Catching-wise especially. I couldn’t react. I couldn’t see the ball sometimes,” Jaso said back then. And since, he’s stopped catching.

Enter the Force3 Pro Gear Defender, created by Jason Klein, former minor league umpire. Seen below on Tyler Flowers, this new catcher mask features a (totally) tubular lightweight chrome alloy cage construction, but that’s not the biggest source of innovation. Look at the springs there on the chin, designed to absorb the impact of the ball as it strikes the mask.

DSC_0140

“With all of the talk about traumatic brain injuries and concussions, this mask couldn’t come along at a better time. Finally there’s nothing to think about anymore when it comes to protecting my head,” Flowers told Will Carroll of FanDuel (who also has a nice up close picture of the springs). “I’m looking forward to wearing all of the Force3 equipment, especially the Defender mask. Its spring technology will absorb a lot of an impact, instead of my head.”

The mask has done well on safety tests. The National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment test — 70 mph with softballs — went well, and the manufacturer followed up with a test using a 100 mph fastball. “On average we reduced the severity index of impacts by up to 50%” said Klein, “and reduced the peak g’s inflicted as well. Our results were so impressive, that one independent test facility wouldn’t certify the results because they thought their machine was broken. They had never seen scores that low.”

That might be all you need to know, but in football, the science of helmet has been proven to be less cut and dry. Linear impact absorption has been the main driver of football helmet innovation, perhaps at the cost of protection from another kind of violence inherent in that game.

Patrick Hruby took an excellent look at what the STAR safety ratings have meant for football helmets. There, a new safety scoring system has focused on straight-forward impact because of concussion data to date. But there is such a thing as rotational acceleration at play — rotational collisions that spin the brain around an axis. A scary takeaway: “The kind of helmet designed to reduce linear acceleration —- bigger, heavier, and with thicker interior padding -— may also be the kind of helmet that increases rotational acceleration.”

But while Klein’s technology may someday be useful in football — Klein felt his two piece mask system was a candidate for “any piece of appropriate equipment that can adapt the technology — its current use is for baseball. And in this sport, the rule book has been altered to avoid physical collisions, leaving only the ball on the mask as the primary danger for the men behind the plate.

What about unintended consequences? The ball is deadened upon impact, and that means game play may look different. “Since the mask is designed to ‘catch’ as much of the ball as possible, most of the time there is no ricochet on the straight-on impacts,” Klein said. “This wasn’t a fluke, as all of our high-speed camera shows the ball drop straight down on frontal impacts. The converse is true with regular masks without our technology.”

That may mean fewer passed balls. And while the former umpire thought that was a great thing — “this was definitely a huge bonus, an unintended bonus at that” — it’s possible a current backup catcher may see things differently. After all, they may get some of their on-field value from the ability to drop on that deflected ball. If balls don’t deflect any more… Kurt Suzuki loses some of his defensive value.

Probably not a big deal. Lump that in with the fact that the mask may be four to six ounces heavier, plus the actual dollars spent, as the price tag of being healthy. In comparison to past fixes, this one seems easy. You may shrug at two concussions removed from the game, but once you multiply that two by all the games played in the minor leagues, college, high school and more, you realize that this is a real problem. And an easy solution could be at hand.

We hoped you liked reading Can We Solve Baseball’s Other Catcher Concussion Problem? by Eno Sarris!

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Darkstone42
Member
Darkstone42

I really don’t see any concern with gameplay. How many balls deflect off the mask which aren’t fouled off? Catchers very infrequently outright miss a ball coming toward their face, and most balls in the dirt come up no higher than the shoulder, if even that high. We’re talking about a minuscule number of gameplay-altering events compared to a large number of health-affecting events.

The choice is pretty darned clear to me.

Darkstone42
Member
Darkstone42

On the other hand, though, data does not really support the idea that protective head gear can actually prevent concussions. This technology is new, so maybe it will work, but most helmets, while life-saving, focus on preventing fractures and fatality, but actually do little to mitigate concussions (as counter-intuitive as that may be). I’m glad the effort is being made, but I’ll remain no more than cautiously optimistic until real game data support its effectiveness.

B3mal
Member
B3mal

That data is mostly for football. Eno addresses that pretty well in this post. Concussions occur when the brain moves around within the cranial vault when a force is applied, such as a football player getting stopped in his tracks or a baseball hitting your head. At this point the only types of contact that I can think of causing a concussion in baseball are batters getting hit in the head, collisions between fielders, outfielders running into the wall, weird hops for infielders, line drives up the middle for pitchers, and catchers taking a foul ball off the mask or bat to the head. I don’t think there is much any helmet could do to decrease the risk of a concussion from contact with the bat, but that occurs less often than foul balls to the face. Those are linear impacts that using springs and cushioning can help reduce the force and protect the brain. All of the concussions that result from the ball making contact with your head could probably be helped by this helmet. However, it seems pretty impractical to have infielders and pitchers wearing a cage in the field.

Darkstone42
Member
Darkstone42

Protective head gear for soccer, touted to prevent concussions from headers, does no such thing. There’s little data supporting hockey helmets help limit concussions. As noted below, just because there’s an absorption and redistribution of force, it doesn’t mean it will stop the brain from moving around. It might not matter how much the force is reduced if a whiplash even still occurs, or if the redistribution causes smaller traumas all around the head.

So while the idea looks good theoretically and is definitely worth giving a shot, I’ll remain unconvinced until the data bears out that it actually does reduce concussion risk in real-game practice.