In yesterday’s spring training game between the Blue Jays and Tigers, with two out in the bottom of the 9th inning, Detroit’s John Hicks hit a line drive that struck Toronto pitcher T.J. House on the back right side of his head. This sort of play is sadly just a part of playing this game, and always will be. When a ball is travelling at speeds in excess of 110 MPH off a players bat and there’s only 60 ft 6 inches (less actually when you factor in the pitchers follow through) separating the batter from the pitcher, it makes these plays impossible to eliminate from the game completely.
Even though this sort of play will always be part of the game, it seems to be something that’s been happening with greater regularity compared to even 15 or 20 years ago. Just last October in the ALDS between the Blue Jays and Rangers, Toronto pitcher Francisco Liriano took a 102 MPH line drive off the back of his head. Had Liriano not turned his head at the very last moment, the ball would have likely struck him in the face. I hate to be critical of a player who took such a hard hit ball off the back of his head, but something that’s terribly important that Liriano failed to do on that play was to get himself into the ready position after delivering the pitch. To be a major league pitcher is such a difficult job, that pitchers want to put everything they can into each pitch. It’s scary to think they’re willing to sacrifice the ready position in exchange for a little something extra on their pitches.
Hall of Fame pitcher Don Drysdale was one of the most feared pitchers of his day and wouldn’t hesitate to brush a hitter back or plunk them if he felt the need. Oddly enough however, what Drysdale feared more than anything while on a ball field was for a line drive to come back and hit him. What actually prompted Drysdale to retire from the game was when a line drive off the bat of Roberto Clemente buzzed past his ear and he could hear the ball fly by.
Far too many pitchers today are getting hit by comebackers and (knock on wood) it’s only a matter of time before one of them is seriously hurt. Over the years, some pretty awful injuries have already happened to pitchers like Bryan Mitchell, Aroldis Chapman, Bryce Florie, and Hiroki Kuroda (to name just a few). Changing the rules of the game is never easy, especially when it comes to altering something like a ball cap which has been a part of baseball since at least 1860. One of two things I believe needs to happen to reduce the chances of a pitcher being seriously injured by a comebacker. The first is that pitchers need to make more of an effort to get in the ready position after making a pitch. The second is that Major League Baseball needs to step in and come up with some sort of modified ball cap for pitchers that has a bit more padding than your normal cap. Already some of these padded caps have been created, with some looking better than others. So for pitchers to even consider embracing such a change, it’s going to have to feel and look like a regular cap, the only difference being that it has some added padding.
Comebackers that hit a pitcher in the head or face will never be eliminated from the game completely, but there are precautionary measures that both the pitchers and MLB can do moving forwards to reduce the likelihood of such a play doing serious harm to a player.