It’s not the most chic look in the world, but that doesn’t appear to be something Alex Torres is particularly concerned with at the moment.
The Padres reliever took the mound against the Dodgers this Saturday wearing one of the brand-new alternative pieces of headgear developed by 4Licensing Corporation, his particular model called the “IsoBLOX Protective Cap.” It’s a bulky thing, obviously stuffed full of what appear to be armor plates, and the end result is something that looks like a cross between your standard baseball cap and the headwear donned by a certain iconic Nintendo video-game plumber. Of course, Torres isn’t concerned about any of that as long as it does its job: protecting pitchers’ heads on comeback line drives.
Torres was with the Tampa Bay Rays last season when then-teammate Alex Cobb was struck in the head with a line drive and left the game to be immediately rushed to the hospital. Cobb’s injury was severe enough to cost him two months of the season, and his injury — along with similar ones suffered over the past few seasons by then-Athletic, now-Diamondback Brandon McCarthy two years ago and Cincinnati Reds closer Aroldis Chapman this spring — inspired a new wave of safety consciousness across baseball.
There is a legitimate question, though, of whether baseball caps can ever be truly safe regardless of how many plates of armor are stuck inside of them; they are, after all, merely caps. As much as Torres’s cranium and upper skull might be protected, a ball that comes back to the mound comes back so quickly he will have little time to duck and cover; meanwhile, his entire face from the brow down remains uncovered and exposed. In fact, in the most visible, tragic incident of injury suffered from a batted ball — the death of first base coach Mike Coolbaugh of the minor-league Tulsa Drillers in 2007 from a line drive that destroyed his left vertebral artery — a different cap would have done absolutely nothing to prevent or mitigate the damage.
Baseball responded to the Coolbaugh tragedy by mandating that base coaches wear batting helmets while in the field, as well as by telling them to stand farther off the line to reduce the chances of well-struck balls catching them; there is no such positional recourse with pitchers. As welcome as safer caps are, no mere up-armoring is ever going to make them adequate protective gear for defending from comebackers to the head. Only a full-head helmet can offer that sort of protection. Unfortunately, while the 4Licensing cap that Torres wears doesn’t interfere with or impede his ability to pitch in any way, sending him out there with the equivalent of a catcher’s mask on would be a different story. Not only would it add distracting, unbalancing weight to a pitcher’s delivery, it would destroy his peripheral vision — he would be completely unable to adequately hold runners on base.
There is still some room for compromise between the two extremes — perhaps something like the half-caged batting helmets that collegiate softball players wear could be rendered more lightweight and manageable for use in the field — but for the time being, the problem with baseball and head injuries remains that baseball is a sport whose players usually wear caps, not helmets. At the end of the day, no matter how much you reinforce the former, it will never do the job of the latter.