Helmets And Closers

It’s 30 years now since the last major leaguer stepped to the plate without a batting helmet, and 38 since the helmet became mandatory. The mandatory earflap celebrated its 25th anniversary last year. But batters have used helmets (or plastic cap liners) since the ’40s, and their invention and use pre-dates even the death of Ray Chapman from a pitch in 1920, to Roger Bresnahan, Hall of Fame catcher of the Giants, in 1907.
Defensively, catchers turned to helmets, then cages. The mid-50s Pittsburgh Pirates wore them exclusively, in the field and at bat, pitchers included. While that idea was abandoned, largely based on the argument that fielders had gloves with which to protect their heads, John Olerud used one to protect his skull – at high-risk for damage after an aneurysm – while playing first base. After the awful death of Mike Coolbaugh, struck by a line drive while coaching first in a minor league game in 2007, helmets for coaches became mandatory last year, and by this one, they had begun to look perfectly normal (no matter what Larry Bowa says).
So, here is a question that popped into my head during a recent game: why don’t the umpires wear helmets? Surely the ones at first and third are at nearly as much risk for being hit by a line drive against which they are gloveless, and helpless, as a coach. The argument, of course, is that umps are trained pros, and it’s not like we’ve seen a frequent problem with them getting leveled. Just as we hadn’t seen one with coaches before Coolbaugh.
For that matter, why don’t we bite the bullet on the next most vulnerable in the equation? The catcher’s body is almost 100 percent covered, the plate ump is well-wrapped, and the batter can arm himself in everything short of cyborg components. Why don’t we mandate helmets for the individuals who are the fourth-closest to the violence of the meeting of bat and ball – the pitcher? We haven’t seen enough pitchers knocked down by return fire? 
The obvious point against, of course, is that most of those pitcher injuries are to the face. Then again, no pitcher has had the opportunity to use “ducking out of the way” as a reaction to a line drive.
And if there is a cosmetic argument (and, face it, the new articulated helmets look laughable), certainly we have not reached the all-time climax of helmet design. They can doubtless be made more ventilated, be lined with sweat-absorbing material, fixed into a more cap-like shape, and generally be redesigned so as to make their wearer look less like the Great Gazoo.
Besides which, why does a batter with a helmet look right, and a pitcher or an umpire with one look less so? 
Because we’re used to it.

Watching the Nationals first sign, then promote, ex-Royals closer Mike MacDougal, and considering the maelstrom that their bullpen has been, I wondered when Manny Acta would put him into a save position. Friday night, he retired two Mets, including a creaky Gary Sheffield on strikes, on six pitches. Then Joel Hanrahan looked even better in the 9th, yet Acta mysteriously brought his shaky closer back for the 10th, and Hanrahan got lit up like the Capitol Dome.
This is not to portray Hanrahan as Mariano Rivera. But if the man has the tools to do the job and has just done it splendidly — if the question is confidence — get him out of there. Treat him like a real closer (pitch one inning, limit to save opportunities) and maybe he’ll become one. Hanrahan’s previous outing was with the Nationals trailing and the argument that he needed some work was valid, except that that was the day of the San Francisco/Washington day/night doubleheader and this was only the first game. What if Hanrahan had been needed in the second game?
In short, was Acta looking for a new reason to break-up with Hanrahan? Were he and his new pitching coach Steve McCatty setting up Hanrahan to fail? You pull your closer after he looks bad in two non-closing situations?
MacDougal became McCatty’s project in Syracuse and if he succeeds he could mean McCatty has the job long-term. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially if McCatty has helped MacDougal reclaim his career. This is the MacDougal who spent nearly all of last year in the minors, and who was released by the pitching-challenged White Sox a month ago. And you have now destroyed Hanrahan, twice, in nine weeks. 
To whom do you go if MacDougal fails? Joe Beimel? Kip Wells? Julian Tavarez? They’re all in that Nats Closer Alumni Association. Ron Villone? He’s been superb in the Washington bullpen, in a role he has performed for twelve seasons now – during which he has racked up is career total of seven saves.
In other closer flux news: Our fellow MLBlogger and Phils’ correspondent Todd Zolecki insists Charlie Manuel is eternally committed to Brad Lidge. But his colleague Joe Frisaro has a significantly less-ringing endorsement of Matt Lindstrom by Fredi Gonzalez. In that construction, Fredi, who seems to prefer a little chaos in his bullpen, may get exactly that.
True followers of the Phillies, of course, know that as startling as the statistic is — from perfection over a season to six blown saves in two months — Brad Lidge was hardly perfect last year. The true difference isn’t the number of crises he has created, but the number he has created. As Baseball Prospectus pointed out, his BABIP (Batting Average, Balls In Play) went from .300 during his “bad” year in Houston in 2007, to .302 during his “perfect” one in Philly last year. It’s the homer total that swung wildly: from nine in ’07 to two in ’08, to an astonishing seven this year (for comparison purposes, that’s how many homers Livan Hernandez has given up this year). And the BABIP is now .356?
Tab Bamford has a fascinating idea for the Cubs - but it is one entirely dependent on the idea that Chicago cancelled Rich Harden’s rehab start today only because the feng shui in the stadium was all wrong. The idea that an injury-prone starter with extraordinary stuff might be a better closer than a journeyman with loose-control or a set-up man with pressure issues is, as the blogger notes, not exactly unprecedented in Chicago. Lord knows Lou Piniella has been willing to make this move (Kerry Wood) and its opposite (Ryan Dempster) before. 
All of which raises the question: if you’re the Tampa Bay Rays and you have the Red Sox and Yankees to fend off, and you don’t have time to screw around, and you have a healthy supply of starters, and your bullpen has suddenly gone so south that you hesitate to name a permanent closer, why aren’t you using David Price in that role?

If you’re wondering about the last batter to hit without a helmet, it was Bob Montgomery, Carlton Fisk’s long-time understudy with the Red Sox. He, Norm Cash, and maybe a few others, were grandfathered when the helmet rule finally passed. They wore plastic liners inside their caps. Terrific oddity there considering Montgomery was a catcher.


  1. sstamour


    I generally love everything you do. However, as a die-hard Rays fan since 1998, your comment on David Price is one of the most inexplicable ones I’ve heard you make. We aren’t moving Price to the bullpen for the same reason your Yankees aren’t moving Joba to the bullpen – an above-average to great starter is significantly more valuable than an above-average to great reliever. There’s absolutely no reason for us to alter Price’s development as a starter, where he could be a superstar for many years, to get a handful of innings out of the bullpen. Moreover, you overstate our bullpen problems – yes, Troy Percival was an issue. Dan Wheeler is known as “Cardiac Dan” for a reason. But Joe Maddon recognizes that the concept of a “closer” has become drastically overrated in today’s game – what matters is not who gets the last 3 outs, but who is on the mound in the highest leverage situations. For that, we have two fantastic relievers, one a flame-throwing right-hander and one a soft-tossing lefty who can get batters from both sides out. I will put their statistics in high leverage situations up against the best closers in the business. Beyond them, we have situational relievers, including a ground ball specialist with reverse platoon splits and a side-arming lefty specialist.

    The Rays don’t have a traditional bullpen. We likely never will – Maddon is not a traditional manager, and we don’t have a traditional ballclub. If we end up needing help in Sept., we have Winston Abreu, Mitch Talbot, and Wade Davis all waiting in the wings to play David Price of ’08.

    We got off to a rocky start, but the front office and the manager aren’t going to mortgage the future on some early season bad luck.

  2. historymike

    Keith, two other cases of the lack of a helmet having an effect. One, in 1940, Cardinal pitcher Bob Bowman beaned recently traded Joe Medwick of the Dodgers. Ducky never dug in the same way again, though he claimed otherwise–but he was never the same. Branch Rickey then was GM of the Cardinals and that piqued his interest in finding a way to protect players better–and he was in charge at Pittsburgh in the 1950s when the Pirates went to helmets. Others were slower, and thus Don Zimmer still has a metal plate in his head from being hit in the head when he was with the Brooklyn Dodgers–and he, too, was never the same player after that.

    On closers: was it Bill James who suggested bringing in the closer when you need him–i.e., with the opposing team threatening in, say, the 7th? So, we need to change the save statistic, which has been ridiculously changed from when Jerry Holtzman created it.

  3. sox83cubs84@hotmail.com


    Why don’t we let your messiah, Obama, take over MLB’s helmet safety regulations? Lord knows, he’s trying to take over everything else!

  4. meyerlansky

    hey keith…
    thanks for the read…given your day job i reason that you must spend a bit of time in dee cee…from the above missive you also appear to take an interest in the local team when you are there…i am baffled about their record this year because i was certain that they would be the ’07 rockies or ’08 rays of this year…
    the election of president obama has brought a breath of fresh air to the country…at least immediatly following the campaign and before the gravity of the mess that president bush left us with had truly sunk in to the public gestalt…i thought that feeling had a good chance of being felt inside the beauracrcy and so inside the beltway itself…heck, maybe as far as fairfax huh?…
    i was hoping that the feeling that their fellow citizens felt would carry over into a breakout flukish sort of season…i fantasy picked bellaird for my third bench spot!…i know that the groundwork that needs to be laid years before a “sudden breakout” had in fact been downgraded to low grade asphalt…why didn’t the vibe carry over?…heck, why didn’t it carry over as far as the commenter above…i love my fellow informed electorate…anywho, thanks for the work and maybe a blog on the above notion?…
    with love and prayers, meyer lansky

  5. mejewart@zoominternet.net

    As a Pirate Fan, I know what the issue is with the Nats bullpen by committee. They are all pitchers even the Pirates no longer wanted. Heck they could not pitch when they were here, no reason to think that they would be able to pitch in Washington.

  6. marlinsfan25

    dude sox83cubs84@hotmail.com this a baseball blog get off the politics as far as the umpires wearing helmets if the third base coach and first base coach wear them the umpires should too simple as that
    the whole closers thing is overrated just go with the hot hand that night.
    and if a pitcher gets in trouble take him out.

  7. judithlgregory@comcast.net

    Love the history. But, how is it political to talk about baseball helmets on a baseball blog. It would not make sense if you were giving the history of hockey helmets, or football helmets (Save this for Sunday Night Football).

    Of course, his comment might be attributed to the heat frying his brain.

    Keep the history AND comments coming

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