Friday, March 21, 2014

Aroldis Chapman, Salvador Perez, And The Inevitability Of Serious Injury

Good Lord
By now, you've heard about this, and hopefully haven't seen the video. Cincy's closer, Aroldis Chapman, a lefty who hits three digits more than just about anyone else in the world while throwing a baseball, has Royals' catcher Salvador Perez in an 0-2 hole. Chapman's been struggling this inning, not that he's probably too concerned; it's spring training. Perez has been hitting this spring. Not that he's too impressed; it's spring training. Just a dry run for when things count in two weeks.

Chapman rears back and brings that easy gas that has defined his adult life.

Perez swings, making the solid contact that has defined his own career.

And the ball goes in an inhuman and unspeakable trajectory right into Chapman's face, and damn near kills him.

Chapman crumpled to the ground immediately, legs twitching, blood pouring out of his head. The game is stopped, never to resume (well, it is spring training). Fifteen awful minutes later, Chapman is taken off the field in an ambulance, and the preliminary diagnosis is that he's "lucky", since he just has a slight concussion, a smashed orbital bone, and an absence from the mound for at least four to six weeks. (This assumes, of course, that he doesn't have mental issues from this. The same goes for Perez, albeit without the concussion and smashed face.)

As is required now when things like this happen, we get the roll of similarly injured pitchers (Brandon McCarthy will be on reporter speed dial for this for the rest of his life), and the following question...

What is baseball going to do about this?

The answer that they don't want to say out loud is this: nothing. The protective cap that McCarthy said was not yet game-ready wouldn't have done much to prevent injury on the play in question. (And the idea that Chapman was "lucky" to be hit where he was, instead of getting caught on the side of the head, is kind of insane, but so be it.) Short of putting the pitcher in a hockey or lacrosse style helmet, which would more or less require a huge retraining of the entire body, and probably repetitive stress injuries on the neck and shoulder, given the violence in an average MLB delivery... we are where we have always been.

Which is to say, performing a physical activity that is spectacularly awful for the human body, but much more so for the arm than any other part.

When a pitcher takes a line drive off the head, it's awful, and looks like it could happen, well, all the time. But it doesn't. Your average MLB game will have upwards of 300 pitches, and the season is 162 games long, with 30 teams... so with extra inning games and playoffs, we're looking at somewhere around 800K to a million pitches a year. And incidents like Perez-Chapman just don't happen often enough to be worth a cure that's worth more than the disease.

Are we at greater risk now, with pitchers throwing harder than ever, and hitters more physically attuned? Probably.

Is someone eventually going to suffer permanent injury, or maybe even death? Sure. It's happened before, in the minors, and MLB is stone lucky to have gone 90+ years since the last on-field fatality. That wasn't from a shot to the pitcher, it was from a hit batsman, the far more likely form of catastrophic injury, but the point still stands. (Carl Mays, an underhand fireballer and borderline Hall of Famer, hits Ray Chapman square in the temple in 1919, and Chapman collapsed, never to wake again. The incident is directly responsible for the introduction of fresh baseballs at routine intervals, and indirectly responsible for the growth in home runs, and Babe Ruth, and baseball getting away from the Dead Ball Era permanently. History turns on moments. But I digress.).

And the money ball... if and when that happens, will MLB end or suffer attendance issues?

No. Not at all.

MLB has survived multiple work stoppages. A year without a World Series. Franchise relocations. The worst cheating scandal of any major sport through PED usage outside of cycling. Massive income disparity, and so on, and so on. And a relative lack of ugly injury moments, at least in comparison with the NFL, and even the NBA.

The game is ingrained now. We'd still watch it if pitchers wore cage helmets, but anyone who didn't grow up wearing one -- something that isn't in any Little League right now -- isn't going to switch late in life. We're also not going to move to a screen situation, the way that pitching coaches do in batting practice, or to pitching machines taking over for human arms.

We're just going to hope that moments like what happened last night just don't happen. Because, well, they usually don't.

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