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April 4, 2002

The Body Armor Ban

Safety Takes a Back Seat

by Michael Wolverton

NEW YORK, March 15, 2006 -- A 50-year baseball tradition has come to an end. Batting helmets, mandatory equipment for all major-league hitters since 1956, will no longer be allowed in MLB games, officials announced today.

The move comes after previous league attempts to back hitters off the plate resulted in little change in batter behavior. MLB eliminated most equipment protecting batters' elbows, wrists, and hands in 2002, but baseball observers say many batters still stand close to home plate in an effort to make solid contact with pitches on the outside corner.

"We've seen a few broken wrists and severe elbow injuries [since the 2002 ruling]," said one unnamed MLB official, "but batters are still hanging over the plate, and they're not making enough of an effort to avoid inside pitches. We need to try new ways of making them face the consequences of getting hit."

Many pitchers welcomed the new ruling. "I don't know if we'll see a big change right away," said one American League starter on condition of anonymity, "but after the hitters see the results of a couple of accidental beanings, I'll bet they think twice about diving across the plate."

He quickly added, "Of course, nobody wants to see anyone die from getting hit in the head. Hopefully we'll just see enough to get hitters to reconsider their priorities. A fractured skull, a short coma--that sort of thing."

A ludicrous slippery-slope response to baseball's recent announcement that they will enforce rules limiting the wearing of protective "body armor" at the plate? Of course it is. No one wants to see batters lose their head protection, no matter how much they crowd the plate.

Nevertheless, it's odd that everyone seems anxious to get rid of another kind of protection for players. While nearly every injury-reducing breakthrough in baseball history--from catchers' masks to batting helmets to outfield wall padding--has met with universal praise, columnists, coaches, and even many players seem ready to throw out the injury protection of hard elbow pads and other hard arm guards.

There are two supposed problems caused by body armor. One is that it's making a mockery of the hit-by-pitch rule. When hitters wearing armor see a pitch riding inside, they make little or no effort to get out of the way (maybe a little flinch for show), let the pitch bounce harmlessly off their armor, and trot unscathed down to first base.

Sure, I've seen this apparently happen plenty of times. And yes, this may be one reason hit-by-pitches are skyrocketing in recent years; the league's HBP rate has almost doubled since the early '90s. Still, just how serious an issue is this? Even at 2001's inflated rate, HBPs represent only one percent of major-league plate appearances. We're hardly in the middle of an epidemic here.

The second supposed problem caused by body armor is an advantage to the hitter. Since armored hitters don't need to fear pain or injury from getting hit in the arm, they crowd the plate, stand in confidently on pitches on the inside corner, and mash pitches on the outside corner. The result: (gasp!) better hitting and more offense.

Leaving aside the question of whether more offense is a bad thing, it's questionable how much impact HBPs or body armor have on league-wide hitting. Last year, when HBPs took a huge jump from the year before, and body armor use was higher than ever, league scoring declined. It's not controversial to suggest that new parks, better conditioning, newfangled bats, and strike-zone enforcement have played a much greater role in offense levels of recent years than body armor.

One supporter of the body-armor ban, Rob Neyer, sees this topic as a fairness issue, stating flatly in his column that "Body armor should be limited for the simple reason that it's not fair." Much as I agree with Rob most of the time, on this point I think he has it backwards. Fairness is when both teams, and all players, are subject to the same set of rules. That was the case under the old system.

What's not fair is the new system of selective "medical exemptions" MLB plans to give to some hitters, such as the one Barry Bonds has already received. MLB will issue an exemption from the body-armor ban, but only with a medical reason and a doctor's note. Now, any player could probably get a doctor to write a note stating "A hard plastic shield will reduce the odds of a baseball breaking bones in this player's elbow." That sounds like a pretty good medical reason to me, but somehow I don't think Bob Watson is going to buy it.

Instead what we're likely to get is a set of Jordan Rules for MLB where stars and guys who had minor elbow surgery a decade ago will get to wear the armor, and everyone else will have to live with the pain. Or, as the San Francisco Chronicle's Bruce Jenkins puts it: "Plastic for the studs, nylon for the rooks. And have a nice day."

The main issue here isn't the unfairness of "medical" exemptions. The main issue is an obvious one, even though it hasn't been stated in any of the discussion I've seen: limiting body armor should result in more injuries. Even in the most rosy scenario painted by supporters of the ban, pitches will still occasionally find their way to batters' arms. Whenever those pitches hit flesh and bone (or nylon) instead of plastic, the chances of injury rise. Obviously, safety is not a paramount concern that trumps all other considerations; if it were, no one would ever play baseball. But when you're banning safety equipment to achieve (maybe) a small improvement in the aesthetics of the game, surely the cure is worse than the disease.

So if MLB's body armor ban is a bad idea, what should they do instead to stop the travesty caused by fearless batters at the plate? As I suggested above, I'd be comfortable if MLB would say they'll cross that bridge when they come to it. If they have to do something now, many people have suggested measures that don't have the drawback of limiting a hitter's ability to protect himself. For example, move the batter's box back, have umpires rigorously enforce Rule 6.08(b)(2) (it's not a HBP if the batter doesn't try to get out of the way), or don't award a hitter first if he gets hit on his body armor.

Without getting into the merits of those proposals, I'll mention my own pet idea: modify Rule 6.08(b)(2) to read that a batter won't be awarded first base on any pitch less than a foot off the plate and below shoulder level. The objective zone means the umpires don't have to be mind-readers, and it removes the incentive for the cheapie take-one-for-the-team HBP. But, you say, home-plate umpires already have enough to do without adding yet another zone for them to judge. No problem--just put in the technology to automate those infrequent calls. It could even help pave the way for automation of ball-strike calls at some point down the road.

I know I've veered way off into "not gonna happen" territory. MLB has decided the way they're going to handle this for now. Hopefully, this is as far as they will go in the direction of putting players at risk to address a supposed aesthetic problem with the game.

Maybe the players should get batting helmets written into the next CBA, just in case.

Michael Wolverton is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

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