On catchers and the concussion epidemic

Bob Levey

The math is both dramatic and discouraging. As LaVelle E. Neal III points out, Joe Mauer just became the fifth catcher who's currently on the seven-day concussion Disabled List. The fifth. Earlier this month, three other catchers were on the concussion DL. So that's eight. Eight.

I don't know where to look but might we assume that some dozens of catchers have been concussed this season? Considering that 91 players have caught at least once in the majors this season, some dozens would constitute a significant percentage of all catchers.

Here's the takeaway from Aaron Gleeman:

Obviously plenty of non-catchers have had concussions too, but the rate at which catchers are suffering brain injuries this season is startling. At any given time there are somewhere between 60 and 75 catchers on MLB rosters and within the past 30 days around 15 percent of them have been on the disabled list specifically designed for concussions. MLB has made major strides in terms of concussion awareness and treatment in general, but it’s time to take a long look at the physical toll catching takes on someone’s brain before careers and lives are ruined.

Yes, it's startling. It's also very difficult to know if we're seeing anything new, or if we're just paying attention now. I suspect the latter more than the former. Here are the three events I would guess cause the most concussions:

1. foul tips off mask
2. collisions with baserunners
3. being struck by bat on back-swing

With that third one happening very rarely.

Is there any reason to think any of these three things happen significantly more often in 2013 than in, say, 1983? Not that I can figure. Except that pitchers generally throw harder, which might mean more foul balls and does mean the foul balls carry more energy.

So all we have to do is put some sort of governor on the pitchers, right? Maybe lower the mound by a couple of inches? Sure, that might slow down the pitches a little ... but it might also result in more baserunners, and thus more batters, and thus more foul balls. And at least as many concussions.

It's manifestly true that BASEBALL needs to take a really close look at what causes concussions, and what the concussions cause. You know I'd like to essentially outlaw home-plate collisions, and that would help some. But not much. The big issue, I think, is the foul tips. And aside from marginal improvements in the catchers' headgear, it's hard to imagine what can be done about the foul tips.

In the near future, all baseball can do is manage the problem, and it seems to me they're off to a pretty good start there. I do wonder if catchers' values will drop, as many of them almost automatically miss a week or two every year, atop their already limited availability because of all the other demands of the position. Catchers as cannon fodder ... It's not an appealing idea, but it might be a realistic one.

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