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Pitcher: Baseball’s Most Vulnerable Position

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In recent days, baseball fans have witnessed three horrific injury situations.  Two of these events occurred on line drives striking pitchers and the third occurred when plate umpire Jerry Crawford was in the path of a swing follow-through by Houston’s Carlos Lee on a foul ball in last Monday’s game with the  Phillies.  The YouTube video of the pitch, swing and injury can be viewed here.

The possibility of injury occurring to a homeplate umpire increases as he positions himself to get as close-up a view of pitches as possible in order to make a ball/strike call.  Perhaps MLB should consider a reinforced football helmet protecting the top, back and sides of the head as a possible way of alleviating much of the serious injury danger in such situations, leaving the umpire with a ringing headache or perhaps a mild concussion, but no injury or loss of blood. 

However, the two recent situations of pitchers being hit by batted-ball line drives, starter Chris Young’s broken nose on Albert Pujols’ line drive and closer Jose Valverde’s drilling by a Pedro Feliz liner in the ninth inning of last Saturday’s game with the Phils point up the fact that pitcher’s position is undoubtedly the most vulnerable on the baseball diamond. 

The pitcher is a sitting duck with nowhere to hide.  He’s just completed his follow-through on a 90s plus fastball when a screaming liner comes back in his direction.  There’s very little that a pitcher can do to keep himself out of harm’s way when a rocket screams off of a bat headed directly for his face at dizzying speed.

                          Jim Bunning

A pitcher such as former Phillies great Jim Bunning, who won 17 or more games in 6 of 7 seasons at one point in his career,  would nearly fall off of the mound to the side on every follow-through thus taking himself out of the direct line of fire.   Baseball Library describes Bunning’s delivery;

The 6′3″ righthander’s unusual pitching style, a sweeping sidearm delivery that finished with his glove hand touching the ground well in front of the mound…

Of course, Bunning’s style, while bringing him to two no-hitters, including a perfect game on Father’s Day 1964, rendered him not exactly a candidate for a pitching gold glove award.

                                   Herb Score

But one cannot write about baseball’s most dangerous and most vulnerable position without touching on the career of sensational Cleveland Indians’ lefthander Herb Score who went 16-10 in his rookie season in 1955 and 20-9 in 1956, including a hitless appearance in the eighth inning of the 1956 All Star Game, racking up 508 strikeouts in his two seasons before before having his career wrecked by a line drive which hit him in the eye.

Baseball Library writes this of Score;

Score’s debut in 1955 was propitiously timed. He was the first and best of a young crop of Cleveland pitchers that included  Gary Bell, Mudcat Grant, and Jim Perry, and he was expected to lead the new staff in replacing the old.

Score astonished. He won 16 games, fanned a league-leading, rookie-record 245 batters, and was named AL Rookie of the Year. His 1956 seaon was more than an encore. He upped his strikeouts to 263 while taming some of the wildness he had shown in his rookie season. He posted 20 wins, pitched a league-leading five shutouts, and held opposition batters to a minuscule .186 average. Teammate Hal Newhouser, who was at the end of a career that saw him lead the AL in victories four times and in ERA and strikeouts twice, said he would trade his past for Score’s future in a minute.

On May 7, 1957 at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium, [Yankees shortstop] Gil  McDougald hit a line drive that struck Score in the eye and ended his season. Questions were raised in the aftermath of the bloody scene as to whether Score would ever see properly again. He made a partial comeback in 1958, and pitched a full season in 1959. Perhaps it was the layoff or fear or loss of vision; whatever the reason, he was no longer unhittable, despite retaining a fine ratio of strikeouts to innings pitched.

Just as the circumstances of Score’s injury haunted him undoubtedly
causing reflexual fear rendering him loss of effectiveness thus shortening his career, one myst wonder how Chris Young will react upon his return after the broken nose heals.   As for Valverde, miraculously he suffered little ill effect and went on to earn his 15th save against the Phillies and then to pitch a hitless inning of relief 5 days later against the
St. Louis Cardinals.

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