DENVER, CO: Eric Young, Jr. #1 of the Colorado Rockies gestures to teammate Juan Nicasio #44, who is carried off the field after being hit in the face by a ball while pitching against the Washington Nationals during their game at Coors Field in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Marc Piscotty/Getty Images)
All it takes is one batted ball to remind us that pitchers man the most defenseless position in major professional sports.
Understand that this is being written from the perspective of someone who has had this happen, and who will experience some of the effects for the rest of his life. I'm not here to tell my own story, because my own story doesn't matter, but know that this is a scary thing, if not the scariest thing.
Like any competitive activity, pitching has a number of draws. But foremost among them, I think, is the sensation of control. A pitcher controls a baseball game more than a quarterback controls a football game, a goalie controls a hockey game, or a point guard controls a basketball game. The pitcher is at the center of everything. He is involved in every play, he determines the tempo, and all the action happens as a consequence of what he does on the mound.
It is easy, then, for a pitcher to feel really powerful. Standing there in the middle of the infield, the pitcher's elevated above everybody else, and he knows that the game will proceed as quickly or as slowly as he wants it to. More than any other player, the pitcher gets to do what he wants.
But in an instant, all that power and control can be brutally taken away. With one swing of the bat, the pitcher can be put in a defenseless position.
Friday evening, rookie Rockies starter Juan Nicasio was hit in the head by a line drive. He appeared to very briefly lose consciousness and fell to the ground headfirst; somewhere along the line, he sustained a broken neck. He was carted off the field, and in the hospital his fractured vertebrae was repaired with screws and plates that will forever limit his range of motion. Doctors seem optimistic that Nicasio will pitch again, but that hardly seems important now. The instant something like this happens, the issue becomes less about the quality of performance, and more about the quality of life.
Nicasio's neck has been fixed. He's mentally with it. He's had no reported loss of sensation, and his internal bleeding hasn't progressed to the point at which surgeons would have to drill through his skull to relieve any pressure. From the looks of things, Nicasio could emerge from this incident more or less okay. Which would make him a lucky one.
He wouldn't be a lucky one, of course, in that he sustained a broken neck, where most pitchers who get hit by line drives do not. But he would be a lucky one, in that something like this has the potential to be much, much worse.
There's nothing more dangerous or terrifying in sports than a line drive at a pitcher's head. All other sports are dangerous, too, but they generally involve padding, or things moving at lesser speeds. Not only is a pitcher out there almost completely unprotected; he's given minimal warning that he's about to get hit.
Sure, he has a glove. In theory, that glove can be used to catch a line drive, or block it. But in reality, the glove is of little use. Pitching coaches will talk about the importance of finishing the delivery in good fielding position, but it doesn't much matter what position a guy is in if the ball's coming back at his head. He won't have time to react.
You want an idea of how quickly those line drives are moving? What follows are two screenshots: the moment Nicasio's pitch is hit, and the moment right before Nicasio gets drilled in the head.
Look at the middle infielders. They're locked in as Nicasio goes into his delivery, anticipating a ball in play. This is a batted ball right back up the middle. As the ball is inches away from Nicasio's head, they've barely moved. Nicasio did manage to get his glove up, kind of, but we're talking a fraction of a fraction of a second between bat contact and head contact. The glove swipe is a desperation attempt, and the ball often travels those 55 feet in less time than it takes for the glove to protect the skull.
It's a completely helpless, defenseless situation, and at present there's nothing that can be done about these accidents, short of wishing really hard. In time, I suspect that pitchers will all wear helmets, or some kind of helmet-like protection. But that protection is a long ways away, as it has to be developed and studied and manufactured and made to fit just right so it doesn't prove a nuisance. Pitchers will embrace the idea of being better protected, but they'll be resistant to anything uncomfortable.
For now, absent protection, we just hope for these things to happen less often than they do, and we hope that the victims make successful recoveries. Both physically and psychologically. The brain and the neck are fragile things, and liners up the middle can cause unspeakable damage. Even when they don't, though, and the pitcher lucks out, he still has to deal with the experience. That's a memory that's all but impossible to shake, and while the worry of a recurrence diminishes over time, it doesn't go away. It's always in the back of a pitcher's head.
A few years ago, I remember watching a game between the Astros and the Phillies. In the ninth inning, Pedro Feliz lined a comebacker off of the right side of Jose Valverde's head. Valverde immediately went to the ground and was tended to by a trainer, but a few minutes later, Valverde got up, stretched his jaw, and stayed in to finish the game and record the save. That remains one of the most amazing things I've ever seen.