J.A. Happ Hit in Head: Overview of Medical Care, Outlook and Pitcher Safety

Will CarrollSports Injuries Lead WriterMay 8, 2013

ST. PETERSBURG - MAY 07:  Pitcher J.A. Happ #48 of the Toronto Blue Jays is taken off the field after he was hit by a line drive from the Tampa Bay Rays during the game at Tropicana Field on May 7, 2013 in St. Petersburg, Florida.  (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
J. Meric/Getty Images

It's hard to watch the video of J.A. Happ getting hit in the head, as it should be. We end up with a lot of "ifs" after seeing the result. If the ball had been hit a bit harder, if the ball had hit a different spot or if the medical care wasn't quick and world class, would the result have been tragic?

More and more, these questions aren't hypothetical for baseball players. Time after time, pitchers are being hit by "comebackers" and it's only a matter of time before the result is significantly worse than what we're seeing with J.A. Happ. While fractured skulls and multiple stitches are bad enough, MLB has yet to see the deaths that have occurred at the youth and scholastic levels.  

Happ appears to have been hit on the side of the head. From one angle, there looks to be blood on or in Happ's ear, perhaps signifying where the ball struck him. This is a very similar location to where Brandon McCarthy was hit. With McCarthy, the ball struck more solidly, fracturing his skull and necessitating surgical release of the pressure. 

Happ went down and stayed down, but the medical staff acted promptly. He was soon stabilized and rapidly stretchered off the field. It took a total of 11 minutes of game-delay to do all the work that both teams' medical staffs, plus doctors on site and EMS needed to do. There are two hospitals within minutes of Tropicana Field, so it's quite probable that Happ was to the emergency room for tests and treatment inside of 15 minutes. That's the type of response that could have made all the difference in a life-threatening situation. 

So far, it appears that things are going well for Happ. The seventh-year veteran was expected to be released from Bayfront Medical Center early on Wednesday. The current diagnosis is a lacerated ear, as shown in the video, and a bruise. The bruise is the clear result of the impact and will be treated as if there is a skull fracture for the next few days. While tests have indicated that there is no fracture, this is one of those "better safe than sorry" courses of action. 

The next concerns for Happ are concussion and lingering symptoms. By definition, the ball strike created a concussive impact, and while treating that is secondary to a potential skull fracture and brain trauma, it does become an area of focus once things stabilize. 

Even if you can't look the next time a pitcher is hit, there is a quick and informative way to know how bad things are: Watch where the ball ends up. The physics are more complex than I can break down here, but the more energy that is left in the ball, allowing it to bounce or roll away, means there was less energy in the collision. This is an oversimplification, but the key here is that the farther the ball rolls away, the probability of the player suffering a tragic injury decreases. 

It should also be noted that if the ear was the point of contact, this is nearly identical to where McCarthy was hit. While there is no "good" spot to be hit in the head, it does remind us that simple protection under the cap would not shield all players. Even the most restrictive pitching helmet would leave the face open. 

Since more deaths have occurred from pitchers being hit in the chest rather than the head, it would make more sense for us to concentrate on that. There are devices out there in use to combat this issue. Pitchers do very little to protect themselves aside from working on their fielding skills, but even in the face of real-life examples, they continue to resist the idea.

MLB is working with several companies to devise some sort of effective but nonrestrictive liner to protect the pitcher's head. Again, this would not have helped Happ, but could help the next pitcher to take one off his head. Oakland A's pitcher Brett Anderson, who saw former teammate Brandon McCarthy hit and facing serious damage, answered me on Twitter, saying that "comfort is key." (The tweets were since deleted.) McCarthy himself has spoken out (via USA Today's Nick Piecoro) against the idea of helmets or even the soft liners, similar to these, that are being worked on. 

Happ is likely to miss at least one start and could find himself on the DL if there are any complications. There is precedent for a player coming back quickly from a similar hit. Doug Fister was hit in the head during last year's playoffs. It was something of a grazing blow, but the Tigers medical staff took it very seriously, monitoring for delayed signs of a problem, as well as following MLB's concussion protocol. The seven-day DL is one possibility for Happ if necessary. 

This aftermath of this incident seems to be following the path of best-case scenario for Happ and the Jays. It won't be this episode that forces baseball to change, since Happ is very likely to resume baseball activities imminently. This will, however, be one of the episodes we look back on when we do have a tragic situation on our hands, wondering why we didn't do more before it occurred.