PITTSBURGH — There’s a new trend sweeping Major League Baseball, but it has little to do with sinkers, infield shifts, launch angles or breaking balls.
Across the majors, over the last year or so, a piece of equipment has gone from rarely seen to nearly ubiquitous. I’m talking about what players are calling a “C-flap.” It’s an extra piece of batting helmet that hangs down below the ear flap and provides some protection to a player’s orbital bone in case of a wayward pitch.
If you’re not sure what I’m referring to, check out David Freese modeling one above, or Adam Frazier and Josh Harrison below.
Extra protection for players that have had a recent facial injury have been commonplace. Pirates outfielder Dave Parker famously wore something closely resembling a football mask after a broken jaw and cheekbone back in 1978.
But recently, players have started wearing helmets with a C-flap all the time. According to Pirates equipment manager Scott Bonnett, it started at the beginning of the 2017 season.
“Last year, during Spring Training, Ray Searage came to me and asked me about getting them for the pitchers,” Bonnett said. “I went around to each pitcher. … Jamo (Jameson Taillon), (Trevor) Williams and (Gerrit) Cole, I think were the ones that wore them last year. Coming into this year, I ordered a bunch to have, just in case it started heading into that trend. These things always go trendy.”
Trends when it comes to protective devices in sports are interesting. NHL players famously demanded that players that didn’t want to wear a helmet be grandfathered in. The same is true of batting helmets without an ear-flap, which were phased out in 2000 when Gary Gaetti was the last grandfathered player to retire.
“When I played, I used a no ear-flap,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “I was grandfathered in. I don’t know why. Maybe I thought it looked cool. You look back in retrospect, that’s kinda crazy. Guys still threw hard. You saw the shin guard evolvement at the back end of my career, which made all the sense in the world. If you ever see me on the beach and look at my ankles, I’ve still got bruises that I’ll carry around for the rest of my life that are bruises from fouling balls off.”
Part of any trend is popularity, and it’s helped the C-flap’s cause that some of the game’s biggest stars have bought in. Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels and Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals have both worn batting helmets with a C-flap, and that gives the green light for a player that might be thinking about wanting more protection, but doesn’t want to look out of place on an MLB field, either.
“I wore it in high school and I’m pretty comfortable with it,” Frazier said. “It’s just something so that I can hang in there a little bit longer (on an inside pitch). There’s no shame in it. Half the league is wearing it. … It’s something I’ve thought about for a while.”
C-flaps aren’t the first piece of protective equipment that’s gone down this road from injury protection to standard issue. Many, if not most MLB players wear shin guards and elbow pads.
Harrison is one of those players, and he doesn’t seem to mind if there’s any stigma toward wearing extra protection at the plate — and with good reason. He was second in the majors in times hit by a pitch in 2017, and has had his hand broken by one twice since August. Harrison, was in fact, the first of the current Pirates that decided to get on board with this latest trend.
“Right at the beginning of the year, we were in Detroit and J-Hay and David Freese asked me if they could try one on when we got back,” Bonnett said. “They liked it, so they’re going with it. A couple days ago, Frazier came up and asked. Talking to Rawlings, they said the percentage of guys wearing them now are skyrocketing.”
Bonnett predicts that the current rate of usage will continue to increase, though there will likely be some holdouts. Pirates third baseman Colin Moran said he tried one and didn’t like the way it felt.
“I think that’s just the way it’s going to be,” Bonnett said.
If the trend of more and more protective equipment becomes normalized, where does it reach an inevitable conclusion? With baseball players sporting Iron Man-esque suits of body armor?
“Hey, if that’s what’s going to keep me on the field, I’ll talk to Tony Stark myself,” Harrison said.