Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Catchers masks and concussions

Joe Mauer blocks a ball in a spring training
drill. The metal in his face mask is
titanium — stronger than steel, but also
less absorbant.
Mike Bernardino on Tuesday published this piece posing the intriguing question: Is the growing popularity of titanium catchers masks linked to the rash of foul-tip concussions?

My immediate reaction was to doubt the entire premise. It seemed likely to me that we're merely more aware of catcher concussions, not that we're actually seeing more concussions.

But then I started thinking about the physics involved. Titantium is stronger than steel, so it doesn't bend as much when a ball smashes into it. It's also considerably lighter — which makes titanium masks more comfortable— which lessens the resistance to the force.

It's important to realize that it isn't the impact itself that causes most concussions — it's the movement that results from the impact. The brain floats inside the fluid-filled skull. The head is hit at one place, causing the head to move with the force of the blow. The brain remains relatively stable, but the skull crashes into it from the movement. That's where the injury occurs.

If indeed the steel masks absorb more of the blow without transferring it to the head, then yes, the titanium masks are more of a risk to the wearer.

According to Bernadino, both Joe Mauer and Ryan Doumit were wearing titanium masks when they sustained their concussions. So was Alex Avila of the Detroit Tigers, who has reportedly returned to wearing steel now that he's back in in the lineup.

Certainly the lighter weight of the titanium masks is an attractive feature. But the ultimate purpose of the face mask is to protect the wearer. Titanium certainly does a fine job of protecting the wearer from the ball itself.  It may not be adequate in protecting the wearer from the force of the ball — and that's no small concern.

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