What does a NOCSAE stamp exactly mean? Well, it turns out not much when applied to umpires as there are no test standards for umpire masks. To test a youth catcher’s helmet the tester mounts the helmet on an instrumented head model which is free to move, and an air cannon is used to shoot a baseball from close range into the helmeted head model at 60 mph. Impact accelerations are measured and a Severity Index is calculated and compared with the NOCSAE standard to determine if the helmet meets the requirement. NOCSAE guidelines permit a catcher’s helmet to pass if the peak severity index of any impact does not exceed 1200 SI (severity index explained here).
Unfortunately, there is strong evidence that a concussion becomes likely at a severity index of 300. Now I'm no physicist, but 300 happens long before 1200, right? And the safety test is rated at sixty miles per hour? Are you kidding me? When was the last time you were on the plate with a kid throwing 60?
Last year in the wake of the Kerwin Danley injury USA Today did two stories about MLB umpire injuries: here and here
USA Today states that through June 11, 2008, umpires had reported 36 blows to the head through a program set up by athletic trainer Mark Letendre, who works with the umps for Major League Baseball. In 2007, 38 were reported. Every year in the major leagues there are reports of umpires being concussed and leaving games. And we all know what tough sons-of-guns those MLB umpires are.
The threat of concussion is a real concern, even at lower levels of ball. Not only can a foul ball strike you in the mask, but a backswing can knock you out also. That happened to Jerry Crawford last season.
What can we do? First, umpire masks and helmets need to be evaluated and tested. As consumers we are entitled to know the level of protection a mask provides. There may be some legal liability to the manufacturer as well. Personally I think it is reasonable for Joe Umpire that buys an MLB mask to believe that it will protect him from concussions in his H.S. JV games. The lesson of former MLB catcher Mike Matheny teaches us otherwise.
Some umpires are using the hockey style masks that offer some protection against back swings and perhaps more protection frontally as the design is more angular allowing for more glancing blows. An article in Men’s Health Magazine reports that the Wilson Shock FX hockey style mask with little “shock absorbers” built into the cage reduces impact force by up to 50 percent. However, I cannot find information or claims from Wilson that substantiate this and they did not respond to my email. If true, the Wilson Shock FX may be the most important piece of safety gear available to umpires. I can say that I have noticed more MLB umpires (and other umpires in the WBC) wearing the Wilson Shock FX including Kerwin Danley when he returned to duty after his injury.
It is simply speculation, but the lower profile masks offered by Wilson may be a contributor to umpire concussions. The lower profile mask sits closer to the face and is flatter with less angles. Jim Kirk asks the question best:
"Physics dictates a flatter low profile umpire mask will divert less force than a more curved standard one, but how much less and is this a significant difference?"
"More padding between the ball and you as in Wilson's wrap around padding is more protective than one with less padding but how much more protective and how significant is this difference to umpires at various levels?"