The first review in this series is the Schutt AiR Flex Umpire Chest Protector. I received this protector almost two months ago and have been field testing it since that time.
The Schutt AiR Flex Chest Protector is very cool looking. It is 17” wide and 13” measured from the neck opening to the bottom of the CP. The plates are the same design and appearance as those used by Schutt in its football pads. The color is lighter and the silver rivets are bright and not subdued. The shiny rivets and possibly the color of the Schutt CP itself could bleed through an open hole mesh shirt.
While the chest plates hug your body in a very sleek and low-profile design (the padding and plates measure a mere 1" in thickness), the shoulder caps are taller than any other hard shell chest protector I have tested. This gives you a more pronounced “line backer” look while behind the dish. Maybe that appearance is a good thing when dealing with rat coaches?
This is the most comfortable hard shell chest protector I have tried. It is worth mentioning that I have not tried the Douglas, which I understand is very comfortable. It’s weight is well distributed and hangs from your shoulders, so it feels lighter than it is. The plates have more curve than most hard shell CPs and the quilted padding conforms to your body and “gives” when you move. There are no slippage issues outside of a rare adjustment. The harness is comfortable and keeps this CP in place. For more information on the harness, see slo8140’s review on Umpire-Empire.
The AiR Flex is based on Schutt's popular AiR Flex Shoulder Pads introduced to football in 2008, and uses a cushion technology called Brock Beads in its AiR Flex padding. Brock Beads are polyurethane foam beads that were first used in the medical field for wheel chair cushions and mattresses. When the Brock Foam is impacted, each bead moves the adjacent beads laterally and diffuses the impact again and again and again over the beads. Brock Bead technology is also used in hockey and lacrosse pads.
The Brock Foam is permeable so airflow actively circulates around the beads accelerating evaporation and keeping the body cooler. In order to enhance air circulation and aid in moisture evaporation, Schutt has placed 10 mm ventilation holes on the plastic plates and covered the Brock Foam with a polyester mesh. The 10 mm holes are an increase from the earlier Schutt AiR Flex design using 5 mm holes.
The AiR Flex kept me comfortable during late August games in the Midwest heat and humidity. It is hard to measure such things without a thermometer, but I believe I am cooler in the AiR Flex than while wearing other hard shell chest protectors.
The plates for the Schutt AiR Flex Chest protector are different than those used on the Schutt CP I tested earlier in the year. Schutt explained that the plates on the CP I previously tested were photography grade, which I thought was a bunch of hooey, but these redesigned plates are considerably more substantial and made from a more rigid plastic. The hard plastic plates measure 3mm, and the large chest plate is 12.25" long and 6.5" wide. There is also less padding around the shoulders for a more comfortable and closer fit. The plates have been re-positioned. The chest plate has been moved up closer to the neck, reducing clavicle exposure. A shoulder cap has been added to prevent gap exposure. Lateral plates have been moved closer to the chest plate.
I would like to report that the AiR Flex has superior protection. The Brock Bead technology is very impressive. The football-type plates are time tested. However, while testing this protector at a high school baseball game, I took a foul ball to the right shoulder. The pitcher was throwing no more than 75 mph. The impact was not painfully sharp, but created discomfort and was more painful than similar impacts I have experienced with the Wilson West Vest Platinum. The day after the impact, my shoulder is sore. I am not interested in being a human guinea pig to test this CP against college pitchers throwing 90+.
One design issue that may have contributed to this impact is the shoulder plate and the chest plate are two separate pieces. This is actually surprising as Schutt football shoulder pads use a one piece shoulder and chest plate. The impact of the ball on this shoulder plate jammed the plate into the padding and caused the discomfort. This also calls into question ball impacts on this plate around in the clavicle.
The Schutt AiR Flex Chest Protector is available from the following on-line retailers:
Hit Run Score for $128
Onlinesports.com for 121.95
Fair or Foul?
The AiR Flex Chest Protector has a lot of promise on paper. However, plate placement for a umpire chest protector is extremely important and is the difference between feeling like Superman or merely Clark Kent. The AiR Flex plates appear sufficient; however the shoulder configuration must be redesigned.
In its current design, I can only recommend this protector for use in games where the pitching velocity is no more than 70 mph.
The Schutt weighs 2.13 lbs.