Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Review of Schutt AiR Flex Umpire Chest Protector

This is the first article in a series of chest protector reviews that will seek to crown the “King of Chest Protectors.” This series of reviews will culminate with an article comparing the protectors and announcing a winner which will be named the Midwest Ump 2010 Umpire Merchandise Product of the Year award winner (UMPY Award) in the Chest Protector category.

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 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.


Jimmy Carl Black said...

Hmmm. Great review. I'm glad to see it for such a new CP. I've had mine since the first shipment was available in the late summer. I've used it exclusively since and haven't had the same experience as you in terms of protection. I've taken a few 85-90 MPH shots off the shoulder and haven't felt a thing. Maybe I just didn't get hit right in the CP's Achilles heel... don't know. But, my impressions so far are that it protects as well as the West Vests at a fraction of the weight and with infinitely more comfort. My only complaint is that the Brock-beads' covering material is a little scratchy against your skin, but I've since switched to a higher-neck undershirt and it seems to have solved the problem. It will probably soften up as it breaks in, too... My grade for it is an A+.

Pete Reiser said...

I appreciate the comment. As you suggest, this is likely the CP's Achilles Heel. It was probably a one-in-a-million shot.

Last weekend I was at a high school "prospects" tournament and wore the Schutt CP (because I forgot to swap it from my vehicle). I took a hard foul ball directly to the chest plate and it felt fine. The LHP was throwing low to mid 80's).

I hate rating this CP so poorly because it has many features that I love: it doesn't slip, it is comfortable, it is cool, it is low-profile, etc. However, the blow I took to the shoulder should not have been as severe as it was. My shoulder was sore for a couple days! I am concerned that a shot from a 90+ mph fastball might do actual damage to my shoulder or collar bone. I just can't recommend it.

I wear a performance t-shirt under the CP and did not notice any discomfort.

Jimmy Carl Black said...

Have you written to Schutt with your comment about the one bad shot you took? I know many suppliers/manufacturers are aware of your blog and send you things to eval., so they would probably be interested in your impressions. Following the development of this CP, they seem to be very receptive to field testing and veterans' advice. It seems like they really want to get it 'right.' I am pretty happy with the CP – as mentioned – but anything can be made better. Maybe there will be a 2.0 version in 2012 if we all send them out impressions in 2011. I have nothing against Wilson (I have two of their masks and love them), but I would love to see more viable competitors to the WV series as I think they are too hot/heavy. Competition is always a good thing, in part to have more options and in part to make the leaders improve their products. It's really time for some new WV's to come out with better padding technology to make them lighter and cooler (the armor side is great on both Gold and Platinum).

Pete Reiser said...

I agree with you completely! Just a little tweaking could go a long way on this CP. Schutt's design may also prompt Wilson to improve the WV.

I love the fact that Schutt is innovating, and I really do admire their efforts. However, since this product is on the market, it is rightly compared to other products. A this point the Schutt CP is not a product I will use during an upper level game.