Manufacturers would like for you to choose an umpire mask based on advertising. “What advertising,” you ask? You see it all the time. It’s what the MLB umpires are wearing. It’s the product testing videos on YouTube. Its inventory in your local sporting goods store. Its even reviews on this site.
Fortunately, choosing an umpire mask in today’s world is not limited to the stock at your local big box store. The internet provides a wealth of options at reasonable prices – and usually cheaper than your local store.
But how do you choose an umpire mask that is right for you?
Choosing the right mask for you is a mix of physical dimensions and personal preferences. The six criteria for mask selection are: mask dimensions; design; material; weight; stock pads, and price.
The first selection criteria is the mask dimensions, which means the length, width and height. The typical mask width is between 8.5” and 9”, and a length of 10” to 11”. That little bit of difference can mean a lot in how the mask fits. For instance, the Pro Nine FMU is a very round 9.5” in width and 10” in length. What fits your buddy’s face perfectly may not be great fit for you. For more information about fitting and wearing a mask, see the Midwest Ump article A Beginner’s Guide to Properly Fitted Umpire Gear, which has fitting advice from several top manufacturers.
The final dimension factor is the mask’s height, or depth. That means the distance between your eyeballs to the mask frame. Some manufacturers advertise a “low profile” mask that put the mask closer to your face for better visibility. Some say that flatting out the mask to draw it closer to the face decreases the angles of the cage, making ball impacts more likely to absorb rather than deflect. Whether this is true or not, and whether the design improves visibility is a personal decision.
Mask height can vary quite a bit between manufacturers. What is described as "standard profile" by one mask maker may be "low profile" according to another. For instance, the “standard profile” Champro CM-58 is 4.5” in height while the “standard profile” Wilson WTA3009BLTI is 3.75”. In some cases a manufacturer may describe its mask as “lower profile,” which is somewhere in the middle. For more information see the Midwest Ump article How“Low Profile” is Your Mask?
Many masks are described as “light weight.” Most popular masks are under 1.5 pounds in their stock configuration, and are considered "light weight." Some masks weigh under one pound! The advertised weight of light weight masks can be deceiving because the weight of mask pads varies. For instance, the stock weight of the Wilson WTA3009BLTI titanium umpire mask is 23 ounces, but the Wilson comes with does skin wrap-around leather pads which weigh a hefty seven ounces. In comparison, the feather weight Diamond iX3 DFM-UMP weighs 17 ounces, and the synthetic stock pads weigh 2.5 ounces. For more information on mask pads weight and impressions, see the Midwest Ump article Review and Comparison of Umpire Mask Pads.
Umpire masks come in single and double bar designs. Many umpires point out that a double bar design decreases visibility, but it also likely enhances structurally integrity, making the mask stronger and more able to absorb impacts. Don’t be fooled into thinking that a double bar mask is necessarily a heavier mask! The All Star SL Titanium Umpire Mask has a double bar design, deer skin pads, and weighs a mere 19 ounces!
Some manufacturers are flattening the corners of the mask bar around the eye opening to increase visibility. Flattening the bar will generally shave off a millimeter or two, which may not sound like much, but does make a difference the closer the bar is to your eyes.
As described above, umpire masks come in different lengths widths, and heights. Some manufacturers also are experimenting with new shapes that conform the mask to the umpire’s face. The All Star FM2000UMP is shaped to create more contact between the pads and the forehead.Whether this design has any practical effect remains to be seen.
Finally, an umpire mask may have a cap guard or throat guard. These items add extra weight to the umpire mask, so some manufacturers are eliminating them, especially the cap guard. Some masks made in Japan do not have throat guards, and the umpire is expected to wear a throat guard extension on the mask.
Umpire masks are made with a variety of materials, including steel, aluminum, magnesium, and titanium. The rigidity and strength of the material can vary among manufacturers. Titanium has the best strength to weight ratio, but titanium alloys are more difficult to process and the end product is more expensive than the other alloys.
Many theories abound regarding the best material for a mask frame. Some believe that using hollow core steel is best, because the frame will absorb more impact and “give.” Basically, the energy of the ball is more likely to bend your mask frame and not transfer the energy to your head. Others believe that a more rigid frame coupled with a superior mask padding (Team Wendy pads, for instance) is the best combination.
Stock pads can mean a great deal in the decision to purchase a particular mask. Do you prefer cow skin, pig skin, doe skin, dura leather, or a cloth pad? There are many choices and options available. Wilson markets its Dyna-Lite hollow core steel umpire mask in several different pad configurations. Other manufacturers (and some retailers) offer different padding options with the same mask. Replacing the masks padding can considerably increase the total cost of the mask. For instance, a Champro CM-58 Magnesium mask comes with "DRI-GEAR moisture wicking pads" (i.e. polyester cloth). These pads are good, but I prefer Wilson leather, which will add around $30-35 to the total cost.
In a perfect world, the “best” mask would cost the most. That would make it easy for consumers to decide. Generally, the price of the mask is directly attributable to the cage material and the padding. The more expensive the materials, the more expensive the mask. That is not to say that the mask is “better” because it costs more.
The most expensive traditional mask on the market is the Nike Titanium mask, the “Holy Grail” of umpire masks. These masks are reported to weigh around 13.5 ounces and are only available to professional catchers, umpires, and some college catchers. Used Nike titanium masks are sometimes offered on eBay for $400+. Here is a video review of the Nike Titanium. Other titanium masks with leather padding run around $200. Magnesium masks cost around $100. Steel and aluminum masks can be had for $75 or less.
Choosing an umpire mask is like buying a car. Do you want a BMW, or a nice pickup truck? They may cost the same, but are very different vehicles. Ultimately, your mask is your mask. Price may be a significant factor in your decision, but there are many other factors to consider. In the end, be sure the mask comfortably fits your face, that you can see through it without distraction, and that you are satisfied with its level of protection.