Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Jared Hughes barely had time to react.
Down a run against the St. Louis Cardinals last August, Hughes threw a hard sinker to Cardinals hitter Stephen Piscotty, who smacked a line drive straight back at him.
Instinctively, Hughes put his glove up. The ball grazed its seam -- and his left cheek -- before rolling away. Both teams' benches winced with concern. Fans groaned with fear. Hughes stayed in the game. The Pirates lost.
A month later, Hughes agreed to test an experimental cap designed to protect pitchers with advanced materials technology and innovative design. The Half Cap, made by Southern California-based head-wear company Boombang, is half baseball cap and half batting helmet. It's made of lightweight carbon fiber that can withstand impact from baseballs traveling as fast as 90 miles per hour.
Now Hughes is among 20 big-league pitchers testing the headgear during spring training, which began last month.
"It's light, sturdy and supercomfortable," said the right-handed relief pitcher during a recent interview from the Pirates' spring training complex in Bradenton, Florida. "It feels great."
Pitchers are among the most vulnerable of baseball players, standing just 60 feet and 6 inches from the batter. By the time they've finished their follow-through, they have little time to react. Only 1 in every 300,000 pitches hit big-league hurlers, according to Robert Reich, Boombang's strategy and research director. "That's still one too many," he said, especially if you're the man on the mound.
A total of 12 pitchers have been struck since 2012, including 5 last year, according to Patrick Houlihan, a Major League Baseball vice president who has overseen the league's efforts to protect pitchers.
Those included Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Archie Bradley, who was hit in the face while playing against the Colorado Rockies last April. Four months later, New York Yankees pitcher Bryan Mitchell suffered a concussion and a broken nose after being hit with a comebacker against the Minnesota Twins. Both are back in spring training with their respective teams.
Today, MLB and the Major League Baseball Players Association, the players union, say they're making a "significant investment" in creating the Half Caps, Houlihan said. He declined to comment on how much they cost to make.
Use of the equipment is voluntary, Houlihan added.
"Frankly, even if not a single player wears it, I would still consider it a success because we created a product that we can stand behind to protect players," he said. "The option is there."
Boombang was selected from among 20 companies making protective gear because of the strength of its equipment and the design, which marries the helmet with a conventional baseball cap, Houlihan said. The league and the union reached out to players who might be willing to test the cap, which is part visor, part stocking cap. It also has a protective ear flap, on the left side for righties and vice versa for lefties.
Hughes isn't the only Pirates pitcher who jumped at the chance to wear the cap. His teammates Mark Melancon and Juan Nicasio are also sporting the custom-made hybrid helmet-caps.
Atlanta Braves pitcher Alex Torres, who has a history of testing new gear, will also be trying out the Half Cap, Reich said. The southpaw, who was the first pitcher to wear a padded helmet, in 2014, wore an MLB-approved isoBlox oversize padded protective cap while pitching for the New York Mets last season. Reich is hoping Torres will be a Boombang convert.
A Braves spokesman said Torres cap' is on its way.
Hughes said his scare last season partially played into his decision to test the Half Cap. He wrote out a detailed list of the pros and cons, including the unusual look of the lid.
"Sure, it may look silly and I might get teased," he said. "But that's stuff I don't care about."
More so than other baseball players, pitchers are creatures of immense habit. On the mound, they grab for the rosin bag, rub the ball incessantly and even talk to their gloves as part of a complex routine that's part preparation and part superstition.
Hughes' ritual includes removing his cap to wipe sweat from his brow between pitches. He admits to not quite mastering that routine while wearing the snug-fitting Half Cap and thinks he might be a year away from wearing it in an actual game.
"But it might be sooner than that," he said. "You never know."