MLB’s latest protective gear

11 03 2011

I’m able to remember the origin for most stories that I write. But when I try to recall what fostered the idea for my latest ESPN Magazine story (page 27 of the Style Issue, on newsstands today), I draw a blank. I began this story last April. The goal was to look for the latest protective gear that MLB players wear. It ranged from helmets to shin guards and everything in between. My discussions with several teams, MLB team equipment managers and sports equipment companies landed several products. Yet magazines are a different beast than websites, and the good folks at ESPN Mag decided that it would be better to sit on the story and re-start it for an issue this Spring.

That ability to scope the sports equipment land this winter led me to find several more items, most of which are in this story. I included a few products from last year if they had been just partially used or still represented a new-enough technology. Given that the magazine story included only a few lines of text for each product, I figured it would be worthwhile — and fair to the companies I spoke with — if I explained details on each item in a deeper fashion. I’ve also been tweeting other facts from my research that couldn’t make it in the story. All that is under this hashtag: #mlbarmor

I recommend you download the PDF of my story to follow the subsequent product explanations. You can do that here:

Click on the link below to read the story:

MLB armor

XProTex — RAYKR glove

Padded batting gloves were XProTex’s modus operandi last year — that will change this year with the addition of elbow guards, which will be followed by shin and ankle guards. But back to the batting gloves, which the company said were worn by 45 MLB players last year and which will be worn by an additional 40 this year. The gloves, also available in different styles for fielders and baserunners, incorporate Advanced Impact Composite (AIC) technology. AIC absorbs impact to the degree that a 100 mph hit onto the glove has the impact of a 40 mph hit.

The RAYKR glove has significant protection along the wrist, top of the hand and pinky fingers, where some of the smallest and most fragile hand bones are located. XProTex CEO Jack Kasarjian said that last spring he had sent some gloves to the agent for Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. Tulo shunned the gloves in favor of Nike — he subsequently suffered a chipped bone in his wrist June 17 that knocked him out of the lineup for six weeks. Kasarjian recalled that Washington Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth — then with the Philadelphia Phillies — told him that injuries he had suffered from not having padded batting gloves had cost him $30 million in contracts. (I’m assuming Werth feels better about that considering the Nats grossly overpaid him with that $125 million deal.)

The gloves were available only in yellow last year, which turned off style-conscious baseballers. XProTex reacted by offering them in team colors; they also altered the position of some of the gloves’ padding. The new elbow guard, available at some point this season, is a slip-on, lightweight version that Kasarjian said protects the back of the arm and part of the forearm in addition to the elbow.

XProTex also has five position-specific gloves for NFL players next season, assuming they sign a new Collective Bargaining Agreement with the league and get on the field. And the company has a helmet it’s working on that won’t be available until at least 2012. As Kasarjian noted of current helmet construction, “A lot of the helmet technologies now are missing the mark. They’re trying to protect the yolk inside the egg. Once you hit that egg shell, the yolk’s going to fly around.” The analogy makes it seem as if the new helmet will protect the brain from rattling around inside the skull, although Kasarjian declined to offer details on the design or function of the yet-to-be-completed helmet. This is a company to watch the next few years, though.

Rawlings — S100P helmet

Speaking of helmets, here is the newest helmet that MLB players have worn. Rawlings constructed a prior version called the S100, but the design was clunky. And it left players feeling funky. Bad joke, bad rhyme, but it’s the truth: Players didn’t like the S100 helmet because they thought it was ugly and uncomfortable. They’re tricky folks to please, but Rawlings thinks they might have solved those two problems with the S100 Pro. It was introduced during last year’s MLB All-Star Game in Anaheim and minor leaguers were required to wear it.

The function goal of the S100P hasn’t changed from its previous incarnation — it protects the skull against pitches up to 100 mph. It does that with a new aerospace-grade carbon fiber that provides the same protection with a lower volume of material. Rawlings also took out an ep3 liner and replaced it with Xtreme Rate Dependent (XRD) foam, which is soft to the touch yet hardens at impact. “It helps spread the load when you get hit,” said Rawlings R&D Chief Art Chou.

Shock Doctor — Custom mouthguard

A triple layer of protection from Shock Doctor gives baseball players a reason to wear mouth guards as regularly as football and hockey players. The Kraton Layer uses shock-absorbing jaw pads to protect lips and teeth from impact with a Tim Lincecum-delivered fastball. The Pro-Fit Layer gives the guard a low profile for easier breathing and verbal communication. The addition of an additive polyurethane material with regular Ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA) gives the CoreShock Layer 30 percent more shock absorption than traditional custom mouth guards, giving batters increased prevention against concussions.

Shock Doctor said that players gain visual acuity by wearing mouthguards, that the relaxed state the mouthguard provides the jaw also relaxes muscles in the neck and shoulders. This permits hitters to swing the bat with more accuracy and power, although Shock Doctor said nobody in the industry has a clear explanation for it. Call me somewhat suspicious, although they left me with a cool Rod Carew story. The great ex-Minnesota Twin/Califonia Angel used to pack his mouth with tobacco or gum (SD couldn’t remember which) and claimed the resulting stretching of his skin allowed him to keep his eye open longer, thus enabling him to see the ball better. In today’s tech-savvy times, no players have to alter their skins’ elasticity to gain a competitive advantage.

EvoShield — Wrist guard

EvoShield is a big-time up-and-comer. They have a slew of products — I just picked the wrist guard because it was a body part of need for this story. Their elbow guard is a popular item among MLBers because of its unique design. “There is a spot right below your tricep and above your elbow — that’s the spot that you want to protect,” said EvoShield co-founder Justin Niefer.

The unique design aspect of EvoShield products is they mold to your body. For instance, I’ve worn the wrist guard. You put the guard inside a wrist sleeve that’s provided, then slide it onto your wrist. The guard conforms to your wrist within 30 minutes, providing what Niefer calls a customized level of protection. (I was told 30 minutes Niefer, but their website claims it’s 20 minutes.) Rather than absorb impact, Evo’s 1/4″ padding disperses it, spreading the load of the hit over the entire body part, which is supposed to lessen the impact on any particular area.

Niefer told me a story from a few years ago regarding Manny Ramirez. Very quickly, good ol’ Manny tried an EvoShield elbow guard for a game. Lo and behold, he was hit on the elbow during an at-bat but danger was averted. The guard protected Ramirez to the point that he ran to first base smiling, looking at this teammates in the dugout and pointing to the guard, as if to say, “This sucker on my elbow kept me from getting injured.”

Buster Posey and Evan Longoria are two notable players who will be wearing Evo wrist guards during the 2011 campaign. Niefer said Evo will release a new padded batting glove by Evo by this Fall. “Everything [on the market] has been so bulky up to this point,” he said. The design for this glove will integrate moisture management with the leather. Niefer said it will have a minimalistic approach with one-size-fits-all foam or plastic incorporated into the glove.

Evo is also planning an extended wrist guard for catchers, including a plastic playbook pocket. It’s inspired by the wrist guards quarterbacks wear that have several plays written in really small writing underneath a transparent plastic piece. The idea is for catchers to put signs and other plays on it, for it to be easily accessible. “This is going to have EvoShield inside of it and be made of neoprene. No one is making neoprene wrist brands right now,” Niefer said. There will be some sort of flip Velcro piece added to it; the product is tentatively scheduled to be available in January 2012. Stay tuned.

Under Armour — Backstop protection top

Padding on the side and inside of the forearm make this shirt, intended for catchers, a valuable item for batters to wear. A dimpled pattern creates a series of pressure points that disperses impact. The advantage of a dimpled pattern, according to Under Armour, is that the garment can remain lightweight while still providing protection. The entire shirt acts as one system to move with the player as he avoids the hit — or takes in right in the ribs.

UA also has a pair of compression sliding shorts that provide up to 300 percent more directional compression than other compression sliders. They were released last Spring, but UA expects them to take on greater use in the majors this season, with at least 20 percent of each team’s players wearing UA’s “core” technology. There are two giant X-bands located on the shorts. They stretch and tighten with movement to direct compression where it’s needed. The entry level shorts provide 15-20 percent more directional compression; it’s the pro version that offers the 300 percent figure.

McDavid — HexPad sleeve

Have you ever considered whether skiing could have an effect on baseball? McDavid did. They were producing padded sleeves for slalom skiers, who have to dodge those breakaway gates that dot the slopes. Suddenly, it occurred to McDavid that baseball players could make similar use of the sleeves to ease the impact of a fastball.

The sleeves, which have breathable vents to prevent sweat build-up, can sustain 90 mph pitches. The advantage they hold over other arm sleeves is they don’t feel like heavy or rigid, according to McDavid. The company makes three levels of HexPad — three millimeters, nine millimeters and dual-density. This one is made of the latter, which provides the highest level of protection for sports like football and lacrosse. (One football coach who spoke with McDavid said these sleeves would be perfect for football fullbacks.)

The dual-density pads move independently, although they’re bonded together. Think of a soccer ball laid out on the floor. The hexagon design provides for breathable spaces between the pads. Introduced last season in lefty and righty versions, McDavid discovered that some players would wear the wrong sleeve. For example, a righty would inadvertently wear the lefty sleeve, which would create a pinching sensation. So, McDavid stepped up to make a universal version that’s equally comfortable for players on each side of the plate.

Although it’s offered mostly in black, McDavid has made it available to players in team colors, which seems almost like a requirement now for players. They want to be color-coordinated. McDavid is hoping 50-60 MLB players wear their sleeve this season.

NuttyBuddy — Cup

Oh yes, the cup protector. There isn’t actually a new technology here — just a new size. Already available for the past couple of years in Hammer, Boss, Hog and Mongo, NuttyBuddy now makes a Trophy version. It’s for men 5’8 to 6’1 and between 180 and 200 pounds; they expect roughly 30 percent of major leaguers to wear this size. The breathable cups — you gotta keep it cool down there — are known to withstand a 95 mph pitch from five feet away. Heck, even the company’s owner showed that he believes in his product by doing the very thing that would cause hesitation in any man — taking one in the goods.

Nike — Pro Combat slider shorts

Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins told Nike product designers in 2009 that he would wear volleyball knee pads to protect himself. A light bulb went off — why not design a slider short that also protects the knee? Baseball players wear sliders to ward off the strawberries and raspberries that develop from the friction of sliding on dirt. So, Nike has introduced a third-generation slider that offers abrasion protection on the hip and padding on the knee.

Friction-free CORDURA fabric was added to the hip region for the baseball sliders; it’s already used in Nike’s Pro Combat line of football gear. “It absorbs a lot of energy from the impact of a slide, which minimizes the amount of abrasion a player will get in that area,” said Eric J. Schindler, Nike’s Global Apparel Director for MLB. (Nike is MLB’s official provider of under-layer products.) Ventilation is added to the area around the cup for comfort.

Deflex padding was added to the knees without inhibiting movement. Four-millimeter cell pads give just enough protection for the knees without restricting movement, and Schindler said the sliders were approved by the 12 MLB players Nike targeted for the garment during 2010 Spring Training. Michael Young, Troy Tulowitzki, Aaron Rowand and others who wore the sliders told Nike that the sliders were one of the best they had ever worn. Still, some players didn’t like the knee-length design; Nike subsequently made shorter versions of the sliders that extend to the mid-thigh, obviously removing the knee padding portion of the product. There is more padding protection in the hip area for those shorter sliders.

One more point on the knee’s padding: It doesn’t exist just on the top of the knee. It extends around the edge of the knees based on what Nike had observed on pictures taken of high school and college players’ knees. “You could actually see the scars on their knee, and it helped us form the shape of that padding,” Schindler said. I know you’ll think about these sliders every time you see an MLB player steal a base this season.




2 responses

11 03 2011
MLB's latest protective gear « | Elbow

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12 03 2011
Mcdavid One Size

[…] MLB's latest protective gear « The advantage they hold over other arm sleeves is they don't feel like heavy or rigid, according to McDavid The company makes three levels of HexPad — three millimeters, nine millimeters and dual-density. This one is made of the . It's for men 5'8 to 6'1 and between 180 and 200 pounds; they expect roughly 30 percent of major leaguers to wear this size The breathable cups — you gotta keep it cool down there — are known to withstand a 95 mph pitch from five feet away. […]

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