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Safety first, fashion second: why more hitters than ever are wearing extended ear flaps

LOS ANGELES — Two blue batting helmets stamped with a number-31 decal sat in the Dodgers’ dugout on the afternoon of April 23, 2017. One helmet had the traditional ear flap on the right side. This was the helmet Joc Pederson wore whenever he faced a right-handed pitcher. The other featured an extended cheek protector – the “C flap” – which Pederson wore whenever he faced a left-handed pitcher.
On this afternoon, Pederson strained his groin running out a ground ball at Chase Field. The next day, he was placed on the disabled list. When Pederson was ready to begin a minor league rehabilitation assignment a week later, he had a choice.
“I felt like a dork to bring two helmets so I said, forget it, I’m just going to bring this one,” Pederson recalled. “And then I just started wearing only one rather than being high maintenance, wearing two.”
It’s been two years since Pederson wore anything but the helmet with an extended ear flap.
A funny thing happened in the meantime. The extended-flap helmet became the preferred choice of major league hitters of all stripes – from Mike Trout and Christian Yelich to Dodgers pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu. In some dugouts, the majority of helmet cubbies are now filled with the newer, longer-flapped model.
The majority of the Dodgers’ hitters wear them now; Ryu is their only pitcher. Like many of his teammates, Ryu just began wearing the model this year. Why?
“Three reasons,” Ryu said through his interpreter. “Alex Torres (the Dodgers’ clubhouse manager) came up to me during spring training and kind of recommended it to me. It looks cool. It gives you good protection.”
The better question is, why doesn’t every hitter wear one?
The answer lies somewhere between the evolution of game theory and the evolution of fashion trends. As Heidi Klum might readily explain, one day you’re in and the next day you’re out. Right now, extended ear flaps are in. Talk to batters who have made the switch and, like Ryu, they’ll echo reasons both practical and impractical.
First, the practical component.
Teams, coaches and, by extension, their pitchers have favored attacking opposing hitters with four-seam fastballs up in the zone as opposed to two-seam fastballs down in the zone in recent years . The strategy is rooted in common sense. A low two-seamer is the ideal pitch for inducing the kind of contact that leads to ground balls. Yet as more and more hitters avoid swinging on a downward plane , those low two-seamers are less and less likely to lead to ground balls.
So pitchers are throwing higher fastballs more often. What does that have to do with the flaps on a helmet?
A batter has roughly a quarter of a second to decide whether to swing his bat and where. A pitch that starts out looking like a high fastball out of the strike zone might actually be a hard slider about to bend over the plate toward the height of a man’s belt. As the average slider speed trends upward , it’s harder to know for sure. A batter can be sure that yanking his head away from the plate makes it harder to square up a baseball with his bat. The longer he can maintain a level-headed stance in the batter’s box, the better. Yet if a baseball is headed toward your face, it’s hard not to pull away. Maybe, the thinking goes, it’s a bit easier if your face is covered by a piece of hard plastic.
“It feels like you can just stay on the ball, see it a little deeper,” said Dodgers outfielder Alex Verdugo, who began wearing the extended-flap helmet this year. “If it is coming up and in, that last minute, if you just tuck and get hit in the mask you’ll be alright.”
Asked why his teammates on the Dodgers’ pitching staff don’t wear the extended flap, Ryu joked, “they might be more athletic to dodge the pitches that are thrown at them.”
Veteran second baseman Ian Kinsler is among the few hitters on the San Diego Padres who does not wear the extended-flap helmet. By his own accounting he’s been hit in the head by a pitch three times, “but never in the face.” He described his decision as a choice based on comfort.
“It’s something that I’m used to,” Kinsler said. “If I get hit in the face, I’m sure the idea of wearing one of those would change. Just never really thought about it, honestly.”
This attitude was more common in decades past, when the only hitters who wore extended helmet protection did so in response to an injury.
Nomar Garciaparra, who retired as a player after the 2009 season, recalled standing in the box against certain pitchers who weren’t afraid of throwing a fastball high and inside, wary of the possibility of getting hit above the shoulders. Jeff Weaver was the first example that came to his mind. In 2007, Weaver’s last full season as a member of a major league rotation, his fastball averaged 91 mph .
“These guys today,” Garciaparra said, “there’s no time to react.”
Yet Garciaparra and other retired players expressed an impractical concern – a stigma against protecting a part of the batter’s body that historically did not need protection – that might have prevented his contemporaries from wearing something as small as an extended helmet flap.
Spencer Dallin, the Padres’ clubhouse and equipment manager, said that every batter on the team was fitted for a different helmet extension in spring training. Rawlings, the licensed helmet supplier to Major League Baseball, manufactures the extensions separately from the helmets themselves. (Previously branded as “ C flaps ,” Rawlings dubbed its extension an “R flap.”) That allows the extension to be attached in one of three different positions depending on the batter’s preference.
Dallin has known for a while he would need a new set of helmets for the 2020 season. The Padres are switching to brown helmets as part of a sweeping uniform redesign. In addition, he said he’ll order every helmet pre-made to attach ear-flap extensions. That’s just the way the game is going.
“It doesn’t affect my approach,” Dodgers utility player Chris Taylor said. “My chances of getting hit are the same. Now it just might hit the face guard.”

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