We’ve got a great catcher in our travel ball program who, at 13 years-old, is well on her way to becoming a top-notch catcher. She’s got a great arm, calls a good game and is quick as a cat covering bunts. There is one major flaw in her game, at least to this old-as-dirt catcher: she refuses to throw her mask off under any circumstances. One time I was standing next to her dad, a fellow coach whom I respect a lot, and when his daughter went back for a wild pitch without throwing off her mask I made some kind of comment like, “Take off your mask!!” To which he said something to the effect of, “Get with the program! Throwing masks is optional these days with the new hockey-type masks.” That was the first I had heard of this bit of news, and as with any bit of conventional wisdom out there I decided to find out for myself (see Don’s Coaching Rule #1).
The biggest reason that catchers (in the past) have been taught to toss their mask off is because the mask restricts vision. Who hasn’t seen a catcher lose sight of the ball and then frantically panic as she tries to relocate it? I’ve seen it happen sometimes with catchers who remove their masks, but it seems to happen a lot more often when the mask is on the head. But that’s anecdotal data as I certainly haven’t kept track of when and under exactly what circumstances this happens – what we need is an objective measurement to determine how much (if any) a mask restricts vision.
Fortunately, I have a catcher (my daughter, a year younger than the girl mentioned above) available who has a hockey-style mask. I also have a Hit-Away (on a side note, this is one of the best hitting tools a parent can buy for their daughter: see my review [a href=” “]here[/a].), which has a softball on a tether, which I can use to measure the peripheral vision of my catcher with both her mask on and off. If wearing a hockey-style catcher’s mask restricts vision compared to normal vision with the mask off, then we can put to rest whether the mask should be tossed or not.
The table to the right summarizes the results. Now, this is one catcher and one catcher’s mask, and to be definitive there should be multiple masks tested, but clearly both my daughter’s horizontal and vertical field of view improves significantly with the mask off (by 47.3%, in fact).
The other night while watching the Padres game (go Padres!!), it looked like their catcher’s mask had a wider horizontal field of view than my daughter’s mask. However, even if one assumes that the horizontal field of view with those masks is the same as with the masks off, the field of view still improves by 33.4% with the mask off.
Does the added weight of the helmet effect a catcher’s balance? My daughter is 5 feet (and one half inch) tall and weighs 92 pounds. Her mask weighs two pounds seven ounces. With the mask on, her center of gravity moves up her body about a quarter of an inch. With bigger girls the change in center of gravity would be less but would still change. I’m no biophysicist, so I have no idea how significant such a change in the center of gravity affects balance, but I would suggest that it may affect coordination and balance slightly. Balance and coordination is probably slightly better with the mask off.
Finally, what about issue of comfortably getting the mask off quickly with a pony-tail? Alas, I have no way to measure this, but my daughter says it is easy to throw the mask off whether she has a pony-tail, two pony-tails braided (like Pippy Longstocking?) or no pony-tail at all.
I am convinced that, given all of the above, throwing the mask off whenever possible to make a play is the right technique to teach a catcher. With the mask off, a catcher can see significantly better and she is not quite as top-heavy. Plus, long hair does not seem to get tangled in the mask as it comes off. I’m not sure where the conventional wisdom of “You don’t have to throw your mask with the new catcher helmets” came from (the mask manufactures?), but it is wrong.