Catcher’s Corner: Performance Review of Rawlings Pro Preferred Catcher’s Gear

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By Vic Chu

With the current postseason underway, it is only fitting that my next review of catcher’s gear be that of the Rawlings Pro Preferred Series Matte Catcher’s Set, worn by Salvador Perez of the Kansas City Royals (Russell Martin of the Toronto Blue Jays had worn the same gear during Spring Training, but switched back to the Rawlings 950z chest protector and matching XRD matte series leg guards during the regular season).  Not only is the set eye-catching, but the new line incorporates new technology never before released by Rawlings.

According to Rawlingsgear.com:

“The NEW Pro Preferred® Series Chest Protector features a TRI-TECH™ padding which keeps the air circulating between the chest protector and your body allowing cool air in and releasing the hot air. The new “C” Channels create a form-fitting wrapping of the chest protector for maximum mobility and durability. The AB Wedges remain flat for added ball rebound control.”

The new Pro Preferred leg guards no longer incorporate the Poron XRD technology padding but keeps the Pro-Dri adjustable velcro padding surrounding the inner knee down to the lower shin. Lastly, the 2-Tone Matte Hockey Style Coolflo Catchers Helmet features improved interior padding with Pro Dri Plus moisture-wicking technology.  The cage boasts a new chrome finish wire cage for high strength and increased impact resistance.

Each manufacturer will have their own fancy terminology for specific technology used in their gear such as the specific padding system, moisture wicking fabrics, ventilation systems and harness styles, but when it comes down to it, the only thing that will matter is how the gear fits and feels on a catcher.  Each catcher will prefer and prioritize certain aspects of their gear over another, but in my quest to find the best gear out there, I’ve learned to value maximum protection and mobility in the lowest profiles and lightest materials.  A combination of these attributes are hard to come by in one complete set, but the new Pro Preferred Series set comes close.

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The Chest Protector: Rawlings Pro Preferred Series Matte 17″ CPPRO

In terms of the new technology I mentioned above, I believe the only major improvement in this set came with the complete remake of the chest protector.  Instead of improving on an older version such as the newer 950Z and 950X compared with the old 950 model, Rawlings created a new chest protector with new materials not previously seen on older models.  First, the collarbone pads, harness and side oblique wings have a new mesh outer lining meant to reduce the weight on the protector.  Through the mesh, the TRI-TECH padding can be seen with its triangular grid-like pattern.  This seems to be the major improvement in terms of weight savings throughout the chest protector as about 60% of the chest protector is covered in the mesh/TRI-TECH padding combination.  The other 40% incorporates the matte synthetic covering over a slightly thicker yet pliable padding located on the neck pad, pectoral chest, sternum, abdomen and shoulder cap areas.  This padding provides a more enhanced level of protection over the TRI-TECH padding as it covers the more bony parts of the upper body.  The “C” channels run along the flex points of the abdomen area and allows the wings of the padding to conform to the obliques.  When the waistband is adjusted snugly, the wings will bend with the shape of the midsection and allow better fitment and mobility  The inner lining is minimal with only a very thin layer of mesh bonded to the back of the foam that encases the entire, interior of the chest protector.  Finally, the much improved over the shoulder harness is the best I’ve tried on any chest protector.  The combination of TRI-TECH padding along with the synthetic matte material gives a secure, snug fitment close to the body to eliminate having to push the protector up after throwing, blocking or running.

Likes:

1. Improved over the shoulder harness – The harness is wide, extremely comfortable and keeps the protector close to the body at all times, preventing constant shifting when throwing, blocking or running.  This is the most comfortable harness I have used to date.  It seems to be very durable and will not stretch out over time, compared to older elastic band styles used in the Rawlings RCP and CP950 models, released circa late 1990’s.

2. Ventilation of the TRI-TECH padding – The padding releases body heat well and feels light on the body.  When put up against the sun or light, hundreds of tiny ventilation holes can be seen through the padding, similar to my Mizuno Pro first generation chest protector.

3. Provides the most protection I have seen in a chest protector – All blocks made on different parts of the chest protector resulted in no residual pain.  The protector kept the ball down on hard fastball blocks and provided full protection in the blocked area, whether it be the thicker, stiffer “matte” material padding on the chest or the thinner, TRI-TECH padding on the collarbone and obliques.

Dislikes:

1. “Matte” material chest/sternum padding – The thicker padding under the matte synthetic fabric is a bit stiff for my preference.  The stiffness makes reaching for pitches across the body difficult.  However, the padding is highly effective for blocking and shock absorption.  The matte colorway, however, is visually appealing especially with the current trends in catcher’s gear.

2. 17″ length – At 5′-10″ and 160 lbs., the length of the protector causes the neck pad to push up into my throat when squatting in the receiving position (the protector sits fine when in the sign-giving position with the back upright, but the thighs push the protector up when hunched forward in the receiving position).  I prefer the 16″ to 16.5″ protectors due to the fact that the protector stays put on my chest without any upward shifting when sign-giving or receiving.  The 17″ length will better suit catchers 6′ and taller, in my opinion.

3. D-Rings become misaligned and shift – A small issue but the D-rings on the front of the protector which attach to the carabiner clips on the harness waistband tend to come out of their original position and can lead to the waist loosening a bit.  The nylon band holding the D-ring should be stiffer to eliminate any shifting or re-positioning.

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The Leg Guards: Rawlings Pro Preferred Series 16.5″ LGPRO

This year’s Pro Preferred Series leg guards are very similar to the previous Poron XRD Matte leg guards with a few minor improvements.  The previous synthetic, leather-like material along the outer knee and entire inner-shin padding are replaced with the new mesh over TRI-TECH padding resulting in lighter weight and better ventilation.  The triple knee design has a larger knee cap design with smaller upper thigh caps, similar to the previous model.  There are a total of 5 leg straps with double straps installed for the ankle.  This is not a new feature from Rawlings, but is one of the best designs as the ankle feels completely locked-in and does not allow the toe caps to shift while running.  Last and certainly not least, the large upper and small lower toe cap provides, in my honest opinion, the best protection on the market for the foot.  The lower toe caps can be adjusted to a lower or higher position, about 1 inch apart, for added protection or removed, if desired. This special toe cap design also include an elastic strap below the upper cap portion which can be wrapped around the cleats to provide an even more secure fit.  Overall, Rawlings has designed a leg guard that provides great protection without sacrificing weight or mobility.  This same leg guard design is currently worn by Major Leaguers such as Yadier Molina and Tony Cruz of the St. Louis Cardinals, Francisco Cervelli of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Russell Martin of the Toronto Blue Jays and Salvador Perez of the Kansas City Royals.

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Likes:

1. Very lightweight for the amount of protection it provides – The knee and shin plastic pieces cover a large part of the leg but not heavy.  They provide great protection around the knee and shin areas where balls seem to hit the most.  The mesh fabric, TRI-TECH padding and light plastics used in the leg guards is a winning combination.

2. Double ankle leg strap – This helps to keep the leg guard attached to the ankle while running.  The leg guards tend to move and shift while running but I did not find myself adjusting the leg straps at all.

3. Toe caps provide maximum protection – Rawlings has created the best design in toe cap protection with the large and small cap combination.  There are two positions offered that allow the small toe cap to be adjusted higher or lower on the foot for various foot sizes.

4. Knee padding adequate and comfortable – Cushioning provided around the knee is top notch with extended padding into the shin area.  For those looking for a longer guard, this model also comes in a 17.5″ length, the LGPRO2.

Dislikes:

1.  The white colored portions of the leg guards tend to get dirty quickly – The white will become the color of dirt you kneel on.  Expect to clean the guards frequently to keep them looking fresh.

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The Mask – Rawlings 2-Tone Matte Hockey Style Coolflo Catchers Helmet CHPRO

The Rawlings hockey style mask reviewed seems to be very similar to the previous model but with a slightly modified cage and new “Coolflo” decal design on the side of the mask.  The Pro-Dri lining, chin pad and overall shape closely resembles the previous CH950X model.  The description on Rawlings’ website is exactly the same as well.

This was the first time I used a hockey style mask during my 11 years of catching and I must admit that there are definitely advantages over the two-piece cap and mask combination.  First off, although heavier in overall weight, the hockey mask “feels” lighter because of the weight distributed around the entire head versus just the front of the face with a traditional mask.  The hockey mask became more and more comfortable as the innings wore on.  I currently use the Nike titanium cage with Nike Dri-Fit or Mizuno G2 pads and will most likely never switch to anything else.  Although impressed with the feel and comfort of the hockey mask, I’ll remain with my two piece setup.  My suggestion for those considering both would be to put them to the test on the field and decide from there.  Different catchers have different preferences but I absolutely can see the benefits in each setup.

Secondly, the field of vision is much improved with the hockey mask with better peripheral vision.  The cage bars are thinner than the traditional mask and sits closer to the face.  The improved vision was better than my traditional mask and often times I found myself keeping my mask on for bunts and balls batted in front of me.

Lastly, I did also like the side protection over the ears.  The extra protection is valuable against batters with long backswings.  I can attest to being hit several times on the top and side of the head while in the squat.

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Likes:

1. Overall Comfort – The hockey mask feels light and the padding keeps the head cool.  Catching in the Las Vegas heat, I am always looking for more ventilation and moisture-wicking fabrics surrounding the head in catcher helmets.  The chin pad sits nicely on the chin but there is no adjustability of the chin pad for longer or shorter faces.  I have seen adjustable Velcro chin pads on other branded hockey masks on the market such as All-Star and Mizuno.

2.  Matte finish – The matte colorways are eye-catching and follow the trend of current catcher’s gear lines in other brands.  Rawlings seems to be the only company who has created full lines of catcher’s gear in matte colorways.

3.  Excellent peripheral vision – This may be true with all hockey style masks but this was a major improvement over the traditional style masks.  The hockey mask can be left on for most catching duties especially on plays in front of the catcher such as retrieving a blocked ball, fielding a bunt or making a play at the plate.

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Dislikes:

1.  No removable, washable padding – Catchers will sweat and the ability to remove and wash the padding is very important.  The option to replace the padding also saves money for the everyday player as a means to avoid purchasing a new mask when the padding deteriorates.

2.  No adjustability of the chin pad – This may pose a problem when it comes to comfort as the chin pad can not be adjusted to suit different lengths of faces.  Some catchers may have the chin pad sit closer to the lips while some may have it sit lower on the chin.  For me, the chin pad was in the right location.

Final Thoughts:

Rawlings has done a superb job in the design of the new Pro Preferred Series of catcher’s equipment.  The newly designed chest protector is lightweight and provides enhanced protection to the most vital parts of the upper body.  The new TRI-TECH padding offers good ventilation while maintaining a high level of protection.  The leg guards, although very similar to the previous design, remain as a top candidate as the best leg guards on the market. The materials used result in a lightweight, mobile and max-protection design.  Although the chest protector was a bit long for my 5′-10″ height, it will undoubtedly be an ideal fit for the catcher 6′ tall and above.  If you are looking to invest in a high quality set of catcher’s gear, look no further than the Pro Preferred line by Rawlings.  The eye-catching matte design is very attractive and I believe will become commonplace in the catcher’s gear industry for years to come.

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