May 27, 2011
Collisions at the Plate
Late Wednesday night, Scott Cousins of the Florida Marlins (likely) ended the season of San Francisco's reigning Rookie of the Year Buster Posey by colliding with Posey on a play at the plate. Posey, who was more in front of the plate than in the basepath, was turning to make the block and apply the tag when Cousins initiated the contact in an effort to get the upper-hand in the collision (from Cousins' point-of-view, Posey was a split second away from squaring up and tagging him out; Cousins did what he thought was necessary to balance the scales). Posey was upended from his spot, his left leg staying stationary under his body as the rest of him flipped over and made wild contortions. As it stands now, Posey is on the 15-day disabled list with a broken bone and strained ligaments.
The conversation around baseball since the collision - from national writers and commenters to bloggers all over the internet to radio hosts and television announcers - has been almost entirely about the injury and the debate over whether home plate collisions should even be allowed in the sport (we even had a similar debate in the comments to Jay Jaffe's piece). Ignoring for the time the fact that Cleveland's Carlos Santana had a very similar injury last season without garnering even a fraction of the attention Posey's injury has received, the debate seems to settle on one of two points. Either the collisions should be outlawed because baseball is not a contact sport and there is no reason to allow a player to be so vulnerable, especially when there is already a rule in place that is meant to keep things like this from happening; or, the plays should be allowed because they are some of the most exciting parts of the game and have been a part of it from the beginning. Rarely does anyone fall on any other side of the issue.
I'm not sure where I stand at the moment. Typically, I'm in favor of the small improvements that can be made to make people safer - the bat glove, extending nets, pitcher helmets - but I can't decide if this can be considered a "small improvement" and/or if the danger is all that rampant. Home plate is distinct from any other base on the field in both its physical makeup and in its value to the baserunner. It should be no surprise when players on both sides of the ball treat it differently. At the same time, a baserunner like Cousins would only initiate contact the way he did if he was expecting worse from the catcher. If violent collisions were removed from the game, Cousins would have gone for a safer play from the get-go (like the hook slide he should have done all along).
One thing I'll advise against: using the testimony of past players to prove your point. Not only are retired players unreliable in their memories (somehow Jack Morris remembers himself as the greatest pitcher since Sandy Koufax), but players are rarely the best people to ask when it comes to their own safety. From the long history of pushback to the batting helmet (including the current players' objections to the new "Gazoo-style" helmets), the fear of change - and the tough-guy, "back in my day" attitude - has always been stronger than the fear of injury. Players couldn't even be convinced to switch to helmets even after Hall of Fame catcher Mickey Cochrane was forced to retire after a beanball cracked his skull.
I get the feeling that, aside from a possible edict for umpires to better enforce Rule 7.06(b), there won't be much done to halt potentially dangerous plate collisions. It's a complicated enough issue to isolate from the rest of the game, and the injuries happen infrequently enough, that Major League Baseball won't be compelled to act beyond superficial measures. Hopefully, an edict like this will be enough to prevent any further injuries. If catchers know they can't get away with blocking the plate without the ball, baserunners will have no excuse to initiate violent, dangerous contact. However, it's a bit hard to believe that umpires, catchers, and baserunners will all change their ways so quickly. Let's hope there's a better solution out there than just prayer.