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May 27, 2011

Grumblings from a Surly Sabermetrician

Scott Cousins is a Dirty, Dirty Ballplayer...

by Clay Davenport

There is no doubt in my mind that on Wednesday night Scott Cousins was guilty of a dirty play. When the Marlins’ outfielder was trying to score from third on fly ball, he made no attempt to reach home plate. As he neared home, he launched himself into Buster Posey’s upper body, apparently having made the decision that his best chance of scoring was to ensure that Posey was forcibly separated from the baseball, and that he himself would be able to find the plate in the confusion that followed.

He was probably correct about that decision, even though, in this case, Posey had already dropped the ball before any contact occurred. Posey was acting the way catchers are currently taught—receive the ball, and then drop to your knees across the front of the plate to block the runner’s access to the plate, while making the tag for the out. In any number of games on similar plays, the catcher does make a clean catch, the runner slides, the catcher’s shin guards hit the ground ahead of the runner’s foot, cutting off his path to the plate, the tag comes does down, and the out is recorded. Cousins’ play, like many before him, is an accepted part of the game today—and an evolutionary adaptation to the behavior of the catcher.  It is what you have to do to beat the catcher’s strategy. As I said before, I have no doubt that it was a dirty play, but baseball has accepted this particular pattern of dirt, and I can’t fathom how any punishment or retribution would be justified in the face of this organizational pattern.

There are those who think the problem could be resolved by enforcing existing rules (7.06b in particular), but they are wrong: Posey was clearly in the act of fielding a ball and by that act was, per the rules, entitled to his position. There are also voices out there who seem to believe that the rules of baseball were carried from Mt. Sinai by a some 19th-century Moses, and that we shouldn’t change them just for this. If you will look at the history of 19th century baseball, though, you will find that rules were changed almost every year, on matters both more and less substantial than the issue we’re looking at here. No one should ever shy away from changing a rule (or, for that matter, a law), if it is the right thing to do, simply because it has always been done some other way. If the rules as written create a hazard for the players, then we are obligated to at least look for ways to mitigate that hazard. I think the search for such changes is complicated because both the fielders and runners share blame for the current state of affairs.

One way to do it, which I believe would cut down on these events, is  by returning to a very, very old rule. In the earliest rules, the 1840s and 50s, a baserunner was out if he was touched by the ball while off his base. It didn’t matter whether he was gently tagged, got hit in the back on a throw from the outfield as he approached third, or was drilled by a hard-as-you-can throw from three feet away. The latter did happen, and that resulted in injuries which many saw as unnecessary.  The rulebook sought to address this by taking some of the physical force out of the play, introducing the force out and requiring that the player be tagged out by someone holding the ball, and not “soaked”, as the practice of throwing at a runner dodgeball-style was called. One consequence of the earlier rule, though, was that it did not matter if you dropped the ball after the tag –the batter was out as soon as the tag was made, continuously held or not. Dislodge the ball all you want—you’re still out (although Cousins still wouldn’t be, because Posey never had the ball at all). Returning to that rule would remove the crashing incentive from the baserunner.

You could also try to take a page from the NFL rulebook (horrors!), in which a player taking a throw would be considered the same as a “defenseless receiver”, and greatly limit the kind of contact can be made on him. That would be reasonable on one hand—but still does nothing to account for the ability of the fielder to legally block the base.

If I ran the zoo, and had absolute authority, I would change the obstruction rule to make it quite clear that the baseline belongs to the runner in all instances except for a player fielding a batted ball (which, to my knowledge, isn’t causing any issues). I would definitely remove the fielder’s right to the baseline while fielding a thrown ball. In my vision, the defensive player would never, under any circumstances, have the right to barricade, block, hinder, deflect, or otherwise physically prevent a baserunner from reaching the base. You are entitled to try and tag the runner before he gets there; you have no right whatsoever to do anything to keep him from getting there. If you are a fielder in the baseline for any reason—other than standing there with the ball in a position to make an immediate tag—then your body will be considered part of the base. A runner who clearly slides into your legs before the tag is applied—where the glove comes down from chest high after contact, say—will be considered safe. And it isn’t just for catchers. I have seen first basemen holding a runner try to position their foot so that the runner will hit his foot, instead of the base, when he dives back on a pickoff attempt. Shortstops have been known to drop their leg in front of second when a would-be basestealer approaches—although you generally only try that if you know the runner is going to come in head first. I consider those practices illegal as well, and again would treat their blocking body parts as part of the base. But it is generally catchers, because of their protective gear, and their practice of a knee-drop, who have the most potential to cause injury to other players. Just ask Derek Jeter.

At the same time, I would interpret the rule to make it clear that the runner has a positive obligation to always go for the base, and never for the fielder—and that it applies as much at second base (breaking up a double play) as it does at home. I do believe that the runner trying to break up a double play should be required to touch second (not just be “able” to touch it, as the rule is now interpreted) if he also makes contact with the pivot man (unless the contact happens in front of the base, and prevents the runner form reaching it). Launching yourself with a shoulder tackle or forearm shiver is pretty clearly going after the fielder, not the base, and should earn the runner an out and a banishment. By considering a baseline-crowding fielder to be part of the base, there is no excuse left for the fielder to worry about being blocked from the base.

I do worry, though, that this would give runners an incentive to seek contact, if the fielder’s body is closer than the base. Players will—and should—seek any advantage they can, within the rules, and I can see cases where a runner would make a sliding contact he might well be able to avoid.

Unfortunately, I have to cop out and say that it will be the umpire’s responsibility to enforce the principle that baserunners go for the base—that a baserunner who has the opportunity to reach the base without contact must take it, even if it makes him more likely to be out. I wouldn’t expect that to be enforced any better than many current rules where a player’s decision-making process has to questioned by the umpire, and frankly I hate rules that make “intent” or “capability” part of their wording. Ideally, the rule will always be based on what they did or did not do, period—it shouldn’t matter why they did it, and it shouldn’t matter what else they might have done instead. There will always be ambiguity and grey areas.  I can only hope that those people who have the ability to change a rule think through the reasons for a rule change, the root causes that make it necessary, and a range of possible remedies. They also need to remember that the rules are there to make the game better, not just for the sake of having another rule .

Related Content:  Baseball Rules,  The Who,  Rules,  Rule Changes

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