If the groundball goes to shortstop, we’re not having this conversation, because second basemen are carried across the back half of second base when they receive a flip from the shortstop to start a double play, whereas shortstops receiving the throw from the second baseman are carried across the front half. If Jung-ho Kang jumps as he prepares to fire the ball on to first, we’re not having this conversation, because Chris Coghlan‘s flailing, sidewinding takeout slide just clips him and knocks him harmlessly into the dirt, instead of shredding his left leg (which, instead of being airborne, was planted in that dirt).
But because Kang came flying across the front half of second base and was blown up by the hard-sliding Coghlan, ending his season and damaging the Pirates’ chances of playing deep into October, we have to have the conversation. The columns calling for a rule prohibiting takeout slides of any kind have already begun. The question is whether those columns are well founded, or just the knee-jerk reaction to an unfortunate incident.
At this point in the evolution of our society and its interactions with sport, it’s no longer reasonable to defend a rule (or a lack of one) simply by saying that the game has always been played a particular way, and therefore ought to be in perpetuity. Where injuries are preventable and the cost to the quality of the game is minimal, a rule change has to be at least seriously considered. Machismo and willful disregard for the consequences of danger are no longer acceptable, though it will be a long time before they’re extinct.
That said, we’re not as good as we used to be at evaluating or articulating the real costs to game play that can be exacted by altering the game to prioritize safety over competition. Rules that make games safer sometimes make them worse, and the cases in which that’s true force us to find the point at which the reward of watching an undiminished game is truly outweighed by the risk of serious, debilitating injury.
Consider the home plate–collision rule that was put in place after Buster Posey‘s injury in 2011. It’s a mess. It’s a disaster. That rule not only hopelessly muddles the most exciting possible play in baseball—a close play at home plate on a throw from the outfield—but fails to really protect anyone. According to the rule, a runner can’t deviate from his pathway to the plate in order to run over the catcher, but nothing prevents him from running over a catcher who possesses the ball and blocks the plate. Meanwhile, the catcher is prohibited from blocking the plate unless and until he has the ball, unless receiving the ball requires him to move into the path of the runner. In other words, the only collisions the rule guarantees to eliminate are cheap shots that are years gone from baseball, anyway. For that protection, we’ve traded the clarity and the thrill of the moment when a play at the plate actually happens, because virtually every close play at home is now challenged, and the parsing of that rule is often tedious and many-layered.
In the case of plays at second base, a takeout-slide rule would be just as confusing. It would almost certainly require a runner to slide directly at a base, instead of at the player holding or awaiting the ball, but how would the directness of a slide be determined? Consider a sharply hit ball behind a runner, to the right side. On such a play, the fundamental way to do things is to take a trajectory toward the outside of second base, the better to turn and make for third if the grounder goes through. If the runner then sees a throw coming toward the shortstop, how much must he change his trajectory in order to avoid sliding into the fielder crossing the base? If a fielder catches the ball standing right over second base, does the runner have to slide differently so as not to slide right into a collision?
Concussions, of course, are horrible, and shouldn’t be treated as simple occupational hazards. Any and all measures that can be taken to minimize the risk of serious head injuries should be taken. What of other injuries, though? What’s the right degree of hand-wringing over the ever-present risk of a player tearing up his knee or ankle? How far should we go to prevent injuries that have, more or less, only competitive implications? In particular, how much should we be willing to alter baseball in order to stop players from suffering injuries from which full and permanent recoveries are possible in less than a year?
That last one is the crucial question to answer, and to suggest one, I offer pitchers. Baseball teams have done a fair bit to limit pitcher injuries. They’ve begun using loose pitch limits within starts and proactive innings limits within seasons. They’ve slowly added two or three arms to their pitching staffs to spread workloads around.
There’s a much longer list of actions teams haven’t taken. They haven’t asked their pitchers to stop throwing so hard. They haven’t retrained them to minimize injury risk at the expense of stuff and deception. They haven’t lowered the mound to reduce the stress of the kinetic chain of pitching. Teams want to prevent injuries, but they’re going only so far to do it. They aren’t willing to alter the craft to maximize health.
Injuries are part of baseball, and not every measure designed to minimize them is worthwhile. Head and back injuries, heart problems, and the like are lifetime issues that should be eliminated at almost all costs. In this day and age, though, with modern sports medicine able to restore so many players who suffer what were once career-ending injuries, and with players getting bigger and stronger and faster all the time (making injuries more likely at least as fast as rule changes can make them less likely), changing the course of baseball (even by a few degrees) in order to minimize acute injuries like the one Kang suffered is a bad deal.
Thank you for reading
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