Home-plate collisions are among the most dangerous plays in baseball. The Indians experienced this firsthand recently when they lost backup catcher Lou Marson to the 15-day disabled list with a cervical strain after Tampa Bay’s Desmond Jennings collided with him in the Tribe’s second series of the season. Following the game, Jennings told reporters that he knew his only chance to score would be to try to hit Marson with enough force to make him drop the ball.
It sounds like a rough play, and it was. Despite hanging on to the ball to record the out, the Tribe catcher lost his helmet as he was run over by Jennings, and hit his head on the ground hard enough to warrant being replaced by Carlos Santana the following inning. Once the initial concerns over concussions and more serious injuries subsided, the incident became just another example among the many that are used in the argument to ban collisions at the plate. Proponents of the rule change cite everyone from Buster Posey and Scott Cousins to Ray Fosse and Pete Rose. Now Marson and Jennings are also a part of that debate.
While MLB officials should ideally do whatever they can to improve the safety of the game, this isn’t an area where they can easily institute a rule. To make things fair for both the offensive and defensive teams, the league would need to enforce two rules: the runner cannot initiate a collision, and the catcher cannot block the plate. It sounds simple, but in reality it would be difficult to enforce.
One of the biggest supporters of the ban is Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, who refers to his personal experience as proof that something needs to be done. His career behind the plate was cut short by an extensive amount of concussions, and now as a manager, he watches Yadier Molina take those same risks. Molina, who is in the second year of a five-year $75 million contract extension, is one of the most skilled defenders in the game but has already experienced several collisions of his own. Matheny believes that MLB must take action to prevent catchers from facing risks that no other position players face.
To look at it from a business standpoint rather than a personal one, catchers like Molina, Posey and Santana are not just defending the plate, they’re also batting in the heart of the order. It’s hard to risk a catcher’s health over one run when a lengthy DL stint could deplete the offense and potentially ruin a chance at the playoffs, and Molina’s salary alone is enough to make Matheny worry about eliminating injury risks. Posey, who suffered a broken leg and torn ligaments in his ankle after a season-ending collision with Scott Cousins in 2011, was the NL Rookie of the Year when the Giants won the World Series in 2010, and the NL MVP when they won again last season. The Giants will never know if they could have made it to the World Series three times in a row if their catcher had not been injured, and it’s rapidly become one of the most heated points of this debate.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, former manager and catcher Joe Torre has stated that he always considered the injuries he sustained behind the plate to be just a part of the game and doesn’t believe it would be feasible or necessary to make a rule change. As MLB’s Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations, he has no plans to try to eliminate collisions.
Tribe manager Terry Francona is more aligned with Torre’s thoughts than Matheny’s. During spring training, he spoke out against the proposed change. He believes that such a rule would increase the risk of injury for baserunners, because they could get hurt if the catcher gets in their way while trying to field the throw. By the current MLB guidelines, catchers are not permitted to block the plate without possession of the ball. This rule is not enforced as strictly as it could be, because if the catcher is in the basepath before he has the ball, he almost always receives it before the runner makes contact.
This is what happened with Marson in Tampa Bay, and last year, Molina was injured in a similar play. He waited on top of the plate to receive the throw from right field before shifting directly into the baseline. Almost simultaneously, the Pirates’ Josh Harrison crashed into him. Harrison had every reason to run over the catcher up until the last second, and once Molina had the ball, he had every right to stand in Harrison’s way. Both catchers said afterwards that they were clean plays, and by baseball’s current standards, they are.
One argument frequently made by people opposed to the collisions is that runners at any other base are not permitted to plow into defenders, and other defenders cannot block their respective bases. Why should home plate be any different? Obviously, the biggest difference between second base and home plate is that a runner who is called safe at second might be meaningless to the game’s outcome, while a runner who crosses home plate could mean a loss for the team—especially when the lineup is not an offensive powerhouse. Another major reason is the inconsistency of throws to the plate compared to other bases. Ideally, the throw home would be perfect every time, and the catcher would tag the runner out while standing to the side of the plate. But how many times does that actually play out the way the defense would like it to? It’s a long throw from the outfield to home, and quite frequently it takes the catcher into the path of the runner.
If runners and catchers both knew they could not make intentional contact without repercussions from MLB, it would add to the multitude of decisions both players need to make once the ball is put in play. For example, if a poor throw brought the catcher directly in between the runner and home plate, what would happen? The runner could attempt a late slide, but the Indians know that’s not always the best option. Santana’s 2010 season ended abruptly after Boston’s Ryan Kalish tried to slide hard into home to evade a tag and took out Santana’s legs instead, tearing his LCL.
If the runner and catcher made contact, would one player or the other be automatically penalized? If the umpire can use his discretion to decide which player was at fault, doesn’t that open the door for runners to intentionally collide with a catcher and attempt to claim it was accidental, or catchers to say they had no choice but to block the plate if they wanted to catch the ball? Pitchers aren’t allowed to purposely hit batters, but there’s rarely any way to prove intent, so it happens. It seems like this could be a very similar situation. Accidents would happen and there would need to be exceptions to the rule, but there is no clear way to determine who deserves those exceptions.
However, there is a simple solution for managers who don’t want—or can’t afford—to risk losing their catchers to injury: order them not to block the plate. Teams are capable of telling their players to concede the run rather than take a chance on injury. Someone that the team relies on to provide significant offense can continue to try to swipe and tag players from far beyond the basepath. In fact, the Giants had this exact conversation with Buster Posey. His value to the team is not in a few runs saved behind the plate, but in his career .867 OPS and the 20+ home runs he’ll hit every season. More runs are likely to score on catchers who don’t block the plate, but it certainly didn’t hurt the world-champion Giants last season. No one in MLB is mandating that players sacrifice themselves to prevent one run. It’s ultimately up to the coaches and the player themselves to choose whether it’s worth it or not.
Beginning in the minor leagues, catchers are taught about blocking the plate. There is a correct way to do it, and if they have good instincts and a little luck, they can be successful at it most of the time. When Posey was hurt, most former catchers agreed that he was at a much higher risk because of the way he was standing when Cousins hit him. It seems trivial, but it can be the difference between a serious injury and a minor one. One of the best things teams can do to improve safety is to make sure that their catchers know how to protect themselves. There would still be accidental collisions, or players who choose to ignore it, but banning collisions is not the answer.
Should MLB ban home plate collisions?
- No (70%, 7 Votes)
- Yes (30%, 3 Votes)
Total Voters: 10