The argument that railroading the catcher at homeplate represents the clean, hard-nosed side of baseball was bandied about by just about every sports outlet after Buster Posey was hurt on Wednesday night. “Giants fans only complain because it’s their phenomenal young catcher,” goes the argument. “Why change a rule that has been around for more than 100 years?” Perhaps other teams’ fans assumed that our self-righteous bellyaching was coming from a suddenly smug bandwagon championship fanbase. Correction baseball fans: we have always been smug and most of us have been here for awhile (sarcasm font).
Meanwhile, every Giants fan I know wants to string up Scott Cousins by his toes and beat him with his USF degree. Several of the more disgusting comments suggested retaliatory bean-balls at Marlins’ hitters Wednesday afternoon. Most of the others have simply been crying and rocking in a corner.
These two sides, the traditionalists and the progressive pitchfork mob need to relax.
First, can both sides please agree that the appeal to tradition is a logical fallacy? Tell me why collisions at the plate are important and why that rule needs to be in today’s game, independent of the fact that it has since the beginning. Does railroading a catcher, blocking or not blocking the plate, with or without the ball, add to the game of baseball, make it more enjoyable for fans, and demonstrate the athletic skill of players? More importantly, does the rule itself fall in line with the goal of the game, which is to score more runs than the opposing team?
Second, does anyone want to argue that Buster Posey is not one of the premier young talents of the game? Would a Rookie of the Year Award help? How about catching one of the best pitching staffs in baseball on the way to a World Series? I read some comments about how Posey “isn’t the next Babe Ruth or anything,” but as far as I understand baseball, he isn’t much of a slouch either. Maybe both sides can agree that young players with a clean image improve all of baseball, in the same manner Jason Heyward or Stephen Strausburg also sparked our collective interest. Protecting young players is no more important than protecting all players equally, but when a player is the victim of a bad situation, it should be up to MLB to address any concerns. It’s good for business to keep your young players healthy, after all.
I simply do not believe that every meeting between a catcher and runner at homeplate should be a blank check to railroad the catcher. It may add to the excitement level of the crowd, but it does not necessarily demonstrate the type of athleticism that the rest of baseball showcases–agility, bat speed, hand-eye coordination, etc. If the goal of the runner is to touch homeplate, that should be his intention as soon as he leaves third. That singular goal should drive any decision the runner makes, whether that is to take an outside route on a slide or to collide with a blocking catcher. Observe that Posey was not blocking the third base path toward homeplate, but standing in the left-handed batter’s box with his left leg in front of homeplate. The outside route to the plate was open from the moment Cousins left third and remained open as Posey swung around to apply a tag. The trajectory of Cousins’ body does not appear to have been toward the plate, but toward Posey.
This is the aspect of the rule that needs to be changed. I agree that a collision would be necessary if a catcher were blocking the third base path toward homeplate and had established himself as an impediment to the runner. Yet in a situation in which the path to the plate was unobstructed, the runner’s obligation is toward homeplate. The result, if this revised rule had been in place Wednesday night, would be an out on runner interference.
There is plenty of precedence for this sort of rule in other sports, including baseball. In football, if a defender makes a play on the receiver rather than toward the ball, the call is pass interference. In soccer, a slide tackle is clean if the tackling player touches the ball and not only the defending player. In baseball, a runner must be making an attempt on the bag (and not outside of the basepath toward the fielder) in order to break-up a double play. Before this rule was in place, a runner could spike a shortstop and make zero attempt at the bag (see: Ty Cobb). I don’t see a lot of traditionalist fans calling for blood at second base anymore.
The intent of the runner needs to be toward homeplate, not the catcher. Just as an umpire can call a wayward runner out at second for interference, the same should be true at the plate. Ruling illegal all contact on a catcher is unrealistic; catching a ball and blocking homeplate by itself cannot constitute an out. Yet the injuries Posey sustained occurred because he was not set and was not blocking the plate. It was his unpreparedness for collision–in the sense he could not plant his feet or brace for impact–that seemed to contribute most to this accident. Slightly changing the rule to allow the catcher more awareness of impact would allow him to sustain less injury, while not completely eliminating collisions at the plate.