Billy Beane to Kurt Suzuki: Don’t Get Hurt

Over the past week and a half, the reaction to Buster Posey’s season-ending injury produced a lot of sanctimony, as pundits have gone back and forth between deploring that one of baseball’s brightest young stars would miss the year, and deploring the hypocrisy that previous catcher injuries have not brought about debate about a rules chance. Amidst all the blather and debate about rules, though, Billy Beane’s Athletics have suggested a team-oriented way forward. Beane effectively ordered his catcher, Kurt Suzuki, to avoid injury:

I said to him, “I don’t want you planting yourself in front of the plate waiting to get creamed. You’re an Athletic catcher — be athletic. … I don’t want to lose you for six months.”

To me, this seemed like a remarkable public admission: I can’t remember another baseball executive telling the press that he instructed a player to try to prioritize avoiding injury. In a blog post yesterday, Buster Olney suggested that the greatest impact of Beane’s move may the fact that he’s providing public cover to Suzuki. Suzuki publicly agreed with the plan and described his future approach to plays at the plate in strategic terms, as he explained to the San Jose Mercury-News: “If I have a feeling it’s going to be a bang-bang play, and I’m putting myself in a vulnerable position, I’m not going to stand in front of [the runner]… If I think he’s going to slide, then I’ll take my chances.” Now that Beane has gone to the press, more players will be able to save face in baseball’s macho culture while avoiding injury, making it seem like sound baseball strategy rather than selfishness or cowardice — more like Rogers Hornsby and less like Roger Dorn.

Changing the culture is more important, and more effective, than changing the rules. On Baseball Tonight, Bobby Valentine disputed the notion that no one has ever done this before, saying that he gave similar instructions to Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez when he managed them, and that his father-in-law Ralph Branca told him that Roy Campanella never used to block the plate, either. “This is a common-sense thing. This isn’t revolutionary,” Valentine said. Beane’s innovation is not asking his player not to get hurt, it’s going to the press. Olney talked to players who admitted to him, off the record, that they “hope that they get the same cover from their respective bosses,” because otherwise they wouldn’t feel comfortable with how their teammates perceived them. “I’m not really in position to ask for it, because of the other 24 sets of eyes in the room,” one player told him. And the macho culture really does have a lot to do with it. As Olney explains:

There is an expectation, among the non-catchers, that catchers stand in front of the plate and get blasted to save a run. Beane and other general managers and managers strongly disagree, because of the incredible imbalance in the risk/reward equation.

With Beane having broken the ice, more teams will be able to give their players similar instructions. The debate about a rules change may continue for a long time, but in the meantime, Beane is once again ahead of the pack. It’s hard to imagine a rules change being more effective than a team voluntarily changing its policy; rules changes can take years to be implemented, and, because every rules change is greeted by loophole-seeking competition, rules changes don’t always have the intended effect.

In the meantime, every team should realize what the Giants already have: trying to prevent a single run on a bang-bang play isn’t worth Carlos Santana being out for the rest of the 2010 season, or Ryan Doumit being out for June 2011. Even if the catcher loses fractions of a second by going for a sweep tag rather than trying to block the plate, significantly reducing the chance of injury is well worth a slight increase in the chance that the runner scores. Perhaps the most heartbreaking thing about the Posey collision is that Scott Cousins would have scored anyway: bone-breaking as it was, the collision didn’t knock the ball loose, because Posey never caught it cleanly in the first place.

Instructing catchers to stop blocking the plate will not prevent all catcher injury. Mike Matheny’s career-ending concussion in 2006 came as a result of a series of foul tips, not a home plate collision, and foul tips will continue to present an injury risk to catchers as long as we continue to have human beings behind the plate instead of robots. Matheny is against a rules change to protect catchers, and he suggests that the problem be solved through baseball culture, but his solution is predicated on the unhelpful notion of retaliation: “You just put a mark in the column that that kid took a run at a catcher. To me, as a catcher, I know the next time I get the ball I’m going to stick it to him.” As Dan Moore (DanUp of Viva El Birdos) points out: “Matheny proposes that the right way to deal with contact at home plate is to cause more contact at home plate, which should somehow end the problem of too much contact at home plate.”

Beane and Suzuki are taking the right approach, and Matheny’s response shows exactly why. The only way that baseball culture will be able to tolerate a change like this is if it is predicated as a strategic move to win ballgames. Otherwise, old baseball people like Matheny will simply say that the way to settle disputes is by escalating conflict. Once that starts to happen, turning baserunners into Hatfields and backstops into McCoys, we’ll have a lot more Busters getting busted at the plate. Blocking the plate is a lot less important than a catcher’s health. It’s time more teams started to treat it that way.

Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times.

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Paul B
11 years ago

Isn’t it already against the rules for a catcher to block the plate without having the ball?

I always thought that was a rule, but umpires never ever enforced it.

Greg H
11 years ago
Reply to  Paul B

Obstruction occurs when a fielder while not in possession of the ball and not in the act of fielding the ball impedes the progress of the runner. There is no prohibition against “camping out” in front of the base.

11 years ago
Reply to  Greg H

But if you are “camping out” between home plate and third base without the ball, then you are, by the very definition you just provided, obstructing the runner.

11 years ago
Reply to  Greg H

Except that if you are receiving a throw from another fielder you are technically “fielding” the ball.