SF to Posey: Don’t Block Plate. Twins to Mauer: Do.

Last summer, a home plate collision between Scott Cousins and Buster Posey ended Posey’s season and touched off a discussion about catching technique and team culture. Shortly after Posey’s injury, Oakland general manager Billy Beane ordered his catcher, Kurt Suzuki, not to block the plate:

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.

Earlier this week, Bruce Bochy told reporters that he had given the same order to Posey. I think it’s absolutely the right decision, and one that more teams should publicly make.

The trouble is that years of baseball culture are in the way. The tools of ignorance make catcher the only position where a full-body collision is permitted by the rules; and a backstop who is perceived as unwilling to stand his ground is one who will lose respect. That’s why the order has to come from above. Bruce Bochy acknowledged as much: “I certainly don’t want people to think he’s backing off on his own.” As I wrote at the time: “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… Blocking the plate is a lot less important than a catcher’s health. It’s time more teams started to treat it that way.”

Not all teams are following Oakland and San Francisco’s lead. In particular, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Twins GM Terry Ryan says his catcher, Joe Mauer, should have plateblocking in his portfolio.

There’s a certain way to take a guy out… There’s a certain way not to go after a guy. I think if you’re going to be a catcher, you have to be prepared to have a collision. It’s unfortunate what happened to Posey; no one wants to see that happen to anybody. But I think being a catcher, that’s part of the business.

Among catchers, opinions are mixed. Carlton Fisk told Peter Gammons that he learned his lesson after suffering a severe leg injury while blocking the plate in 1974. (Fisk declined to comment for this story.) According to a Gammons tweet, “He learned to swipe tag and went on to Cooperstown.” Braves catcher Brian McCann told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he changed his home plate technique after a collision put him on the disabled list in 2006. McCann said he would support a rule change, but his teammate — and fellow catcher — David Ross sounded more ambivalent. “Do I want to get run over at the plate? No, I’m not an idiot. But I also feel it’s part of what I signed up for.”

Last summer, Mike Matheny — whose career was ended by concussions sustained from foul tips — argued that plate collisions should be enforced within the game itself: “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.” That’s reminiscent of Terry Ryan’s assertion about the “way not to go after a guy,” which implies that there is a way to keep runners honest. To me, that doesn’t seem like a particularly effective deterrent.

ESPN’s Roy Johnson argues that team-based rules will ultimately be ineffective, because any strategy that appears to be against the players’ instincts will be overridden in the moment. Instead, he says, “Baseball should ban home-plate collisions.” Johnson may well be right about the ineffectiveness of team rules on home plate collisions. As Comcast SportsNet wrote on Sunday, Posey had already been ordered not to block the plate—in the summer of his rookie year in 2010—shortly after Carlos Santana suffered a season-ending injury.

Posey maintains that he wasn’t blocking the plate at the time, but rather that he was in front of the plate, ready to catch the ball. He’s technically correct. But if you watch the clip (especially the slow-motion replay from 0:35 to 0:39), the point is debatable. He wasn’t strictly on top of the plate, but Cousins didn’t have to go far out of his way. Moreover, Posey admits that his no-plate-blocking order was overwhelmed by instinct:

That’s the dicey part I guess, is figuring where you’ve got to be to somewhat avoid that… I have to be instinctual, that’s the way I play the game. I try to play off instincts. Some of those instincts come off your preparation and that’s why we’re going to put in a lot of work this spring.

I absolutely agree with Johnson that it would be best if home plate collisions could be regulated away. That’s what happened at second base when baseball passed the so-called “Hal McRae rule” in 1977 that required that runners slide into second — to the bag — to prevent the kind of collisions that McRae used to initiate. As Buck Martinez recalled to SportsNet:

In the 1977 playoffs McRae’s standing at first base, Freddie Patek’s at second, and [McRae] gets his attention and says, “You go around third because I’m going to knock Willie into left field.”

The next play was a double play ball, McRae hit Willie Randolph so hard he knocked him on the dirt by the grass and Freddie Patek came around to score. Willie Randolph picked up the ball and threw it at [McRae] in the dugout. That was the standard play. He was killing guys.

After that, the league outlawed the kind of play McRae was known for. But it doesn’t look like the league will take action on home plate collisions right now. Terry Ryan noted that the matter was discussed at the GM meetings, naming Joe Torre as one of the more vocal ex-catchers in attendance. Ryan declined to describe further the tenor of the meetings, but it seems fair to assume that if Posey’s and Santana’s injuries couldn’t prompt a rule change in the same offseason as a new collective bargaining agreement, then a rule change won’t happen any time soon.

In the meantime, I disagree with Johnson that team rules are counterproductive. I think they’re the best that can be done under the circumstances. A team that doesn’t want to lose its young star catcher to a season-ending injury has a major incentive not to wait for the league to act, as the Athletics and Giants have already done. Or they can cross their fingers and hope for the best, as the Twins are doing now. The former may be more effective. But it can’t absolutely prevent injury. After all, it didn’t for Posey.

Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
matt w
10 years ago

Umpires may need some reeducation on this point too. Jerry Meals’ excuse for the notorious nineteenth-inning blown call at the plate was that McKenry had made a “swipe tag attempt” at the runner and that he did not see the tag. If the A’s lose a game because an umpire won’t call an out on a swipe tag, you’ll hear the fans calling for Suzuki to block the plate faster than you can say “clavicle.”

I wonder if something similar is going on with the area call at second base. Second baseman don’t have to plant their foot on the bag to get the call on the double-play pivot. Is this partly because everyone knows that a second baseman who comes anywhere near the front of the bag is going to get Nishioka’d?

matt w
10 years ago
Reply to  Alex Remington

I’d forgotten that you brought up that angle yourself. Kudos.

That is an excellent question about the neighborhood play. I was spitballing there (further unfounded speculation: do they call it differently in Japan, and would that account for Nishioka being in the wrong place?), but it’d be great if someone did some real research on it. (Not me, though.)

10 years ago
Reply to  matt w

I think with a force play an umpire has to err on the side of the defender when the defender has the runner dead to rights in terms of timing. Obviously this is usually the case in a double play situation at second base. Where a tag is involved I think umpires unconsciously overcompensate and try to err on the side of the runner.

10 years ago
Reply to  Bill

To illustrate my point: http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20100702&content_id=11829666&vkey=news_mlb&fext=.jsp&c_id=mlb

Alfonso Marquez stands in line with the defender (Cuddyer) and the runner (Shoppach). Clearly a tag is applied, and the jersey even swooshes, but because Marquez didn’t position himself in a perpendicular angle, he couldn’t be 100% sure the tag was applied and so he erred on the side of the runner. Same thing on the McKenry play: Meals is almost in line with the runner and the defender, and so it was difficult or impossible for him to see the tag with 100% certainty.

10 years ago
Reply to  Bill

” The potential for umpire error shouldn’t be a determining factor for how catchers approach a play at the plate.”

I disagree. As the example cited, if it’s the bottom of the 9th or an extra inning game where one run ends it, the catcher is going to go with the high percentage play. A sweep tags opens the door for an umpire to make a call, blocking the plate nearly takes the ump out of it as a catcher who hangs onto the ball is going to get the call pretty much every time. You can argue that the catcher’s health is more important than winning a game, but if the player can all but remove the possibility of an umpire’s error why wouldn’t he?