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Home Plate Collisions — Baseball or Rugby?

2011 May 26
by Brian Goff

Warning: Readers who think about sports rules and practices solely as “that’s the way it has been so that’s the way it should be” probably won’t like this post.

The collision between Florida Marlin Scott Cousins and SF Giants Catcher Busty Posey severely injured Posey’s ankle and likely ended his season.  The famous 1970 All-Star game collision between Pete Rose and Ray Fosse broke Fosse’s collarbone and, arguably, diminished the rest of his career.  Why does MLB promote violent home plate collisions by permitting catchers to block the plate and/or players to barrel into them? Most discussions of the issue revolve around limiting runners, but it’s really the blocking of the plate or the expectation of it that often initiates the violence.  In the Cousins-Posey case, Posey does not really block the plate, but one might argue that Cousins expects that scenario, and at high speed, last second adjustments aren’t practical.

From an economic standpoint, there are two essential issues;  i)  “property rights” — who has claim to a base or pathway; ii)  the objective of the game (the product being offered) and what constraints/property rights maximize the quality of this product.

MLB rules such as    Section 2  “Interference” and “Obstruction” and   Section 7 “Runner” establish rights/restrictions for runners and fielders.  Fielders have claim to the base path or base in cases of fielding balls.  That makes a lot of sense from a “least cost avoidance” principle.  Runners have a perspective to see what’s happening (fielder, ball) and avoid the second baseman, for instance, while the second baseman cannot easily see the runner when looking at the ball.  On the other hand, when a fielder is not fielding the ball, runners have the right to the base path and base.  In fact, the note to Rule 7.06 specifically outlaws a catcher blocking home plate without the ball.  Once safely to a base, rights lay with the runner — the 1B cannot just push the runner off and tag him out (unless it’s the 1991 World Series with Kent Hrbek pushing Ron Gant).    Within these polar cases, gray areas surface depending on timing and interpretation of players who are “receiving a thrown ball.”

Beyond these timing and interpretation uncertainties, technology makes the same “rights” work out very differently.  The world of electronic file sharing made this crystal clear.  We don’t often think of “technology” in the same way with baseball but the longstanding difference in the equipment for catchers and other fielders changes the way established rights work out in practice.  Second basemen and shortstops don’t frequently jam their foot, shin, knees, or entire bodies between second base and an incoming runner in an explicit effort to prevent the runner from being able to reach the bag.  Why?  Pretty obvious.  Without protective equipment, such tactics would be fast track to a short career.  Catchers, with the same property rights, behave differently in blocking home plate because of the protection afforded by their equipment.   The catcher’s actions force the runner into a game-theoretic dilemma:  try to get to the plate with a direct slide and run a sizable risk of stopping at the catcher’s shin-guard, try to go around the catcher and risk missing home plate and giving the catcher more time to catch and tag, or try to bull the catcher over.

We don’t observe the same dilemma at second base, and the game of baseball seems no worse for it.  Would the game be less enjoyable if the rules prohibited catchers from blocking the plate and tag plays at the plate looked like they do at second base?  This speaks to the second point at issue — the objective of the game and the product offered to consumers.  I don’t watch MLB games in hopes of seeing collisions.  Football, hockey, rugby,  boxing exist for that purpose.  (Even in those sports, certain collisions become problematic and constrained. ) I enjoy tag plays at second or home, but I really don’t enjoy home plate bullfights.  Maybe some fans do, but my guess is that doesn’t capture the average baseball fan.

In sum, I’m offering both a cost-based reason (serious injuries) and a product quality reason (making home plate tag plays conform to plays at other bases) for constraining the practice of blocking home plate.

Of course, I’m not holding my breath.  The blocking of home plate is not only tolerated but actively encouraged and those who don’t are dissed.  Sandy Alomar Jr., an all-star catcher of slight frame, rarely blocked the plate, choosing to “swipe” tag as fielders at other bases do, and received a lot of criticism from ex-player analysts who thought him soft.  If these collisions are great and part of the game, why not have catchers tackle would-be runners without the ball and hold them until the ball arrives?  Why not just put Prince Fielder in front of first base and dare guys to run over him?

11 Responses
  1. May 26, 2011

    There’s one other difference between a play at home plate and a play at 2nd base – the runner going to 2nd has to slow down so as not to overrun the base. If a runner were to go full speed into 2nd and run over the 2B, his momentum would likely carry him past the bag, where he would be vulnerable to being tagged out but an alert fielder backing up the play and picking up the ball. Tagging a runner going full speed is more difficult than one that is slowing down, giving the catcher extra incentive to block the plate that a second baseman would not have.

    Not saying anything here was wrong, just offering additional explanation for why home is treated differently.

  2. Jimmy permalink
    May 26, 2011

    I agree with much of this. However, a few of other factors likely play into the catcher’s traditional role of blocking the plate:

    1. Unlike at second base, a runner is not required to touch and then remain on home plate. Just a transitory touch is enough to plate the run and make a post touch tag irrelevant. Not so at second (or third). Because of this, the player approaching the plate is moving much faster since he doesn’t have to stop. It is more difficult to tag a runner with a full head of steam versus a runner who has to regulate his speed to remain on the bag at all points of the play. One way to improve your chances of tagging a runner is to be directly between where he is and where he wants to go.

    2. The catcher is likely larger, or at least as large as the runner, while second basemen and shortstops are generally some of the smallest players on the field. This makes a collision relatively less risky for the catcher than the middle infielder attempting to stop the same runner.

    3. The catcher is the quintessential blue collar worker. He plays the most physically demanding everyday position and is involved in every play. This role almost demands a physical player willing to put his body on the line for his team.

    4. Stopping a player from touching home plate is much more important than stopping them from touching second base. A player standing on second is only a potential run while a player at home is, well, home.

    To me the question is how many collisions result in serious injury for either party? For that matter, how many collisions with serious injuries happen per game played? With each team playing 162 games a season, the relative risk of a serious injury during a play at the plate is miniscule versus the chance of serious injury in football or hockey. That doesn’t mean that baseball shouldn’t consider writing the play out of the rulebook but home plate collision injuries seem like small potatoes in the universe of pro sports injuries.

  3. Thom permalink
    May 27, 2011

    Your headline is falsely impugning Rugby. Rugby doesn’t feature collsions like this – that’s American Football. In rugby you aren’t allowed to tackle a ball-carier without also wrapping your arms around them. This prevents “spearing” style tackles and is one of the primary reasons why far fewer rugby players have major spinal injuries than American Football players. You also aren’t allowed to slide into another player feet first aiming your metal spikes at their legs or faces. At a minimum you’d be yellow-carded and sin-binned for 10 minutes or more likely be immediately sent off.

    I think the clearer argument against those plays is that owners who are on the hook for catcher’s salaries should probably start advising those catchers not to block the plate because the potential payback – possibly stopping one run in one game in 162-game season is far out-weighed by the potential loss of the catcher in a serious, or minor, injury for multiple games and possibly an entire season. Simple math would show continuing to block the plate is a bad investment in almost every situation, with the possible exceptions being playoff qualifiers and playoff games.

  4. May 27, 2011

    I’ve seen the Pete Rose and Ray Fosse collision played over and over again. So, to some degree, I do think it something people look forward to home plate collisions as part of the game. Additionally, I think the number of injures from plate collisions in baseball is far less and far less severe than from:

    1. Pitcher overuse
    2. Outfielder collision
    3. Hit Batters
    4. Foul balls/broken bats hitting players/fans
    5. Alcohol at the ballpark

  5. Greg permalink
    May 27, 2011

    Nice analysis, Brian. Now how do you plan to enforce it? Simply calling obstruction could help, but it may not be enough of a cost to change much. The penalty would merely be that the runner is safe at home, which we can assume would have happened anyway if the catcher had not blocked the plate (otherwise why bother?). Therefore, there is no cost (other than risking a broken leg) to blocking the plate subtly and hoping you get away with it. Setting up just as the ball gets there rather than laying foundation when the ball is still in the OF may be the only net effect. And if both players are moving, the collisions might actually be worse.
    A further rambling: The disparity between applying obstruction rules at other bases and at home has always bothered me, no time more than Game 3 of the 2003 ALDS (I’m an A’s fan, so my whine is a biased one). A’s 3B Eric Chavez was called for obstruction when he was in the third base line to actively receive a throw back behind a runner. The runner was awarded home and gave the Red Sox an early lead. A few innings later, Sox C Jason Varitek tripped Eric Byrnes as he approached the plate well ahead of the throw but because Varitek was a catcher “blocking the plate,”no violation was called. Byrnes was tagged out.

  6. Dan permalink
    May 29, 2011

    Coaching my son’s baseball teams from grades 3 through 12, where collisions are not allowed as was blocking the plate without the ball, we taught catchers to give the runners the third base half of the plate and when they caught the ball to take it away. If the runner beat the throw they had a target to slide in safely. If the throw beat the runner, the catcher could block the slide and make the tag.

    By outlawing collisions and blocking the plate without the ball we avoided injuries and let the catchers concentrate on making the catch and tag just like a second baseman or shortstop. The biggest danger was runners sliding into the shin guards and tearing up a knee but fortunately we never had that happen (but I can still remember Scipio Spinks ending his career sliding into Johnny Bench back in 1972).

    MLB has cut down on the number of takeout slides at second to break up double plays. If they enforce the rule about blocking the plate without the ball and treating the catcher like any other fielder this issue would disappear. Before now managers and catchers, including Posey, haven’t complained about any of this so maybe now is as good a time as any for MLB do something on their own. Players can easily adapt to enforcing the rules. Let a runner get called out and suspended for running into the catcher and watch Prince Fielder practice his hook slide. After a catcher blocks the plate without the ball and the runner is called safe without touching the plate teams will see the folly of it.

  7. Guy permalink
    May 30, 2011

    I find it difficult to understand how anyone could argue that the game of baseball is better for allowing injuries like Posey’s (which is exactly what one does when one argues that baseball rules/tradition allow runners to “take out” catchers at the plate). Such an argument explicitly also means that the game is better with an injured Posey than with a healthy Posey. How the hell can the game be better with Buster Posey injured — or with any player injured just so one runner at one point in a baseball game should score a run? Every team has myriad opportunities during every game to score a run. At no time should a team’s failure to do so trump a player’s health and right to play without fear of debilitating, or career-ending, injury. Ever.

  8. June 3, 2011

    Agree with Guy’s comment above. In order to justify a rule that (needlessly) allows for injuries that may be very costly to a team — and to a player’s career — there is a higher burden of proof. One must be able to show that the product is materially better because that injury risk is allowed, and I don’t think that bar has been cleared, not even close in fact, by anyone commenting here or elsewhere.

    As Brian writes, Sandy Alomar Jr. made this “rule change” more or less unilaterally, and I don’t think any Indians fan would tell you that the game suffered, had less integrity or was less watchable, over the course of his 19-year career. At the same time, I think most in the industry will tell you that Alomar carries a lot of respect around the game and someday will be a big-league manager.

  9. Phil permalink
    June 4, 2011

    Jason Kendall offered an interesting perspective on blocking the plate. He mentions the value of keeping the plate blocked, blocking the plate with the proper technique, and the enforcement of unwritten rules.

    http://www.kansascity.com/2011/06/03/2925428/diamond-decorum-its-all-about.html

  10. Jason permalink
    June 8, 2011

    I just saw a play at third base where the third baseman completely blocked the base, and it look like the runner had beaten the throw. The runner was tagged, and the play was allowed to stand. Disgusting. Umpires are now letting other fielders get away with this stuff, too. This occurred at the Phillies vs. Dodger’s game. The Dodgers had pulled off an impressive two base advance by the runner during a groundout, and it looked like the runner should have been safe.

  11. Jason permalink
    June 8, 2011

    Another comment: fielders should not be allowed to block the base even if they have the ball, in my arrogant opinion. They should only be allowed to block the base if they have the ball between the runner and the base ready for the tag. A fielder should not be allowed to stretch for an off-line throw and simultaneously block the runner before they pull around for that tag. That’s just simply unfair and asking for violence.

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