Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Home Plate Collisions

Over the weekend ESPN's Buster Olney wrote that a ban on collisions at home plate now seems inevitable, in what was the aftermath of two such bone-jarring encounters, the latter of which knocked Tigers receiver Alex Avila out of the game. I am prompted to write about this proposed change now because one of my good friends linked to a similar article via Facebook that prompted a somewhat heated discussion, of which I was very much a part. I come down very firmly in favor of the ban, for reasons which I would like to expound upon fully here.

1) It makes good business sense. Perhaps the most famous historical example of a collision at home plate is the final play of the 1970 All-Star Game, when Pete Rose bowled over Ray Fosse for the winning run, in the process giving Fosse a separated and fractured shoulder that never really healed properly. Fosse was 23 at the time, enjoying a .307/.361/.469 slash line in his first full season. Although he was an All-Star again the following year, he was never the same player, hitting .252/.301/.355 over the remaining nine seasons of his career. Although Baseball-Reference doesn't have complete salary information, it is unlikely that Fosse made more than $600,000 in his entire career, with a high salary of $75,000 in 1977. Ergo, like most players before free agency really developed, he was cheap and easily replaceable.

That is rather emphatically not the case anymore. Current fans might recall Buster Posey breaking his ankle blocking home plate early in the 2011 season, in just his 45th game of the year, an injury which cost him the rest of that season. Unfortunately for the Giants, Posey is one of the best and most valuable young players in all of baseball; in his three full seasons, he has won a Rookie of the Year, an MVP, a batting title, played in two All-Star Games, and served as the best hitter on two World Series champions (2010 and 2012), all before his twenty-seventh birthday. Posey made $8 million this year, the first of a $9-year, $164 million contract that will pay him up to $21.4 million each year through 2021. Even after adjusting for inflation, Posey represents an investment over seventy-one times greater than Fosse at their respective salary peaks. Oh, you don't think Fosse and Posey are comparable as players? Fine, how about Johnny Bench? Bench's highest salary was $400,000 in 1978, and even after inflation that works out to just under $1.5 million, or a little more than one fifteenth of Posey's upcoming payday. And Bench was the greatest catcher of all time!

If you make an investment that big, your natural instinct is obviously to protect it as much as possible. One option would be for the Giants to move Posey to first base or left field, where his bat would still play quite well compared to the rest of the league. But he offers the most value at his current position, where the number of comparable two-way studs can be counted on one hand with room left over, so the incentives lead toward leaving him behind the dish. The thirty everyday catchers in baseball this season averaged just under $4.2 million in salary, and they already play the most physically grueling position in the game before you account for collisions. Which leads to...

2) Home plate collisions are not a central element of the game. Fans, players, and coaches tend to decry rule changes because they are resistant to change in sports, particularly in baseball. This isn't a contact sport like football or hockey. Base runners don't run over catchers in every game, or even in most games. Such plays are incidental, and their elimination will not mean the end of baseball as we know it, or trigger a decline in the manliness of professional baseball players. Broadcasters might note the hypothetical rule change a few times throughout the season on plays where a collision might have otherwise occurred, but people generally do not go to baseball games to watch players barrel into one another. There are sports with pads for that. Along with that...

3) The play itself is not really an effective one. I can't find any easily searchable data on "how often a base runner is successful in knocking the ball away from the catcher when he trucks him" or any related search item, but in my own extensive experience watching professional baseball games I have probably seen the maneuver attempted perhaps two hundred times, and I would estimate the success ratio to be somewhere around ten percent. That's a low percentage even in a sport where the best players fail to get on base more often than not. If we want to use that number to calculate the value of running over the catcher, the math is pretty simple; it's worth a tenth of a run, which means the play is worth one hundredth of a win in statistical terms. Even if blowing up the catcher were successful half of the time, the play would only be worth one twentieth of a win. From the owners' perspective, weigh that one twentieth (or hundredth) against the possibility of losing a prime contributor for the rest of the season because he broke his ankle or tore his ACL or separated his shoulder. In Posey's case, it probably cost the Giants at least three wins and probably more like five or six, given that the two guys who wound up playing the most in his absence were the sub-replacement-level Eli Whiteside and Chris Stewart. The three-win swing would have landed the 2011 Giants one game out of the wild card spot, and the hypothetical ceiling of six wins would have locked up the wild card and perhaps won them the NL West, given that one or two of those wins could have come against the 94-win Arizona team that won the division. The lesson here is that one twentieth of a win is not worth the risk of three losses, let alone six.

3) Catcher pads are ineffectual as protective equipment. One argument I heard on the aforementioned Facebook thread was that running over catchers was okay "because they wear padding." Um, have you seen what they wear? The tools of ignorance were designed to protect catchers against foul tips from a five-ounce baseball, not hits from a charging rhinoceros of an opposing base runner. Okay, the runners aren't padded either, but it is much easier to give a blow than to receive one, and runners almost always lead with the elbow or shoulder (some of them could teach Redskins safety Brandon Meriwether a thing or two about proper hard hitting form). Anyway, a catcher's chest protector is maybe an inch thick and made of a lightweight (but strong) foam, which is in no way comparable to the hard plastic armor that football players wear. Besides, it doesn't cover the side of their body (where they most often get hit) or their backs (where they land). The only real armor that catchers wear covers their lower legs, where they never really get plowed.

4) It isn't a play that is taught. Do you think any team at any level actually practices dislodging the ball from the catcher in plate collisions? Absolutely not. For starters, such an attempt is already banned at all amateur levels (although the catcher can still block the plate, at least in college and high school). For another, who wants to risk the injuries in practice, when good catchers are already hard to come by? What then happens is a play that both sides are relative novices at, with all of the inherent risks therein. Occasionally a runner will see that he's out by a mile and not even try to score, just hurl himself into the catcher with wild-limbed abandon. It ain't pretty.

5) Concussion awareness is making this an issue. This is undoubtedly the smallest reason for a rule change, at least from baseball's perspective. If Major League Baseball was doing its utmost to protect players against concussions, better helmets would be mandated for all batters and pitchers would be wearing some kind of helmet, period. The helmets that most players wear are only guaranteed against pitches up to 75 miles per hour, and very few players have voluntarily switched to newer, stronger helmets (David Wright is one). Still, as Olney noted in his article, both Avila and Boston catcher David Ross dealt with concussion issues in 2013, and getting rid of an unnecessary play would be an easy way for the owners to help mitigate that risk.

So what is the solution? I think that it's to make the rules at home plate the same as at any other base; namely that the runner must have a clear avenue to the plate and that he cannot intentionally run into the catcher in an effort to knock the ball loose. Some teams (such as Oakland) already tell their catchers to protect themselves rather than blocking the plate. Make that a league-wide rule, and we should start to see better and smarter base running, with fewer lumbering giants trying to take an extra base they have no chance at getting only in the faint hope that they can knock the ball away by indulging their inner linebacker. We might also see starting catchers play more games on average if they're not subject to chronic or catastrophic injuries inflicted by other very large men. Let's hope that the MLB rules committee deals with this issue promptly in the offseason, and that it leads to some better and safer baseball in 2014.