Collision Course

When not weighing in on the Dodgers/Cardinals moral battle for the future of America, home plate collisions seem to be the topic du jour among baseball writers and fans. Game Five of the ALCS brought this discussion to a head, as concussion-suffering catcher David Ross trucked Tigers catcher (and fellow concussion sufferer) Alex Avila at home plate. Ross went home on the contact play and was out by a significant margin. He buried his shoulder into Avila but was still out, as you can see above.

It wasn’t the only time two objects collided at home plate last night. Miguel Cabrera moseyed his way around third on a second inning single but Jonny Gomes threw him out by…a lot. Cabrera didn’t quite run through Ross, the Red Sox backstop, but he did deliver a solid shot in the process of getting tagged out.

MLB: ALCS-Boston Red Sox at Detroit Tigers

Baseball is not immune from the concussion pall cast over contact sports like hockey and football, but the nature of the game invites fewer opportunities for grievous bodily harm. Despite the realtive rarity of these collisions, it seems simply enough to remove them from the game altogether, further reducing the opportunity for injury. If only it was so simple.

For reference, we can spin through the advanced defensive play logs on Baseball Reference. BR tracks how many “tag” plays catchers participate in on a yearly basis. Yadier Molina made 11 tagged put outs in 2013, Matt Wieters had only 8 despite catching the most innings of any C in baseball. Salvy Perez caught fewer innings than those two but Royals outfielders feature the best rated throwing arms in baseball by UZR’s ARM rating (also scoring well in the DRS arm score as a group.) As a result of strong arms funnelling more chances his way, Perez had 19 tag plays at the plate this year.

Interesting to note that Buster Posey, who has been instructed not to block the plate by Giants management, recorded 14 outs via tag during his time as a catcher. Random variation but this first blush doesn’t suggest runners treated Posey like a turnstile timidly hiding on the edge of the home plate cut out.

Fewer than 20 plays in more than 1200 innings doesn’t appear like an epidemic in dire need of addressing. But the nature of these collisions makes every one a threat to end somebody’s career. The difficulty in policing this issue requires a delicate two-pronged approach. To enforce a no-crash rule, as is in play across many levels of amateur baseball, seems to ignore the stakes and context of baseball on the professional level. If a no-crash rule is instituted, it requires an additional “no blocking the plate” provision, entering into the murky world of subjective calls – giving umpires the exact kind of autonomy many no touch proponents ordinarily rail against.

Here’s the thing with Kenny’s argument (and he’s not alone in this line of thinking) – home plate is NOT like “any other base.” Home plate is 100% different than any other base, in that the runner does not need to possess it at any time. To score safely, the runner must only touch home plate. He is free to approach the base at full speed and continue on his merry way to the dugout after grazing the corner of the plate for a fleeting second. It changes the entire dynamic, making an easy solution impossible.

It isn’t about masculinity and it isn’t about the sanctity of the game. It’s about finding a fair way to legislate safety without compromising the competitive balance that makes sport compelling in the first place. Nobody wants former catchers to spend their senior years addled with brain injury-related complications but these plays constitute a small, if spectacular and memorable, percentage of possible baseball outcomes.

It isn’t so simple to just wave a magic wand and wish home plate collisions away. It takes more than stating in a loud voice “don’t do that any more, we know best.” The onus belongs on the catchers, if it belongs anywhere. It isn’t as though runners round third base looking to smash somebody like an eager NFL special teamer on crackback patrol. The culture of baseball and its overriding professionalism suppresses this at the game’s highest level. Catchers getting themselves out of harm’s way will go a long to protecting their own long term health without neutering the game.

And if concussions are the goal, remember the mantra you read in countless articles and studies about football injuries – it isn’t the big hits, it is the repeated traumas. Baseballs to the mask are just as damaging to the brain as a large human men to the shoulder. Something to consider before the great white knighting of plays at the plate gets into overdrive.