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.

Comments (16)

  1. Very realistic view. I agree 100%

  2. Excellent piece

  3. Haven’t put a lot of thought into this, so maybe someone could explain why it wouldnt work. But cant we just change it so home plate IS like any other base. Have the umpire decide that the player possesses home plate before making the call? and also of course make it against the rules to block home plate.

    • What happens when you get a Billy Hamilton coming home behind a Bengie Molina? They are both going to want to ‘possess’ home plate at the same time.

      • if there isnt a close play then a safe call can quickly be made with just a touch of the base. it would be at the discretion of the umpire to decide . when was the last time there was 2 close plays at the plate simultaneously?

  4. Great article Drew.

    I thought the “turning point” in last night’s game was the fact that the Miggy collision came before the Ross collision. Yes, Miggy gave Ross a shot, but he still slowed down, and if Ross had run over Avila before that play, I don’t think Miggy would’ve slowed down at all. I have to say, I was very surprised that Ross (a catcher) ran over Avila.

  5. Collisions at the plate are exciting hard nose awesome baseball, as are breaking up the double play and the occasional donnybrooke.
    They are also infrequent enough that they aren’t a “serious” issue.
    Looking at the play above there was no contact to the head and no malice by Ross, he even tapped Avila on the way back to the dugout.
    Torri Hunter has the best quote when it comes to concussions

  6. Baseball players should all be strapped. And by that I mean carrying guns. It would increase the safety of the game.

  7. The only thing in the article I disagree with is the statement that players don’t look for collisions. The same culture that supports the “old-time” baseball and policing of certain types of fun also encourages aggressive base running and collisions. And not all collisions are caused by the setup of home plate. Sometimes the runner just initiates contact that isn’t even necessary. Sometimes the runner is clearly beaten and knows running into the catcher full-bore is the only way to score (like D. Ross, who was dead to rights). In that instance, he should not have the option to knock the other player down just because he and/or his third base coach is myopic. He should just be out. He doesn’t have as much right to that base (or the touch required to score even). But there is no higher badge of manhood in baseball than knocking the ball loose from the catcher to score a run (or conversely in holding on to the ball despite the concussive force of the runner). That’s the root problem. But I agree, in the close plays, the ones where the ball and runner arrive nearly simultaneously, it’s pretty tough to police and you don’t want people trying to stop ON home plate and possess it and thereby sacrifice the opportunity to score.

  8. It’s all well and good to tell your catcher to stand aside and try a swipe tag for a meaningless series against the Astros in July, but don’t you want him doing everything within his power to prevent that run from scoring in a close World Series game? And when push comes to shove on a bang-bang play, right now that means getting down and blocking out the runner.

    If baseball is really serious it wouldn’t be all that difficult to edit the interference rule to state that ANY forcible contact initiated by the runner which prevents a play from being made constitutes interference. (Of course this would also mean that anytime a guy goes into second spikes up the second baseman doesn’t have to actually catch the ball, just show that the runner prevented him from catching it.) I don’t particularly want them to do that, but it’s probably the most comprehensive solution.

    • So basically what I’m saying would apply lower level amateur rules to the pros. From Wikipedia:

      “Also under LL and NFHS rules only, all runners are required to attempt to avoid collisions. If a runner fails to do so, he is guilty of malicious contact, which is one kind of offensive interference. Malicious contact carries the additional penalty of ejection from the game. In contrast, in professional and higher amateur baseball, violent collisions can occur without any interference (or obstruction), especially when a fielder is receiving a thrown ball near a base where a runner is trying to reach. Any collision that occurs in this situation is not interference, because the fielder’s action is in regard to a thrown ball. As long as such a runner’s actions are related to his attempt to reach the base, he cannot be called for interference.”

  9. Here is the only thing I can think of that would get rid of most collisions. You place a line 10 feet from the plate and once the runner crosses it, it becomes a force play at home. Then home plate becomes like first base and the catcher would field it like a first baseman.

    However, I think this is a terrible idea and would take a lot of exciting plays away. Suicide squeezes wouldn’t be as effective, outfield assists would be easier, stealing home becomes hopeless. It would change a lot of exciting close plays at home into what would be, basically, an equivalent of an infield ground out.

  10. I do not know what is so difficult about this. If the runner makes contact with the catcher in an effort to dislodge the ball or interfere with his ability to catch the ball, he should be called out and ejected.

    If the catcher does not allow the runner a lane to home plate, then the runner is safe, period.

    Make the ump’s decision reviewable by the replay system they are instituting next year.

    Done.

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