I’m not here to crucify Matt Holliday. By the letter of the law, the play was legal, and we see more egregious examples of take-out slides where the runner is actually nowhere near the base every year. Holliday went right through the bag, but because he began the slide so late, he created a pretty violent collision that eventually forced Scutaro from the game. For his part, he seems remorseful, noting after the game that he wishes he had slid sooner, and his actions don’t suggest an intent to injure. Holliday did what the rulebook allows in order to help his team avoid an out in playoff game. But that’s the problem.
Right now, Major League Baseball does nothing to incentivize runners to avoid collisions with prone defenders, either at second base or at home plate. There is no penalty for creating contact, no cost to the offending team who put their opponents health in danger. When faced with a risk-reward situation that offers only reward, the decision is obvious, and that decision directly leads to a subset of Major League players being asked to sacrifice their physical well being because “it’s how the game has always been played.”
Tradition is all fine and good, but it shouldn’t halt progress. And protecting players from collisions that they have no chance to avoid is progress.
The question now should be more about how MLB should change the incentives for the baserunner rather than whether this is something worth doing or not. To continue to ask guys like Scutaro to accept as part of their jobs that a 235 pound former football player is going to barrel into his knees while he looks the other way is simply beyond the pale. There is no reason why second baseman and catchers should have to put their health on the line in a sport that is simply not about physical contact between individuals. In football, maybe this sort of thing is unavoidable, and everyone goes into it with their eyes open about the possibilities because of the structure of the sport. In baseball, this simply isn’t a necessary play.
While there is no perfect solution, I do think there’s one simple rule change that the league could make that would drastically reduce the amount of collisions that we see.
Any baserunner who initiates contact with a defender is automatically ejected from the game. Any player ejected more than once for initiating contact in one season faces a mandatory five game suspension.
Would Holliday have traded the chance to save an out for his team if it meant that he didn’t get to play the rest of the game? Probably not, and I doubt managers would advocate for this trade-off. If runners knew that sliding into the defender was going to get them thrown out, there would be very few scenarios in which they’d even consider making that exchange. It wouldn’t be a perfect solution, as the umpire would have to be the judge of when the player crossed the line and initiated contact, but we already anoint umpires as judges of when players crossed the line and deserve ejection, so this already falls under their normal responsibilities.
You’d want umpires to err on the side of no ejection in a play where it isn’t obvious that the runner was attempting to initiate contact rater than reach the base safely, but the threat of ejection should be enough to discourage many of these types of plays that occur now. The goal isn’t to simply remove all incidental contact that comes as a result of the runner and the fielder both hanging out in the same area. Some of that is natural, and you can train the umpires to allow a modicum of normal contact that results from a player sliding into second base or home plate. The ejections could be saved for plays like last night’s, where it’s clear that the slide had nothing to do with attempting to reach base safely and everything to do with reducing Marco Scutaro‘s ability to throw the ball to first base.
Beyond just reducing the injury risks for second baseman and catchers, the rule would also protect the runners themselves from future retaliation. It might not happen in this series, because it would be too obvious and could result in an ejection — the threat of ejection on display — that harmed the Giants chances of advancing in the playoffs, but at some point in the future, it’s pretty likely that a Giants pitcher is going to buzz Matt Holliday with a fastball. Because, right now, there’s no penalty in place for what he did, so the players have to police themselves. The entire act of beaning-as-retribution is meant to disincentivize plays like that to begin with, but is only seen as necessary because the league isn’t doing anything to dissuade Holliday from making that slide to begin with.
Take it out of the player’s hands. Rather than an eye-for-an-eye, let’s just put a system in place that convinces baserunners to stop doing this. There’s no reason Marco Scutaro should be asked to put his knees at risk every time there’s a double play opportunity. Baseball is not a contact sport, and the players aren’t wearing pads. Let’s not just keep sacrificing the health of some of the players in the game simply because that’s how the game has always been played.