It was back during the winter meetings when major league baseball made headlines by announcing their intention to eliminate home plate collisions. On Monday, MLB and the players’ association announced that a new rule will take effect in time for the 2014 season. The rule will be reviewed and possibly tweaked prior to the 2015 season.
The impetus to make a change is obvious, many teams count their catcher as one of their best players. In an otherwise non-contact sport, catchers get knocked off the field all too often. Baseball is a bit behind the curve. Other sports have been protecting exposed players for over a decade, like quarterbacks and kickers in football or goaltenders in hockey. Players like Buster Posey and Yadier Molina have been injured in recent seasons, as these two videos show (video one, video two).
The new rule can be read in its entirety here (twitter link). Umpires will now have two judgment calls to make on collision plays. Baserunners are disallowed from leaving a “direct line to the plate in order to initiate contact with the catcher.” Runners who break this rule will automatically be called out. This is not dissimilar from the double play rule that disallows baserunners from sliding out of the base path, so umpires shouldn’t have a hard time implementing the rule. Functionally, we should see catchers field the ball slightly in front of home plate, giving baserunners the opportunity to hook slide behind them rather than blind side them. The other component of the new rule is that the catcher cannot block the plate unless he is in possession of the ball. If he does so, the runner is automatically safe.
The MLB press release linked above states that the rule will “prevent the most egregious collisions.” In a sense that is true. The worst collisions are the ones like the Posey video where the ball and the player arrive at the same time. Under the old rule, the catcher is placed between a rock and a hard place where an out and a moderate case of whip lash is the friendliest outcome. With the new rule, Posey has to field the ball out of the base path, which may have prevented the injury.
Emphasis on “may.” As the Molina video demonstrates, the ball often arrives in time for the catcher to be set up in front of home plate. With this rule in place, maybe Molina fields the ball differently and isn’t hurt, but there are collisions each year where the ball beats the baserunner by enough time that the catcher can set up. There is no data to indicate that being fully prepared for a collision improves the health outcomes of the collision. Intuitively, the catcher can set up in the most effective manner to absorb a hit, but the advantages may be partially or completely mitigated by other factors.
What we do have data on is drunk and/or sleeping drivers. There are tragic headlines all the time like “Sleeping Driver Kills Two, Walks Out Unscathed.” Usually, when somebody runs into an immovable object while going 50 mph, all parties are going to get injured. With drunk or sleeping drivers, they don’t have the reaction time to tense up prior to a crash. That tension makes the body more brittle and prone to breaking bones and damaged connective tissue. Drunk and sleeping drivers do get injured frequently in their collisions, but they also walk away more often than otherwise expected.
Where this parlays back to catchers is that it’s not immediately obvious that a catcher prepared for a collision is much better off than a catcher that is unprepared. The prepared catcher is tensed and thus his body becomes more brittle. The unprepared catcher is (hypothetically) less tensed and thus more able to take the hit.
The new rule still allows collisions on plays where the catcher gets the ball in time to set up in front of the plate. This should reduce the number of full on collisions, but won’t eliminate them entirely. Maybe the most egregious collisions won’t happen, but the second most egregious still may. Fans who enjoy the collision play need not worry about it going extinct.
There is one last factor to keep in mind. The early supposition is that we’ll see more sliding plays at the plate. However, home plate has more in common with first base than second or third. The fastest way across the plate is running. While hook slides will probably go up, I also expect to see more glancing blows as runners try to scurry past the catcher. If my expectation proves accurate, we could be increasing injury risk to baserunners with the new rule. We’ll see how it shakes out and if any changes are implemented next offseason.
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