Why can runners hit catchers—and only catchers?

Dale from Bainbridge Island, Wash., writes:

Question for a Hardball Times editor:

This question is sparked by the Josh Harrision-Yadier Molina collision, but it’s something I have talked about before. If a home-plate collision is “just good, clean, hard baseball” (as it’s typically termed), why aren’t there good, clean, hard baseball plays at other bases?

For example, later in the game, Mike McKenry hit one into the gap in left-center. Matt Holliday cut it off and threw to second in plenty of time to get McKenry. McKenry simply slid into the tag. Why didn’t he execute a good, clean, hard baseball play, lower his shoulder and knock Skip Schmaker into short left field?

(The score was 8-0 at the time, which might have been one reason, but even had it been 0-0, McKenry still would have slid into the tag rather than trying to knock the ball loose as is fairly routine at home plate.)

I should tell you that the writer is not a baseball neophyte. He’s Dale Bye, former sports editor of the Kansas City Star, former managing editor of The Sporting News, a baseball history buff and a longtime friend. Oh, and he’s a Cardinals fan (could you guess?).

I threw the question out to The Hardball Times community of writers and editors, many of whom like nothing better than an excuse to discuss baseball in the midst of a midweek workday. It sparked a lively discussion, excerpted here:

—Joe Distelheim

Joe Distelheim: Of course, there’s debate (Buster Posey, last year) about whether running into the catcher should be allowed or at least should be subject to new tests. I’m sure the traditional distinction is safety-based, figuring the catcher is better-protected.

Steve Treder: Well, there used to be “good, clean, hard baseball” collisions at other bases. Hal McRae was famous for them, as were lots of other baserunners in that era and before. But since then, the leagues have cracked down on those plays, simply because of the injury risk to infielders. They’re still old school regarding the play at the plate, presumably because the catcher is not only better protected in terms of his gear but also is more likely to see the play before him and be less likely to be off-balance than an infielder.

Dale Bye: I believe the McRae collisions were to break up double plays, not to jar the ball loose on tag plays. Maybe back in the Ty Cobb days there were tag-play collisions at other bases, but I don’t recall any from the ’50s on. In fact, my impression from the earlier days is that high spikes was the norm, not collisions. Wasn’t Ducky Medwick a high-spikes player?

Ed DeCaria
: Two related questions: Would there be collisions at the plate if the catcher didn’t first attempt to block it? Would there be frequent collisions at other bases (particularly first base) if the fielder DID routinely attempt to block it?

Dale Bye: Catchers do sometimes try to stonewall the plate, but third basemen sometimes—I don’t think it’s often—stick their foot in front of the bag so that the sliding runner hits their foot, not the bag. Same at second sometimes on stolen-base attempts. This infrequently works only because infielders know the runner will slide in, not barrel in.

Greg Simons: You can run through home plate (assuming you touch it along the way) and be safe. Over-run the other bases, and you can be tagged out.

Steve Treder: Exactly.

Bruce Markusen:
To pick up on Steve’s point, players like McRae, Don Baylor, and Frank Robinson used to execute what was called a “rolling block” on second basemen and shortstops on double play attempts. The rolling block is now outlawed. And while catchers are allowed to block the path to the plate, technically they are only supposed to do so when they already have the ball. But many catchers “cheat” and start blocking the plate before the ball arrives in their glove.

Ed DeCaria:
Thanks, Bruce. But what I still don’t understand is why, in an otherwise contact-less game (hit-by-pitches excepted) with a half dozen other flavors of interference, is it still within the rules for the most heavily armored player on the field to force incoming runners to have to go painfully through him or cleverly around him to reach their destination? It’s akin to allowing golfers to hit cleanly off the tee, independently play the fairway and rough, but once they get on the green, their opponent is allowed to dump a pile of tees in front of the hole.

Why not just make it illegal to block the plate and suspension-worthy to knock down a catcher who isn’t blocking the plate (which may already be the case, I don’t know)? I’m curious—do any of you really like plate collisions? They’ve always seemed very un-baseball-like to me, but I’m guessing that others may like them for one reason or another.

Brad Johnson: I enjoy a good, “clean” plate collision. As a kid, I used to love to watch Pete Incaviglia destroy catchers. As a grown-up pseudo-analyst, it seems like it’s past time to remove this from the sport. Hell, even football doesn’t allow most heavy contact these days … it’s bad business.

Mental Health and the CBA
A particular bit of language in the latest CBA could have negative consequences for some players.

Steve Treder: I’ve never had a particular problem with it, inasmuch as it’s been a part of the sport since forever (thus everyone can expect it). But I agree, it’s the 21st century and probably time for MLB to disallow it.

Bruce Markusen:
Why is there a differentiation between home plate and the three bases? Part of it has to do with the catcher having equipment that provides special protection, but I think part of it involves the “value” of home plate. Plays at the plate are essentially more important than plays at other bases. If the runner is safe at home, not only is an out not recorded, but a run scores; if the runner is out, the potential run is wiped out. It’s the most valuable piece of real estate on the infield.

Dale Bye:
The consensus seems to be that the catcher has an advantage because of the tools of ignorance. However, I’m not sure that’s true in a concussion situation. The catcher is more or less stationary. My understanding of concussions is that in most cases it’s not the initial hit that causes the concussions—Harrison’s shoulder into Molina’s noggin. Instead, it’s the whiplash effect that sends Molina’s brain sloshing across to violently slam into the other side of his skull.

The gear probably does protect catchers from things like broken collarbones and cracked ribs and the like. Maybe from broken jaws or orbital socket fractures, too, if the catcher leaves on his mask. But to some extent, a catcher is a bit like a quarterback, standing in there to be pelted by an incoming human projectile. It also seems to me that far more catchers get injured in such collisions than baserunners.

At other bases, players execute fancy hook slides or slides in which they go in head-first and try to snag the base on their way by or other such deals. But an additional problem at the plate is that the catcher doesn’t have a glove that’s as adept at holding onto the ball for a sweep tag.

So, readers: Let’s keep the discussion going. Please feel free to use the comments section below.

References & Resources
The Official Baseball Rules make clear that a runner isn’t allowed to interfere with a fielder attempting to make a play on a batted ball, or with a thrown ball. But they don’t deal specifically with this question of infield bases vs. home plate.


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Jacob Rolling Rothberg
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Jacob Rolling Rothberg

Millionaire athlete has to take contact as rare occurrence on the job. Won’t somebody please think of the children!

bucdaddy
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bucdaddy

Apropos of not much, I just want it on the record:

Yadi: 5-foot-11, 225 pounds*
J-Hay: 5-foot-8, 190 pounds*

For the Cardinals complainers who think the mean old Pirates should pick on someone their own size: OK, but who do you have who’s that short?

*—SOURCE: bb-ref

David P Stokes
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David P Stokes

This was actually touched on yesterday in the comments to the “Half-baked ideas, Vol 1”.  Basically, it already is against the rules for the catcher to block the plate when he doesn’t have the ball.  Just enforce that rule, and you’ll see a lot less collisions at the plate.

hopbitters
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hopbitters

Anybody know the injury rates on plays at the plate vs other catcher and non-catcher situations? I have my suspicions, but they’re purely based on my admittedly biased memory.

I’m in agreement with Bruce that the value of home plate plays a role in the scenario. As well it should. I don’t think anybody wants to see players get injured, but we are talking about a violent sport here. That may not necessarily be a result of direct and intentional player contact, but there are probably 150-200 players currently on the DL with every manner of injury, predominantly from routine play.

ignacious
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ignacious

J-Hay left his feet to make the hit on Yadi, plus the fact the outside part of the plate was wide open speaks volumes on the play.
He clearly chose what he was going to do and we all saw the results

Jacob Rolling Rothberg
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Jacob Rolling Rothberg

This is a dumb argument based mostly on Cardinals fans trying to make it seem that they aren’t bitching about one their players getting hurt in a normal play, but are concerned about the safety, welfare, and fairness of the game of baseball writ large. I don’t see any of them coming on here to pillory Jake Westbrook for endangering Josh Harrison by hitting him with a pitched ball for doing what any other player would do in that situation.

If it was Salvador Perez or Yorvit Torrealba or John Jaso who got blown up, nobody would bat an eyelash.

Paul G.
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Paul G.
Sliding into a man equipped with body armor who is acting as a wall is not exactly the safest of plays either.  At least not for the runner.  Derek Jeter’s shoulder would like to have a talk. I tend to agree that enforcing the current rule that the catcher cannot block the plate – not even a little bit – without the ball would reduce collisions significantly.  Not only would this avoid contact, it greatly reduces the most dangerous contact of a half-distracted catcher getting blindsided while trying to catch the ball.  If a catcher gets run over blocking the… Read more »
Tom B
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Tom B

I notice it’s often a bench player or a AAA player just called up that plows the catcher during meaningless games.  A few years ago Cervelli had his arm broken in ST.  Really?!  This is where we need collisions in the game?

Alot of the same excuses I see on this page are used by hockey fans to justify fighting in that sport.  Not a fan of that either.

No reason for allowing collisions in baseball anymore.

Pitchers should also suffer a more harsh penalty for hit batters.  Go straight to second base, do not pass go, do not collect $200. smile

jj
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jj
It all really should depend on when the catcher gets the ball and where.  If the catcher is blocking the plate before he receives the ball and the player has to go thru him then the player should be called safe.  If the catcher gets the ball then goes in for the tag which would mean is can block the plate for the tag (just as a firstbaseman stands on the baseline to tag out a batter when the ball rolls up the line)If a runner runs the catcher over in this instance he is called out on interference.  It… Read more »
Pochucker
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Pochucker

Im old and old school. I understand its all about the money now. But I was trained by my father who played in the 30s-50s and he taught me if the ball is there before you dont slide run through base—needless to say I had more than few altercations on field.

John Q.
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John Q.
I think it bears noting, amongst all the “it only happens if the catcher blocks the plate” justifications, that this premise simply isn’t true (unless your definition of “blocking the plate” is so expansive as to include any catcher having the audacity of standing anywhere within several feet of the vicinity of the plate).  Consider, for example, Buster Posey’s season-ending injury—Posey was well away from the plate in the direction of the mound, but Cousins nevertheless came barreling in looking for contact and left the basepath to end Posey’s season—and most simply called that a “good, clean baseball play.” I’m… Read more »
Duke
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Duke

One change that can (and I believe should) be made is that the runner must avoid hitting the catcher’s head.  With what we know about concussions now this seems reasonable; even football does it now!

Plasmaj
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Plasmaj

If any other fielder did what a catcher does in terms of blocking the plate, the runner would be ruled automatically safe due to interference. The onus is to change what the catcher is allowed to do, not the runner

Fenderbelly
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Fenderbelly
I recently read this idea (or something like it) somewhere but I can not remember where… sorry for the lack of attribution. Greg Simon’s comment above made me think – there is one other base that you can run through and not be tagged out – first. Also, all plays leading TO first are force outs. It would be an extreme solution, but I can see an argument for making all plays at home force outs as well. Currently the runner can overrun the bag so they have no incentive to slide, thus more collisions. I don’t think that I… Read more »
Sparky11
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Sparky11

MLB really should adopt the highschool/college “malicious contact” rule….franchise players such as the teams starting catcher should be protected along the lines that the NFL rules protect QB’s….the only reason it wont happen is because it makes good TV highlights and some knuckle head fans are there like in NASCAR and NHL cause they want to see the fights and crashes….

RMR
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RMR
Baseball is not better for plays like Pete Rose ending a Fosse’s career and Buster Posey losing most of his age 24 season. I for one would love to see a rule change so that if the fielder blocks the plate with any part of his body other than his glove-hand arm, the runner would be awarded the base.  And on the flip side, if the base-runner purposefully leaves/alters his path to the base to interfere with the defender, he is automatically out. This isn’t football.  Waiting for the catcher to make the catch and the swipe tag would be… Read more »
mike
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mike

Running over the catcher is not allowed at any level college and below.  No child is ever taught this and it is only learned by watching the pro’s do it. Its not hard to slide.  Just slide. An umpire can rule that an infielder has interfered with the play, he can easily make the same ruling with a catcher.  If you dont have the ball, get the hell out of the way.

Sparky11
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Sparky11

minor correction to the comment by Plasmaj…the runner would be safe due to obstruction not interference….also note in high-school and college ball hitting the catcher (or any fielder) is called “malicious contact” and it does not matter if the fielder is obstructing or not…the runner is out and ejected…

hopbitters
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hopbitters

I’m starting to wonder if we’re just drawing generation lines here.

southside mike
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southside mike
As a former catcher, I enjoyed the occasional collision at the plate.  I was well taught to position myself correctly and always leave a small portion of the plate exposed.  Should the runner decide (erroneously) to run me down and not slide, I curled down, presented a well-placed shoulder to the sternum, while protecting the ball and mitt waist high.  I then proceeded to lift the mitt, ball, and player into the air by straitening up, and pushing the arms (with glove & ball) outward and upward.  After observing a few collisions the opposition learned to slide for the open… Read more »
john ziccardi
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john ziccardi

Throwing a blow at another player is the real issue. Baserunners throwing blows at the catcher should be banned. The elbow, the two-fisted pump shot at the catcher, the shoulder to the body that has seriously injured so many catchers, similar acts are not baseball plays but assault moves; they aren’t attempts to dislodge the ball from the glove, they’re body blows thrown at the catcher. Ban these attempts to injure from baseball.

bucdaddy
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bucdaddy
RMR, Rose didn’t end Fosse’s career. Fosse played 120 games that year and put up an OPS+ of 124, so he seems to have been doing pretty well after the hit. Well, let’s take a look. In 1969 Fosse hit 172/230/250, which is terrible. In 1970, he had a great first half, hitting 312/366/527. That’s an HoF three months there. In 1970, he had a decent second half but didn’t hit with the power he showed in the first half: 297/353/361. I’d still take that out of my catcher. Wouldn’t you? Now the five years after that were much more… Read more »
rennie stennett
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rennie stennett

please, stop the insanity. the game was meant to be played hard, please let the athletes decide what their limits are.

molina set up and put himself in harm’s way, and in this case he got the out but paid for the consequences. it’s not so different than the CF that breaks a wrist diving for a ball, or the 3B that tears a knee running into the railing on a foul ball.

nobody wants to see guys get hurt, but please let them play hard. it’s the only way to play the game.

sparky 11
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sparky 11

yoooo…Rennie…. nobody wants the game played with any less determination or effort…your examples of other aggressive plays dont even relate to the situation of one player going out of the way to drill another…Im sure you would feel different if Manny Sanguillen got cheap shotted and never played in ‘71

rennie stennett
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rennie stennett
sparky, i appriciate the manny S. reference b but it’s your examples that don’t hit the mark. one, molina (no concussion) missed 2 games—not a whole season. two, molina himself said afterward it was a clean play, not a cheap shot as you infer. three, harrison did not go out of his way to drill molina, molina blocked the plate and set himself up for a collision. good ole’buster posey is now instructed by the mngmt to no longer block the plate. if molina’s handler’s feel the same way, maybe he’ll follow suit unless it’s dee gordon rounding 3rd… but… Read more »
Bad Bill
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Bad Bill
I’m as much of an advocate for “tradition” in baseball as anyone, but arguing for continuing to allow big collisions at home because they’re “traditionial” overlooks one very important point: the players are a great deal larger, and probably faster, than when that “tradition” was established, yet the ability of the human body, notably the brain, to take a hit hasn’t changed much.  bucdaddy’s point above has some merit, in that Yadier Molina is built like a tank and can absorb some punishment.  If Harrison had laid a comparable hit on the average vintage-1940 catcher, who was 35 or 40… Read more »
Bad Bill
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Bad Bill

Oops.  I repeatedly wrote “Hintz” when I meant “Kratz,” specifically 255-pound Erik Kratz who was on the receiving end of that thunderous hit by Chipper.  Read that again: 255 pounds.  That is literally 50% greater than many of the catchers circa 1940, in the “good old days” when men were men and catchers blocked the plate with impunity.

mando3b
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mando3b
Great discussion here. I think, in the end, that the most important points are: you can over-run the plate with impunity; if you touch the plate, you score; and the fielder’s technique for making an out there is different than at the other bases; tradition does count: there are ingrained expectations on all sides. That being said, I agree that people need to take a hard look at the ramifications of having collisions at the plate, and make some serious adjustments before we have something worse than the Buster Posey play. Simply enforcing the no-blocking-without-the-ball rule would be a great… Read more »
bucdaddy
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bucdaddy
Philip, I follow what you’re saying, but: a) You’re working off a three-month sample that indicates greatness. Lots of guys do that and fall off a cliff after. I’m not sure why you limited yourself to comparisons only with other catchers. b) As always, correlation does not (necessarily) equal causation. I guess we can quibble over the meaning of “lengthy.” Look, I’m not saying you’re wrong, either. Just noting some reasons you might/could be. I could be wrong too. Just, kind of my larger point is that people today, when they hear about the Rose/Fosse collision, might get the impression… Read more »
Philip
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Philip
Don’t mean to pick on bucdaddy, but… bucdaddy said… ‘‘RMR, Rose didn’t end Fosse’s career.’‘ True enough… Then again, neither did Graig Nettles end Bill Lee’s career either. But Lee was never the same pitcher afterward (and that Bosox-Yankee bench-clearer had all started over a collision at the plate when Lou Piniella tried to knock the ball out of Carlton Fisk’s hand). bucdaddy said… ‘‘Well, let’s take a look. In 1969 Fosse hit 172/230/250, which is terrible.’‘ Fosse was 22; he had 16 prior big-league at-bats prior to 1969. He had only 116 at-bats in 1969. Gabby Harnett’s rookie year… Read more »
Philip
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Philip

Clarifying:
Fosse’s CS% (% of runners thrown out) in 1970 was 55%. The league average was 39%. Three years later he was throwing runners out at that clip but otherwise was basically at or below the league average.

Philip
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Philip
bucdaddy, You’re absolutely correct that Pete Rose didn’t end Ray Fosse’s career. It happened over 40 years ago and many people likely do have that mistaken impression. You’re right to point that out. I limited the study to catchers only since Fosse was one, the wear-and-tear on catchers is greater than for any other position player and the sample size included all in his age group since 1901 and therefore was fairly large. But whether using Fosse’s pre-AS break stats and extrapolating them for a full-season or even using his full 1970 stats without even adjusting for the injurt, either… Read more »
hopbitters
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hopbitters

Just to throw some more wood on the fire, Fosse had injuries to both hands (in separate incidents), I believe in the very next season. I honestly don’t remember the severity or cause of them (I’m thinking the one was from a brawl, but my memory is pretty fuzzy).

Cobb
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Cobb
—If any other fielder did what a catcher does in terms of blocking the plate, the runner would be ruled automatically safe due to obstruction. The onus is to change what the catcher is allowed to do, not the runner— That would indeed fix it.  Many catchers know the timing is short, they must move before they know for certain they have control of the ball.  It is indeed a choice made by the catcher that forces a response by the runner, despite what the numerous ‘my catcher got hurt’ posters might claim.  It is a part of the game… Read more »
Roy in Omaha
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Roy in Omaha
As somebody who saw every bit of Hal McRae’s career I can say that I never saw him run into anyone with any intention other than of breaking up a double play. He was far from the only Royal doing it, either. I am O.K with the catcher getting run into because the umpires unilaterally do not enforce the rules where they are concerned, anyway. It’s is against the rules for the catcher to block home plate. The rules specifically state this, even. Why this is allowed to continue, I don’t know. If they can do this with impunity then… Read more »
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