Please, No “Posey Rule” For Plays at the Plate

(published May 30, 2011)

Tim McCarver told a FOX primetime audience Saturday night, “I would not want a son or grandson of mine to grow up to be a catcher.”

McCarver was responding to the play that’s the talk of baseball this week, Scott Cousins’s shoulder slam on Buster Posey at home plate Wednesday night.  As shown several hundred times on SportsCenter, MLB Tonight, and every website with a video uplink, the collision resulted in a broken fibula and several damaged ligaments for Posey, and the winning run for Florida.

Everyone agrees it’s a shame that as exciting an offensive player as Posey will miss the remainder of the season, and that the injuries, bad as they are, could have been even worse. No one thought Cousins’s actions were improper within the rules, written or unwritten.

Under the Official Rules of Baseball, in fact, the efforts of Posey and generations of catchers to block the plate are more nearly wrong than any attempt to bowl them over.  Obstruction is defined in the rules as the act of a fielder who, while not in possession of the ball and not in the act of fielding the ball, impedes the progress of any runner.

For many years, the definition of “fielding the ball” explicitly applied to a batted ball, not one that has been thrown.  A “Comment” has been since added, however:  If a fielder is about to receive a thrown ball and if the ball is in flight directly toward and near enough to the fielder so he must occupy his position to receive the ball he may be considered “in the act of fielding a ball.”  It is entirely up to the judgment of the umpire as to whether a fielder is in the act of fielding a ball.

I’m not sure this lets catchers off the hook.  A first baseman must be in contact with the bag when receiving a throw in order to record an out; a catcher who puts himself or his leg in the way of a runner coming from third is choosing to do so to increase his chances of making a play.  “Must” he occupy that particular position?  How close does the ball have to be when he puts himself there?

Regardless of these possible de jure distinctions, umpires have allowed catchers to impede the runner de facto for as long as there’s been baseball.  McCarver says he spoke last season to Jim Leyland, Detroit manager and a member of Bud Selig’s Special Committee on On-Field Matters, about changing the rules so that a runner may not go at a catcher with his upper body first (McCarver actually said “head first” on the air, but Cousins hit Posey with his shoulder; McCarver was speaking by analogy to the NFL’s crackdown on vicious helmet hits).  If a runner does so, he is out, the run does not score, and other runners cannot advance.

Do I have to mention that McCarver was primarily a catcher for his whole career?  So was Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who is opposed to such a change.  “I think there’s a code that’s alive in baseball of what is acceptable,” he told reporters.  “You’re trying to score a run, the catcher’s trying to stop you from scoring a run.  It’s obvious when somebody does something that’s not necessary.”

Scioscia, who was legendary in his ability to block the plate, also serves on Selig’s special committee.  There are good reasons for him to block this particular initiative.

To begin with, the McCarver proposal wouldn’t prevent injuries.  Cleveland’s Carlos Santana suffered a damaged knee ligament on an awkward semi-slide by Ryan Kalish of the Red Sox last August – an even more gruesome bit of video than the Posey play.

Eliminating the body block by the runner – which usually results in bruises rather than breaks – will force the runners to target the catcher’s legs.  What else is the runner going to do if the catcher plants himself with his left foot at the third-base corner of home plate?  Is he supposed to tiptoe around the potential tag?  Is that what baseball fans want to see on a close play at the plate in a tight game?  I’m so sorry, I see you have a throw on the way.  I’ll take the long route.

Catching is tough.  The squatting is tough on the knees and back.  Foul tips can hit delicate body parts like fingers and throat.  The batter’s follow-through can smack you low or high.  Injuries get you sooner or later.  Collisions are a very occasional fact of the catcher’s life – and if a player’s too important to your offense to lose, maybe he shouldn’t be behind the plate, or at least shouldn’t block it.  Trading a star for an out –even an out that wins a game — is a lousy swap.

McCarver does have one important thing right.  I wouldn’t want a son or grandson of mine to be a catcher, either.







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