MLB must do more to protect catchers

Baseball shouldn’t eliminate collisions at home plate.

But baseball should penalize unnecessary collisions at home plate.

The distinction is subtle, yet important. And it’s especially acute in light of the catastrophic left leg injury suffered by San Francisco Giants star catcher Buster Posey on Wednesday.

No player on the field is exposed to greater peril than the catcher. Foul tips, breaking balls in the dirt, and, yes, plays at the plate present varying degrees of danger. Catchers will tell you that it’s all part of their job.

Yet, as with football and head hits, it’s wise for Major League Baseball to take common-sense steps to protect those who wear the tools of ignorance.

MLB could accomplish this with a simple rule change: A runner should be called out if he initiates a collision with a catcher who is not blocking the plate.

If that rule were in effect Wednesday, Florida’s Scott Cousins would have been called out after initiating contact with Posey — rather than sliding — on a play at the plate in the Marlins’ 7-6, 12-inning win.

Posey was not in possession of the ball as Cousins arrived with what proved to be the winning run. Nor was Posey completely blocking the plate. Cousins had an alley to slide in safely, around the tag. He didn’t take it.

Instead, he lowered his right shoulder into Posey’s chest, toppling the reigning Rookie of the Year in a way that made his left ankle break beneath him.

Cousins made his decision so quickly, and so instinctively, that we should be careful not to demonize him for it. Cousins, 26, is a career .227 hitter who is currently doing all he can to remain in the big leagues as a reserve outfielder and left-handed pinch hitter. On that play, he was trying to help his team win an important game. We can empathize with that.

It wasn’t a "dirty" play. But it was a needless one. And it is MLB, not baserunners, who bear the greatest responsibility in avoiding those types of collisions going forward. It’s in that same spirit that Jeff Berry, Posey’s agent, has contacted MLB and the players’ union with "suggestions for the future" on such plays.

Baserunners should be told in spring training (and reminded during the year) that they must slide, as long as a sliver of the plate is available to them. The prospect of being called out if they don’t follow the rule would deter players from barreling into the catcher as Cousins did Wednesday.

Would the umpire make the right call on every occasion?

No, just like police offers can’t stop every motorist who speeds. But the existence of a speed limit, backed by the threat of penalties, makes our roadways safer. Similarly, the Slide If Possible rule would reduce the risk of serious injuries to catchers.

I will admit that many catchers don’t believe they need the help. Former Giants catcher Brian Johnson — who still works for the organization as a scout — saw a clip of Posey’s injury and told me Thursday that he thought the play was clean. Bruce Benedict, an All-Star catcher for the Atlanta Braves in the 1980s, said that good, hard plays at the plate are part of the game.

And baseball can’t legislate against the machismo of a player who wishes to imperil his body over one run or one victory. As Detroit Tigers catcher Alex Avila put it, "As a catcher, (if) I know that run’s going to matter, or make a difference whether we win or lose, I’m saying to myself, ‘Well, he’s got to get through me.’ That just comes with the territory."

But let’s look at it this way: Do Giants fans come to AT&T Park to see Posey drive in runs or block home plate?

Cleveland Indians team president Mark Shapiro told FOXSports.com on Thursday that some consideration of the NCAA rule on plays at the plate is "probably warranted." In college baseball, as long as the catcher has clear possession of the ball, a baserunner can be called out if he could have avoided a collision or actively attempted to dislodge the ball.

That doesn’t exactly describe Wednesday’s play in San Francisco, because Posey never had control of the ball. It’s worth noting that catchers are most vulnerable on throws from right field, because their backs are turned to the third-base line.

But let’s not forget that the runner has a job to do, as well. Consider the notation in section 7.06(b) of the Major League Baseball rulebook: "The catcher, without the ball in his possession, has no right to block the pathway of the runner attempting to score. The baseline belongs to the runner and the catcher should be there only when he is fielding a ball or when he already has the ball in his hand."

MLB doesn’t need to change that, but rather add an obvious corollary: The baseline indeed belongs to the runner, and, as long as it’s available, he must use it.

To be clear, I would feel differently if Posey had been blocking the plate. Like all catchers, he must know the risk in obstructing a major-league player at full speed: If the runner must plow through the catcher in order to score, then he absolutely has that right. But that wasn’t the case for Scott Cousins on Wednesday night. A slide would have been just as exciting and just as effective.

MLB should make that a rule, rather than a guideline.

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