Friday, May 27, 2011

Buster Posey & The Collision Rule Debate

Late Wednesday night I lay in bed, hanging on grimly as the home team Giants fought back from a 6-2 deficit against the visiting Florida Marlins. In the 9th inning, we got four runs in the last frame to tie it. Things couldn't have looked brighter. After having lost the first game to the fish, it looked as if we were going to extend our string of come-from-behind one-run wins during the last home-stand.

But it was not to be. We had men on second base twice, but couldn't get the big hit to finish it. Then, in the 12th inning, with a man on second, the Marlins batter hit a short fly ball to right-center, and Schierholtz (who has an arm like a cross-bow) caught the ball and fired home. The runner--Scott Cousins, a rookie trying to make the team after a stellar college career--was steaming in from third. Posey, who had had a history of hard knocks this season, crouched about two feet in front of home plate. Cousins, sensing correctly that the throw was going to beat him, decided to try to knock the ball out of Posey's glove, instead of sliding to the right in an attempt to evade the tag. He aimed straight for Posey's left shoulder. Posey wasn't able to handle the throw, as it turned out, but the impact of Cousins on Posey was catastrophic. Posey was spun 45 degrees to his left, and as his left leg twisted under him, he fell backwards, bending his left leg and ankle in a gruesome angle against the ground. Writhing in pain and pounding the turf, Posey lay in a heap. Cousins, realizing partly what had happened, reached over and touched Posey on the side, but then quickly walked away, not wanting to instigate a brawl.

As all the baseball world knows, Posey was the Rookie of the Year in 2010, leading the Giants to a world title. His debut--much like Lincecum's in 2007, was much heralded, and he didn't disappoint, moving right in to take over the catcher's position, and hitting a ton in his first full year.

The severity of his injury is still not completely known, but we do know that he broke one of the bones in his lower leg, and that there was "tearing" of ligaments in the ankle. Broken bones usually heal fairly quickly, and don't pose any long term problems for professional athletes. But ligaments are a different matter. Injuries to the knee or ankle (or foot) can take much longer to properly heal, and may have residual affects for years after. Depending upon the success of the surgery, and the rehabilitation regimen, it might take years before Posey could resume the squat position, which is what catchers do, if indeed he's ever able to go back to it.

There had been discussions about putting Posey at 1st or 3rd base, in order to relieve some of the wear and tear on his body--a problem which all catchers face--and lengthen his career. At this point, it doesn't appear that Posey has the power and punch of a Johnny Bench, or a Mike Piazza, but he was clearly going to have All Star quality for years to come. Mature, motivated, skilled--he had all the qualities and talent you need to make it in the big leagues. Posey's injuries could severely curtail his major league career, and almost certainly will shorten it. In immediate terms, he's lost for this season, and quite likely won't be up to full capacity for at least two years.

Could this injury have been avoided, and is it time, after a century of play, to institute new rules governing the impact of close plays at home plate, as has been done for close plays on the bases? Was Cousins intentionally attempting to cause injury to Posey? Did Cousins choose to hit Posey, in preference to sliding? Was that a correct choice, or one which ought to be forbidden by rule? Should players be fined for deliberately spearing catchers on these plays?

Traditionally, the collisions at second base and home have been a routine part of the game. Ty Cobb was notorious for sliding "high" into second base, raising his spikes high into the air, attempting to wound or intimidate second basemen or shortstops attempting to make a play on him. That practice has been curtailed somewhat by changes in rule, which prevent runners from going in with spikes first. But they still are permitted to slide in such a way as to impede the fielder, and injuries at second still happen from time to time. In plays at home, there has not been any significant change in the rules affecting how the catcher's position, or the runner's options, can be dictated. Some catchers attempt to "block" the plate, preventing the runners access to it. Some runners routinely choose to "tackle" the catcher, to prevent him from holding on to the ball during the catch and tag attempt. Other catchers will swat or stand just to the side of the plate, and other runners will slide far away from the side the catcher is on, stretching out to swipe the plate with one hand or toe. Catchers, of course, can't anticipate exactly where a throw from the outfield is going to be; more often than not, the throw goes "off-line" forcing the catcher to move to one side or the other to get it. Whatever the outcome, though, catchers are particularly vulnerable in these situations, because their attention is focused on the outfield, where the throw is coming from, instead of on the runner. Catchers are thus considered "defense-less" and in great jeopardy for injury, should the runner choose to collide with them, instead of sliding away from the catcher.

Videos of the play taken during the game clearly show that Cousins didn't need to hit Posey, who was squatting in front of the plate. He could have chosen to slide "wide" on the right side of the plate, and might very well have made it safely, even if Posey had managed to catch the throw cleanly. But Cousins decided to try to guarantee being safe, by hitting Posey hard enough to prevent him from making a clean catch and tag.

Because the home plate play is commonly accepted as a violent event, the issue of culpability doesn't center on Cousins per se, but on the "culture" of violent behavior which is broadly defined as a resolute and "manly" part of the sport. Baseball isn't, obviously, a "contact" sport, but the few instances in which it is, are of concern, because players don't wear--except for the catcher--any additional gear to protect themselves against violent impact. Baseball wasn't designed as a contact sport, and any injuries resulting from the collisions of players in the field, are, or should be, unintentional.

Everyone has an opinion about this, and I have too. I tend to think that Cousins made the decision he did, because he believed that hitting Posey increased his odds of success in scoring the go-ahead run. Cousins is batting "under his own weight" as a rookie, and his status with the Marlins is marginal, at best, given his performance to date. Cousins understood the culture of the play to be such that it permitted him to take the more destructive option. He believed he had tradition on his side. And, given the drift of comment in the media since the incident, with many advocating no rule change, he was right. But Posey's injury was still a needless outcome. Cousins made the wrong choice--that is, he was willing to put another (star) player's career at risk, in order to improve his chance for a relatively small success (in the larger context of careers and whole seasons). The Marlins are in a dog-fight for their division lead with the Phillies, but it's unlikely that their season will/would be decided on a single play, in a single game. Whatever you believe about "tradition" or "rules" Cousins clearly meant to risk hurt, and he did it with full knowledge of the possible consequences. It was a cowardly act, even if it was defensible as a "routine" play, under present rules.

If I were the commissioner, I would fine Cousins $50,000, and I would change the rules to prevent runners from "smashing" or "spearing" catchers at home plate. He may have ruined Posey's career. It's a small price to pay.


J said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kirby Olson said...

He should do hard time. Hockey players should, too, when they turn the game into boxing on skates. More players need to see the electric chair for their crimes.

Curtis Faville said...

Okay, Kirb.


Do you think Posey's career--which is now in jeopardy--is worth nothing?

But then you've never been much of a fan.

Jesus Christ, the kid's only 24. Rookie of the Year, and a World Series ring, his head's on straight and he has twins on the way. Then he gets hijacked by a jerk with an attitude.

J said...

Dodgers wax the Marlins 8-0. Yeah.

I doubt Kirbster could distinguish Buster Poussy from his favorite beatnik-hallmark card, Sir F. And note his trite attempt at irony--ie, J said athletes were mafiosi (or at least in the employ of such), so KO says...send them to the electric chair!---his predictable high school scrapbook response.