Commentary

On a collision course

Should baseball do more to protect catchers and baserunners?

Updated: May 28, 2011, 1:35 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

It always takes something like this -- something like the horrifying sight of Buster Posey lying there, face in the dirt, writhing in pain -- to get folks talking. Why is that, anyway?

Now, after the fact, people are asking what we can do to protect both catchers and baserunners from these scary two-vehicle pileups at home plate. NOW, in retrospect, people wonder if there's a way to tweak the rulebook in the name of safety.

So here's a question: How come, in baseball, we never seem to have conversations about what we can do to prevent these moments BEFORE they happen? Why is it always after the fact?

In this edition of Rumblings, we're going to examine just how feasible it is to change the rules that govern these collisions. But first, let's vow to look over the horizon, not backward over our shoulders, when we have these discussions, OK?

[+] EnlargeBuster Posey and Scott Cousins
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireCould a rule change help prevent home-plate collisions such as the one between Buster Posey and Scott Cousins? It's a question worth asking.

Asked Thursday if he could ever remember any baseball officials talking about this issue in any setting -- GM meetings, winter meetings, etc. -- before Posey got hurt, one longtime executive told us: "Nope. We've never had [conversations about] this one. But I think people will talk about it now."

Great. And well, they should, because you'd like to think there is a way to save the Buster Poseys of this game from gruesome injuries like this. But after many conversations about this issue since Posey got hurt, we're still not sure there's a simple way to do that.

Nevertheless, in front offices around the sport on Thursday, there was widespread sentiment that it's time to explore this topic on several different fronts.

One proposal we heard would affect what the catcher, not the runner, would be permitted to do in these situations. In fact, it would apply to fielders at any base:

Make it illegal for any fielder to obstruct a runner's path to any base unless he has full control of the ball, or that runner is safe -- because if you force the runner to go THROUGH the fielder to get to the base, you're asking for trouble.

Another idea we heard involved only plays at the plate and was directed at the baserunner:

If the catcher has control of the ball, then NO contact, other than inadvertent contact, with the catcher would be allowed. And if a runner initiates contact anyway, the result would be an automatic 30-game suspension.

Now these are logical proposals -- sound ideas and well-motivated. And they recognize an important reality: To address this issue, you can't just impose new rules for the runner. You also need rules that limit the fielder's leeway to get in that runner's way.

But as we continued to explore the practicality of these rule changes, we found something we hadn't expected. There was much more sentiment for messing with the rules inside front offices than there was among the people who would be most affected:

The catchers.

We spoke Thursday with two men who spent a combined 35 years of their lives wearing shin guards in the big leagues -- Brad Ausmus and Buck Martinez. You might be surprised by how they responded. We were.

"To me," said Ausmus, who finally retired over the winter, after 18 seasons, "injuries happen in sports. I'm sorry this happened to Buster Posey. He's an exciting young catcher. He's an exciting young hitter. He's one of the best young players in baseball. But it's part of the game. … When you put on the shin guards and chest protector, you know that if there's a play at the plate and you're blocking the plate, you could take a hit at any moment."

Nearly 26 years ago -- on July 9, 1985 -- Buck Martinez took one of those hits, from a runaway Metroliner disguised as Gorman Thomas. Much like Posey, Martinez got a broken ankle out of that hit. He never fully recovered. Yet all these years later, he's not in favor of rewriting the rulebook, even for the protection of guys like himself.

Sure, it may sound simple enough to say the runner can't hit the catcher if the catcher has control of the ball. But "the baserunner can't determine if he's caught it or not if he's one step away from contact," Martinez said.

And it may sound just as simple to tell the catcher to stay out of the runner's route to the plate. But "the throw is always going to take you into harm's way," Martinez said. "If it's up the third-base line, you have to move into the path of the baserunner."

"See, everyone thinks you can control all these variables," Martinez said. "But you can't."

[+] EnlargeCarlos Santana
AP Photo/Charles KrupaIndians catcher Carlos Santana's rookie season ended on Aug. 2, 2010, when Boston's Ryan Kalish collided with him.

Still, there are parallels worth considering in other sports. One club official argued Thursday that baseball should at least look at similar concepts in football -- such as pass interference: If a cornerback goes for the man instead of the ball, that's illegal. So why, he wondered, can a baserunner go for the catcher instead of the plate, and that IS legal?

"There's a difference," Ausmus responded, "between a clean play and a dirty play. If you're just trying to hit the catcher, that's dirty. But if you're trying to keep the catcher from catching the ball so you can score a run, that's clean. Well, who's going to make that call? Is the umpire making that call? You think they can make that distinction between who's trying to score and who's just trying to injure the catcher? I don't think they can, unfortunately."

But as our buddy Buster Olney has said, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense that umpires are allowed to call obstruction when a fielder accidentally crosses in front of a runner -- with no contact -- yet these demolition derbies at the plate are just fine.

Again, though, Ausmus countered, "there's a difference. The difference is, the catcher has got pads and gear on, so he's protected if there's contact. And the other difference is, this is home plate we're talking about. So if the runner crosses that base, he scores. It's kind of like protecting the castle at all costs."

And both Ausmus and Martinez believe that as long as competitive human beings are out there trying to win, it's almost impossible to stop them from trying to protect that castle.

"Maybe," Martinez quipped, "we should just have two home plates -- one where the guy can slide, the other where the catcher can tag the plate. So you'd have one white one and one orange one. And if the runner touches the white one before the catcher tags the orange one, he's safe."

It's never going to come to that, of course. And it never should. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't be kicking around what can and can't be done to get us somewhere between that extreme and the sight of Buster Posey being helped off the baseball field.

Both Ausmus and Martinez do feel baseball should address hits to the head in this age of concussion awareness. But beyond that, they're not sure there's any acceptable solution.

"There are some unwritten rules," Ausmus said. "If the catcher is giving a portion of the plate to the runner, the runner should not go out of his way to hit the catcher. But when you get into plays like [the Posey play] -- bang-bang, extra innings, game on the line -- I don't want to see any changes. Hopefully, this injury to Buster Posey isn't serious. Hopefully, it's something that can be fixed. But it's part of the game."

Ausmus then posed a fascinating question:

"If this happened to a backup catcher, who was just called up from Triple-A, do you think we'd be having this discussion?" he wondered. "I don't know that we would."

Well, we don't know that we would, either. But in our experience, unfortunately, this is always what it takes -- something as painful, and high-profile, as this collision, this devastating injury -- to inspire these conversations. So if that's how it has to be, let's use this moment as an opportunity, and fully explore whether there's something, anything, baseball can do to make this sport safer.

"I don't know all the answers," an official of one club admitted Thursday. "This is not an easy one to solve. But I do know this: If anyone has an idea, now is the time to get it out there."

Ready to Rumble

Bengie Molina
Molina
Ivan Rodriguez
Rodriguez

• The Giants are already looking around for front-line catching to fill their Buster Posey void. But they really have only two viable options -- Pudge Rodriguez in a trade, and their old amigo Bengie Molina as a free agent.

The Nationals have been shopping the Pudgester since spring training. And he's still so available that "a team could get Pudge Rodriguez right now if it wanted to," said one exec. "They'd love to move him."

• Then there's Molina. Some clubs have questioned how much he still wants to play. But an official of one team that kicked his tires reported: "He wouldn't go back up in Pittsburgh. But in a half-time role in San Francisco? He'd definitely do that."

Of course, Molina has never been the most finely tuned physical specimen in baseball, even when he was PLAYING. So it's a little scary to envision what kind of shape he's in now, after not playing for nine months.

Asked what kind of condition he'd heard Molina was in, the same official said: "Well, you saw him at the end of last year. Not better than that. But then again, it's not like running was part of his game to begin with."

• The trouble for the Giants in this case, though, is that they wouldn't be merely trying to replace Posey behind the plate. They'd be trying to replace one of the best offensive players in baseball. And there's no one available right now who could do that.

How good has Posey been since his arrival in the big leagues a year ago Sunday? He's hit .299/.360/.472, with 22 home runs and 52 extra-base hits. Here are the only eight players in baseball who have matched or beaten those numbers since Posey's arrival in the big leagues:

Josh Hamilton; Adrian Gonzalez; Matt Holliday; Miguel Cabrera; Joey Votto; Carlos Gonzalez; Paul Konerko; and Ryan Braun

Pretty good group.

• One more item on the Buster Posey front before we move on: The best solution, in theory, for avoiding collisions like this one, said one AL executive, is to "teach your catchers when to take that risk of blocking the plate and when not to."

Again, sounds simple enough. The trouble, though, is that if you leave it up to catchers to make that decision, "that's difficult with the speed of the game," the same exec said.

And if you tell them it's never worth the risk during the regular season, just try to explain to your fans why a catcher shied away from contact and let the winning run score in what felt like a big game in July or August. Think Yankees-Red Sox, or Reds-Cardinals, or Phillies-Braves. How could any team, or any catcher, try to make a case to the paying customers that that winning run wasn't that important? Tough situation.

Padres

• They're 10 games under .500 (20-30) and last in the big leagues in runs per game (3.4). So the Padres are beginning to send signals that their three prospective free agents -- Heath Bell, Ryan Ludwick and Chad Qualls -- will be on their closeout-sale shelves in a few weeks.

But clubs that have checked in report the Padres are "not motivated" to talk about players they have under control beyond this year, especially prime bullpen arms like Mike Adams.

Hunter Pence
Pence

• The Astros continue to tell people that when they project which pieces they would need to build a winner down the road, they can't envision Hunter Pence not being a central part of that. But one scout who has seen Pence a lot says he's not the kind of player you construct a team around.

"He's a good player, but I see him as more of a complementary piece," the scout said. "He's the kind of guy you win with if you have two other major run-producers around him. I don't want to give the impression I don't like the guy. I like him a lot. But he's not an impact guy to the point that should prohibit them from trading him for a quality starting pitcher and another piece."

New York Mets

• Here's one AL exec's take on the effect of Fred Wilpon's New Yorker quotes on the Mets' ability to trade Jose Reyes and/or Carlos Beltran this summer:

"I don't think it will have much effect in Reyes' case, because he was talking about his potential earning power on the free-agent market, and nobody knows what he's going to make. He didn't say anything about what kind of player [Reyes] was. So if you were going to trade for Jose Reyes, I think people would evaluate him based on what they see on the field.

"But in Beltran's case, they were trying to move him this winter, and they were willing to take back some money. So in a way, they were already telling you they thought he was 65 to 70 percent of what he was, because that's what they were willing to take back. So if they put him out there this summer, you'd have every right to say, 'We're interested -- but only if you pay the money down to 65 or 70 percent.'"

Edinson Volquez
Volquez
Aroldis Chapman
Chapman

• Dusty Baker says the loss of Aroldis Chapman and Edinson Volquez's struggles have been two big blows to the Reds because "those two guys set up my whole pitching staff" -- Chapman because he's such a devastating bullpen weapon and Volquez because the Reds need him to be their No. 1 starter.

But the team has been using Chapman's time on the disabled list to tweak his delivery to smooth out some of the twists, turns and stresses that were taking their toll both on his health and command. And those were changes they could never make in the past, because they never knew when they might need Chapman to go out that night in a huge late-inning spot.

The other issue they've had with Chapman, said pitching coach Bryan Price, is that even he got caught up in the radar-gun madness that electrified every ballpark he pitched in. And Chapman's desire to light up the gun by overthrowing was only accentuating some of the issues in his delivery.

"Sometimes, when he hits 102 or 103 and the place goes crazy, I know when I was 23, I would have tried to throw the next one 105, too," Price told Rumblings. "I mean, I don't blame him for that. He's a kid. But I don't want him to be defined solely by velocity. I'd rather him be defined by greatness."

Five Astounding Facts of the Week

1) In their game Wednesday against the Dodgers, the Astros scored only two runs -- one on the FIRST pitch of the game (on a leadoff homer by Michael Bourn), the other on the LAST pitch of the game (on a walk-off single by J.R. Towles). Well, you sure don't see that much. Our pitch-count guru, loyal reader Aneel Trivedi, reports this was just the second time any team had scored only on the first pitch and last pitch of a game in the 25-season pitch-count era. The other: April 13, 2007, when the Blue Jays did it against Detroit, with Alex Rios supplying both the leadoff homer and walk-off sac fly.

Zack Greinke
Greinke

2) When Zack Greinke went deep Wednesday against Washington, that produced two classic tidbits: A) As loyal Twitter follower @bballkansas reports, it meant Greinke had homered in the big leagues before both of the position players he was traded for last winter: Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain. And B) it made Greinke the third active pitcher with homers for teams in both leagues. The others: CC Sabathia and Josh Beckett.

3) Another great Brewers feat, from loyal reader Joe Hennessey: Their closer, John Axford, loaded the bases in the ninth inning Tuesday -- AFTER he'd already struck out the side. How'd that happen? Easy. Axford whiffed the first three hitters in the ninth, but the third (Ian Desmond) reached base on a strike-three wild pitch. Then Axford allowed a single and a walk, and only then got the final out for real, on a fly ball to right. Tremendous.

Carlos Fisher
Fisher

4) The unsung hero of that 19-inning Reds-Phillies game was Reds reliever Carlos Fisher, who came out of the 'pen and launched 95 pitches over the last 5⅔ innings -- and got a loss out of it. ESPN Stats & Info guru Mark Simon reports he was the first reliever to throw that many innings in a game that long and have nothing but a loss to show for it since Chuck Porter of the 1984 Brewers wound up losing in the (gulp) 25th inning. And the only other relievers in the past 50 years who logged that many innings in a game that long, took the loss and also had to go to the plate and hit along the way were Galen Cisco of the 1964 Mets and John Buzhardt of the 1967 White Sox.

5) And, as loyal Twitter follower Rory Clarke reports, on Wednesday the Phillies' second baseman (Wilson Valdez) was the winning pitcher. And on Thursday, for the first time all year, their second baseman (Chase Utley) hit a home run. Which made the Phillies the first team since 1900 to get a win on the mound from one of their second basemen before they got a homer. Hard to do!

Tweets of the Week

• From always-zany Giants closer @BrianWilson38, on how he spent his off day Monday:

Another day off in the books. Just your average swim to Alcatraz w/ shark feed tied to my ankles. Gonna spend the night. Swim to work tomorrow.

• And here's the latest from @FakeFredWilpon, on how his New Yorker interview will affect concession sales:

"Not A Superstar" Number 5 jerseys should be on sale by tomorrow.

Late-Nighter of the Week

Finally, only Jay Leno could see the baseball connection running through the Oprah finale. So what was that hidden connection, anyway?

"Oprah ended her season in May, just like the Chicago Cubs."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is now available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com