A Case Against Home Plate Collisions

About a week ago, Johnny Bench appeared on MLB Network’s Hot Stove to voice his support for the new proposed rule effectively banning home plate collisions. At the same time he reminded us that this rule is not simply about questioning the safety or tradition of the game, but is also about the people behind the collisions whose lives and careers have been put at risk. Bench brought up the 1970 All-Star Game, when Pete Rose was coming home as the winning run. Rose was going to initially take a head-first slide into Ray Fosse to avoid the tag until he saw that his shin guards would smash into his face; instead he chose to voluntarily collide into Fosse. Even though the initial x-rays came up negative, it was later discovered that Fosse had a fractured and separated shoulder which, because of its late discovery, never healed correctly and effectively ruined the rest of Fosse’s career. Because of a simple choice to collide, the rest of Fosse’s career was marred by an avoidable injury.

The key with home plate collisions is “avoidable”. Baseball is a sport very much defined by tradition, so naturally whenever anyone tries to make a change to a game that is supposed to remain untouched, there will be fierce resistance. But, in general, people go to ball games to see their favorite players play. And when those players are hurt or their careers are ruined by an avoidable injury, then it is in MLB’s and ownership’s best interest to avoid these plays so that they have the best product on the field to present to their fans.

But for many and including myself, the Fosse incident is ancient history. The debate over home plate collisions actually came about after a collision involving Scott Cousins and Buster Posey on May 25, 2011. In the 12th inning of a 6-6 game, a shallow sacrifice fly ended with a play at the plate between the two. Cousins, in an attempt to knock the ball loose from Posey, crashed into him–and he was successful. But more importantly, Posey’s season was over in a flash as he suffered torn ligaments in his ankle and a fractured fibula and had to undergo season-ending surgery. The Giants finished that season with 86 wins, 4 wins behind the wild-card winning St. Louis Cardinals. Posey’s lost value, when extrapolated to account for the fact that he would play another 100 games without the injury, was, ceteris paribus, 3.9 WAR. These plays, in some cases, can be the difference between spending October playing baseball or golf. After this event grumbles arouse about eliminating the home plate collisions, and two and a half years later, MLB finally listened.

In my opinion, rules in Baseball can and should be changed based on the following criteria:

a) The changing of the rule does not alter the basic nature of play.

and

b) The standing of the rule does more harm than good.

Now, a) is quite ambiguous. It’s very easy to argue that eliminating home plate collisions would alter the basic nature of play. I’ll give another example of one possible rule change that does alter the basic nature of play, which will then illuminate what I’m trying to evoke. After J.A. Happ was hit on the side of the head with a line drive, a similar discussion arose about the safety of pitchers. So the question was posed: should pitchers wear helmets? And they responded in kind: “Wearing a helmet would change my mechanics and alter my ability to throw the baseball effectively” (paraphrasing here). In this case, an implementation of a new pitcher helmet rule would violate a) because it fundamentally alters the basic nature of play. If pitchers can’t throw effectively, then the game of baseball could not exist. So, to apply a), one can examine a rule and see whether it fundamentally alters the state of play in the sense that it would force the game of baseball to cease to exist.

But just because a rule change passes the test in a) does not necessarily mean that it should be changed. MLB could decide to make center field walls go to 500 feet, make a walk six balls, and make the base paths 150 feet long. But all of these do more harm than good by putting the batter at a serious disadvantage. And ambiguity again can be found in “harm” and “good”. Because baseball is a business, “good” can be defined as in alignment with an organization’s interests, and harm vice-versa.

That is why a home plate collision rule would be reasonable in that it aligns with the best interests of the organization by protecting their assets while at the same time not altering the state of play. And for those staunchly opposed to the new rule: the standing of this rule would send baseball into ground very familiar to the NFL–financial remuneration. So not only would organizations lose their valuable catchers but also would have to pay them for damages. A rule change sounds easier.

Featured Image courtesy of http://www.cbssports.com

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