Why can runners hit catchers—and only catchers?by THT Staff
August 31, 2012
Dale from Bainbridge Island, Wash., writes:
Question for a Hardball Times editor:
This question is sparked by the Josh Harrision-Yadier Molina collision, but it's something I have talked about before. If a home-plate collision is "just good, clean, hard baseball" (as it's typically termed), why aren't there good, clean, hard baseball plays at other bases?
For example, later in the game, Mike McKenry hit one into the gap in left-center. Matt Holliday cut it off and threw to second in plenty of time to get McKenry. McKenry simply slid into the tag. Why didn't he execute a good, clean, hard baseball play, lower his shoulder and knock Skip Schmaker into short left field?
(The score was 8-0 at the time, which might have been one reason, but even had it been 0-0, McKenry still would have slid into the tag rather than trying to knock the ball loose as is fairly routine at home plate.)
I should tell you that the writer is not a baseball neophyte. He's Dale Bye, former sports editor of the Kansas City Star, former managing editor of The Sporting News, a baseball history buff and a longtime friend. Oh, and he's a Cardinals fan (could you guess?).
I threw the question out to The Hardball Times community of writers and editors, many of whom like nothing better than an excuse to discuss baseball in the midst of a midweek workday. It sparked a lively discussion, excerpted here:
Joe Distelheim: Of course, there's debate (Buster Posey, last year) about whether running into the catcher should be allowed or at least should be subject to new tests. I'm sure the traditional distinction is safety-based, figuring the catcher is better-protected.
Steve Treder: Well, there used to be “good, clean, hard baseball” collisions at other bases. Hal McRae was famous for them, as were lots of other baserunners in that era and before. But since then, the leagues have cracked down on those plays, simply because of the injury risk to infielders. They’re still old school regarding the play at the plate, presumably because the catcher is not only better protected in terms of his gear but also is more likely to see the play before him and be less likely to be off-balance than an infielder.
Dale Bye: I believe the McRae collisions were to break up double plays, not to jar the ball loose on tag plays. Maybe back in the Ty Cobb days there were tag-play collisions at other bases, but I don't recall any from the '50s on. In fact, my impression from the earlier days is that high spikes was the norm, not collisions. Wasn't Ducky Medwick a high-spikes player?
Ed DeCaria: Two related questions: Would there be collisions at the plate if the catcher didn't first attempt to block it? Would there be frequent collisions at other bases (particularly first base) if the fielder DID routinely attempt to block it?
Dale Bye: Catchers do sometimes try to stonewall the plate, but third basemen sometimes—I don't think it's often—stick their foot in front of the bag so that the sliding runner hits their foot, not the bag. Same at second sometimes on stolen-base attempts. This infrequently works only because infielders know the runner will slide in, not barrel in.
Greg Simons: You can run through home plate (assuming you touch it along the way) and be safe. Over-run the other bases, and you can be tagged out.
Steve Treder: Exactly.
Bruce Markusen: To pick up on Steve's point, players like McRae, Don Baylor, and Frank Robinson used to execute what was called a "rolling block" on second basemen and shortstops on double play attempts. The rolling block is now outlawed. And while catchers are allowed to block the path to the plate, technically they are only supposed to do so when they already have the ball. But many catchers "cheat" and start blocking the plate before the ball arrives in their glove.
Ed DeCaria: Thanks, Bruce. But what I still don't understand is why, in an otherwise contact-less game (hit-by-pitches excepted) with a half dozen other flavors of interference, is it still within the rules for the most heavily armored player on the field to force incoming runners to have to go painfully through him or cleverly around him to reach their destination? It's akin to allowing golfers to hit cleanly off the tee, independently play the fairway and rough, but once they get on the green, their opponent is allowed to dump a pile of tees in front of the hole.
Why not just make it illegal to block the plate and suspension-worthy to knock down a catcher who isn't blocking the plate (which may already be the case, I don't know)? I'm curious—do any of you really like plate collisions? They've always seemed very un-baseball-like to me, but I'm guessing that others may like them for one reason or another.
Brad Johnson: I enjoy a good, "clean" plate collision. As a kid, I used to love to watch Pete Incaviglia destroy catchers. As a grown-up pseudo-analyst, it seems like it's past time to remove this from the sport. Hell, even football doesn't allow most heavy contact these days ... it's bad business.
Steve Treder: I’ve never had a particular problem with it, inasmuch as it’s been a part of the sport since forever (thus everyone can expect it). But I agree, it’s the 21st century and probably time for MLB to disallow it.
Bruce Markusen: Why is there a differentiation between home plate and the three bases? Part of it has to do with the catcher having equipment that provides special protection, but I think part of it involves the "value" of home plate. Plays at the plate are essentially more important than plays at other bases. If the runner is safe at home, not only is an out not recorded, but a run scores; if the runner is out, the potential run is wiped out. It's the most valuable piece of real estate on the infield.
Dale Bye: The consensus seems to be that the catcher has an advantage because of the tools of ignorance. However, I'm not sure that's true in a concussion situation. The catcher is more or less stationary. My understanding of concussions is that in most cases it's not the initial hit that causes the concussions—Harrison's shoulder into Molina's noggin. Instead, it's the whiplash effect that sends Molina's brain sloshing across to violently slam into the other side of his skull.
The gear probably does protect catchers from things like broken collarbones and cracked ribs and the like. Maybe from broken jaws or orbital socket fractures, too, if the catcher leaves on his mask. But to some extent, a catcher is a bit like a quarterback, standing in there to be pelted by an incoming human projectile. It also seems to me that far more catchers get injured in such collisions than baserunners.
At other bases, players execute fancy hook slides or slides in which they go in head-first and try to snag the base on their way by or other such deals. But an additional problem at the plate is that the catcher doesn't have a glove that's as adept at holding onto the ball for a sweep tag.
So, readers: Let's keep the discussion going. Please feel free to use the comments section below.
References and Resources
The Official Baseball Rules make clear that a runner isn't allowed to interfere with a fielder attempting to make a play on a batted ball, or with a thrown ball. But they don't deal specifically with this question of infield bases vs. home plate.