- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- An important voice has joined a growing chorus of people in the game calling for rule changes that would effectively ban home plate collisions. St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny -- who was a big league catcher for 13 seasons -- announced he had changed his mind and now wants collisions legislated out of the sport.
From Matthew Leach's story:
"I know the league wants to do the right thing and I know Joe [Torre] does a great job," Matheny said. "So that's my prelude.
"But I do believe that this game will get to the point where there will no longer be a collision at the plate. And I am 100 percent in support of that."
Matheny framed it primarily as a risk-reward matter, explaining that any increase in the entertainment value from collisions is outweighed by safety concerns.
"I'd just love to hear the rebuttal," Matheny said, "because what I've personally witnessed was enough for me to change my mind. It actually took me a little longer 'till I got to the realization of the risk we're putting these guys in -- and the runner, too. The runner is stuck in a spot sometimes where if he doesn't do it, he feels like he's let his team down. Take it out of their hands. This isn't a collision sport. There's enough of a physical grind with guys being out there for 162 games. We've got the physical aspect of this game. It doesn't need to include that one spot."
For Matheny, this might be a little bit more personal, because he's a longtime catcher and had to retire because of concussion symptoms himself, and last year he saw his own star catcher, Yadier Molina, get blasted in what was regarded as a clean play.
Giants manager Bruce Bochy -- also a former catcher -- has become a strong advocate for change, lobbying MLB executive Joe Torre for the rules to be adjusted so runners will be assured access to home plate and won't have reason to run over catchers. Bochy and others have talked about how rules could be much like those at first base, with essentially two lanes to the bag: If the catcher takes one lane, he cannot restrict the runner from reaching the base in the other lane.
But there is also movement for change with many folks who aren't in uniform, either: There are a growing number of teams who are essentially instructing their catchers to avoid collisions at the plate, even if it means increasing the likelihood that a run will score. Quite simply, those teams have decided that having your catcher at heightened risk for being run over -- or even having your runners at more risk -- doesn't make good business sense, in a sport that has been increasingly evaluated on dollar value over the last 15 years.
I asked one evaluator to weigh the risk/reward dollar of the home plate collision, and he offered these broad strokes:
"Throughout baseball, a marginal win (in terms of salary cost/production) is valued at an average of 2.5 million. It's about double that number if we use free
agents only, excluding pre-arbitration and arbitration players, but let's stick with the overall
Ten runs of differential adds up to a win, so you could roughly say that a marginal run is worth $250,000. Obviously, that run will be more valuable if it's a game-winner, or in a game involving two teams in a pennant race. But the context-neutral average value of a run is $250,000.
One of the other considerations in evaluating this is that blocking the plate doesn't necessarily guarantee saving the run. Let's say the probability of saving the run by blocking the plate vs. standing in front of the plate (toward the pitcher's mound) and reaching over for the tag increases by 50 percent (for example, from 25 percent to 75 percent, and it may be less than that). Now the expected value from blocking the plate is only half of $250,000, or $125,000.
Meanwhile, Buster Posey's dollar value in 2012 was $36 million [per FanGraphs]. Obviously, he's hardly the typical catcher, but he provides a very real data point of the type of productivity loss that's risked when a catcher blocks the plate, since they actually did lose him for two-thirds of a season."
For a play that's an outlier to the fabric of the sport -- fans don't go to baseball games expecting to see home plate collisions, which might happen once or twice a month for a team -- it's just not worth it, and that's without even addressing the whole issue that hovers over the NFL, about the potential liability for the league from the players' long-term injuries.
And home plate collisions have altered careers -- Johnny Estrada was never the same after being leveled by Darin Erstad, and John Gibbons went from top catching prospect to a journeyman after being run over by Joe Lefebvre, which was recently referenced in a Richard Griffin story. From the piece:
Home plate collisions will eventually be banned, and MLB should do it sooner rather than later, writes Buster Olney.