Saturday, September 7, 2013
Why MLB must ban plate collisions
By Buster Olney
A hard collision at home plate caused Giants catcher Buster Posey to miss much of 2011.
A talent evaluator who works in baseball imagined the future testimony aimed at a team -- or all of Major League Baseball -- in a lawsuit filed by a catcher seriously injured while blocking home plate.
"'I was told in spring training by my catching instructor that this is something I need to do,'" the evaluator said, imitating the words that any catcher could say. "'I didn't block home one day and he called me a -----, and he said that blocking home plate is something that every catcher is expected to do.'"
The evaluator jumped into another role, imagining himself as the catcher's lawyer: "'What happened next?'"
Evaluator as catcher: "'I blocked home plate, as I was instructed to do, and now I can't walk.'"
This testimony could be especially effective, the evaluator noted, if it comes from someone sitting in a wheelchair, and if you think that can't happen, maybe you should watch this video of the hit that Harrisburg catcher Brian Jeroloman took in a Double-A playoff game the other night, when he was run over by Erie's Brandon Douglas.
Jeroloman was hit directly in the face by a shoulder from Douglas, who was running at full speed. The catcher's chin was gashed and he had suffered a concussion, and after the game, his manager expressed the same sentiment that a lot of folks have in the aftermath of devastating injuries to Johnny Estrada, Carlos Santana and Buster Posey and others -- that it's just part of the game.
"That was a pretty good hit at the plate, a clean play," Harrisburg manager Matt LeCroy told the Patriot News.
Douglas did what a lot of baserunners have done through the years, and what baserunners are permitted to do by professional baseball, although not at amateur levels. LeCroy's response falls right in line with what MLB executive Joe Torre has said in the past about collisions, despite pleas for change from former catchers like Bruce Bochy and Mike Matheny.
That's the way it's always been done. Maybe the seven most ridiculous words known to mankind, which has harnessed electricity, walked on the moon and cured diseases. But in baseball, somebody apparently still thinks it's a good idea for catchers to serve as crash-test dummies and get blasted by 210-pound baserunners sprinting at full speed after a 30-yard head start.
"Hopefully we've evolved as a society to the point that we realize that it really is a criminal act," said the evaluator. "If it happened in any other walk of life, that's a crime."
One scout on the Jeroloman collision: "Watching that was terrible. It should not be allowed. It does not make the game better; it makes it worse."
Said an NL official: "Now is the perfect time to change the rule with all the scrutiny on concussions. It is hard enough to avoid concussions with repeated foul tips. If you throw in collisions, it could be hard to keep guys on the field."
Baseball is certainly aware of the impact of concussions, having recently created a new seven-day disabled list in the aftermath of injuries to Corey Koskie, Matheny, Aaron Hill, Justin Morneau and others.
There is that elephant-in-the-room issue of just how expensive concussions could be for professional sports leagues. The National Football League recently agreed to settle a class-action suit brought by former players by writing a check for $765 million -- and this after a series of rules changes designed to protect players from hits when they are deemed "defenseless."
Was there anyone more defenseless than Buster Posey in 2011, when he had his head turned to catch a throw from right field before being bulldozed by Scott Cousins?
Posey's left leg was pinned underneath him and shattered, ending his season. There was debate among the old-schoolers about whether Posey's feet were in the proper position to take the hit from Cousins, and whether Posey had done enough to protect himself.
Seriously: There was actually discussion about Posey's technique for being run over, as if he trained for this as he does for hitting a breaking ball.
There were too few people in power asking: Isn't this just a really dumb risk?
Was there anything more pointless than having Posey lost for the season in a play when Cousins ran him over for the sake of one run in one game over the course of 162 games?
In this era, when teams are devoted to defining value, some teams have determined that the value of one run to a team during a season -- without regard to the score -- is about $200,000. Posey could be worth hundreds of millions to the Giants in his career; the same is true of Joe Mauer to the Twins. Home plate collisions aren't only incredibly dangerous, but they are bad business for everybody involved.
There has been slow response from the Players Association on this issue, as well. For years, as the union and MLB have come to grips with the issue of performance-enhancing drugs, some fans have asked why the sport doesn't simply ignore the use and allow players to do what they want to do.
My answer -- built on many conversations with many players – is that there's no reason for the strongest union in this country, with its members earning an average salary of more than $3 million annually, to foster a situation in which its members are forced to take drugs to keep up, in spite of the risk.
In the same vein: Why would the Players Association stand by without challenging a work condition that place some of its members at increased risk for long-term injury, on a play that is far from integral to the sport?
Pitches thrown homeward sometime hit and injure batters, but that will never change because the act of a pitcher delivering a baseball to home plate is right at the heart of the sport, in the way that tackling is part of the NFL. Catchers are going to get hit by foul tips, which is why companies are constantly trying to build a better, safer mask. Outfielders sometimes injure hands and wrists diving for baseballs, and that will never change.
But home plate collisions are an outlier, something that you might see a couple of times a month with each team, and given that the play is banned at all lower levels, it's hard to argue that the sport must have catchers getting run over in order to function. By rule, baserunners run to first, second and third base in professional baseball without collisions. Why should home plate be any different?
The hit to Brian Jeroloman's skull drove him into the hospital. He is 28 years old, and at the end of his eighth season in professional baseball. He's probably making something in the range of $5,000 a month playing baseball. He is not an elite hitter and therefore doesn't have the value of Buster Posey or Joe Mauer.
But like every other person holding a job in this country, he does have the right to do his work with the expectation that he can walk away from his job every day with his spine intact.
Nationals GM Mike Rizzo provided an email update on Jeroloman's condition Friday evening. "Brian is good, a tough SOB," Rizzo wrote. "Getting released from hospital today. Jaw is healing well (Deep laceration along his jaw line. Stitched and beginning to heal already) and concussion was not as severe as they thought initially. Traveling back to Harrisburg today. We will have him travel to DC to see our medical director."
If he was in any other line of work, Jeroloman's next act might be to pick up a phone and call a lawyer and ask about his options. Like one of those lawyers who just won $765 million from the NFL.
And it probably wouldn't take long for a longtime catcher to find someone who would tell him he has a hell of a case -- particularly if that catcher has brain damage, or is without use of his legs or arms.
It's only a matter of time before Major League Baseball eliminates the home plate collision, because of the inevitable evolution of the sport. It's a good idea to make this happen before the cross-examination begins.
From ESPN Stats and Info: Just how unlikely was this near-perfect game?
A) Petit has been removed from the Giants' 40-man roster twice this season.
B) This was only his fourth MLB start in the last four seasons.
C) He entered Friday with a career 5.37 ERA and .835 opponent OPS.
D) He would've been only the fourth pitcher with 40 or fewer career starts at the time of a perfect game, according to Elias -- (Charlie Robertson in 1922 (perfect game in his fourth career start), Lee Richmond in 1880 (21) and Philip Humber in 2012 (30).
From the Elias Sports Bureau: Fernandez threw seven scoreless innings, allowed only one hit and struck out nine batters for the Marlins Friday night. Those are the exact same numbers he had in a game at Philadelphia on May 4. Fernandez is the first pitcher in modern history to have two games in his rookie season in which he pitched at least seven innings, allowed no runs and no more than one hit and struck out at least nine batters.
• Hanley Ramirez's 431-foot home run in the 1st inning cracked off the bat at 114.6 miles per hour -- you can see it here -- boosting his average speed on home runs up to 107.5 miles per hour, second-fastest in the league (min. 10 HR). It also got into the second deck at Great American Ball Park in 3.75 seconds.