Passing Judgment – A Pocket Full of Posey

If you have been living under a rock for the last 48 hours, then you should know that Giants’ catcher Buster Posey suffered a horrific injury on May 25, 2011 when he was run over by Scott Cousins of the Marlins trying to score the go ahead run in extra innings on a sacrifice fly.  Posey, the budding superstar and key component of their 2010 World Series championship, suffered a broken fibula and potentially serious ligament damage.  He will require surgery and could miss most, if not the rest, of the season.  From a pure competitive standpoint, this is devastating to the Giants to lose their catcher, cleanup hitter, on-field leader, and one of the best young players in all of baseball. 

Clearly the team and manager Bruce Bochy are upset that they will be without Posey for quite some time.  But after the game, Bochy stated that he thought there should be some modification to the rules in order to help protect defenseless catchers from being bulldozed in a collision at home plate.  Bochy, a former catcher himself, said he understands that this is part of the game.  But his comments and suggestions seem a little self-serving.  First of all, Scott Cousins did nothing wrong in his physical confrontation with Posey.  Cousins’ job is to find a way to score, including doing whatever he can (within the rules) to knock the ball away from the catcher.  Posey was rightfully and appropriately trying to block the plate waiting to catch the one-hop throw from right field. 

In a sport that does not contain much contact outside of inadvertent touching, it is perfectly legal for a baserunner to plow directly into the catcher in his attempt to score.  Of course there are situations where a baserunner goes beyond the scope of fair play and plows into the catcher with the sole intent of inflicting injury.  Those are rare instances and should be dealt with accordingly.  But here, Cousins clearly had no intent to inflict injury.  His initial reaction after touching home plate was to express concern for Posey who was laying on the ground in obvious pain.  Cousins has since said he couldn’t sleep that night knowing he had inadvertently injured Posey. 

This was a legal and fair baseball play that had an unfortunate result.  Catchers are taught at an early age how to block the plate on incoming throws to prevent a baserunner from scoring.  The rationale is simple…don’t let the other guy score.  Of course there is an inherent risk of injury any time there is fierce contact at that rate of speed and with a catcher’s attention also focused on receiving the throw.  Posey knows that.  Bochy knows that too.  No one was complaining about the rules regarding contact at home plate before this happened, but hindsight is always 20/20.  Protecting players from injury is always a primary concern and priority for any major sport.  But injuries can happen anywhere and anytime.  Remember, Luis Castillo injured himself walking down the dugout steps.  Does that mean that all dugouts should be equipped with escalators to prevent such further injuries? 

Collisions at home plate are a part of the game and always have been.  Catchers assume that risk, as well as a myriad of other risks, simply by playing the position.  There is a reason that catchers’ equipment is called the “tools of ignorance.”  The position itself leads to more injuries because of how physically demanding it is on the human body.  The plethora of injuries to catchers, especially superstar catchers, seems to be at an all-time high.  Joe Mauer is constantly injured and he is being considered for a position change in the near future.  Victor Martinez has played a lot of first base and DH over the last few years to keep his bat in the lineup.  When Posey eventually comes back, it is highly likely he will exchange his catcher’s mitt for a first base glove.  The Washington Nationals and Bryce Harper deserve a lot of credit for recognizing these risks by grooming Harper as an outfielder.  If he remained behind the plate in his professional career, he would be more at risk for frequent injuries and a lesser impact with his bat.  The trend of moving good-hitting catchers from behind the plate has started and will now really pick up steam.

What happened to Buster Posey is unfortunate.  The primary concern is that he is able to fully heal after surgery and regain the full range of motion and use in his leg.  He is young enough where his body is more apt to recover.  But anyone who complains about the legality of the play or the rules that govern it is missing the point.  I understand why Bochy is so upset and why he questions the rules.  But was he questioning a pitcher’s ability to throw inside fastballs when Matt Cain hit David Wright in the head in 2009?  The answer is no.

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