To Block, or Not to Block? That is…The Catcher


Yesterday, it was reported that Terry Collins instructed catcher Travis d’Arnaud to not block the plate during plays at home.  Collins told reporters he had spoken to d’Arnaud, and had basically told his young catcher the following:

"I know it’s baseball.  But if you want to play for the next 15 years, the last thing we need is to have you re-injure your knee. Just get in front of that plate and let them have the plate.  And if you receive the ball early, get yourself in a good position. But I’m not going to let you stick that left leg out there and have somebody who is just a reckless guy come charging in and have you shorten your career.  I’m not going to allow that to happen right now."

From Collins’ comments, it’s hard to tell whether he was asking d’Arnaud to abstain from blocking the plate only during the spring, during the spring and certain plays over the course of the season, or permanently.  Early last night, Sandy Alderson held a conference call with bloggers and chimed in on Collins’ comments from earlier in the day:

"This particular issue has gotten some coverage in recent days. I think that [manager] Mike Matheny with St. Louis was suggesting there should be a rule change about collisions at home plate. I think that you have to be sensible with this, catchers themselves have to be sensible about this… now, do we want [Travis] d’Arnaud to block the plate in a spring training game and be taken out for spring training and maybe two months of the season?  Absolutely not.  He’s got an injured left knee where he suffered the injury.  That leg is the leg that normally you would block the plate.  So there’s some specific issues that we have to take into account and right now, just as a temporary matter, Terry [Collins] has said, ‘Look, get out of the way.’  Whether that will be permanent with him or permanent with all of our catching prospects or something John Buck will adopt, or the spike tag will become standard for catchers in the big leagues, I don’t know.  But I think it’s an issue we have to address globally, rather than just in the case of Travis d’Arnaud.  And to some extent we have an obligation to treat everyone the same way.  ‘Travis, you’re really valuable to us, don’t do this, don’t do that, everybody else take the risk, because you’re not that good.’  I don’t think that’s an organizational approach we want to take."

The above quote from Alderson is a lot to digest, so let’s take it one piece at a time…

Alderson noted that Cardinals manager Mike Matheny (a former catcher), suggested that there should be a rule change regarding collisions at home plate.  I think it’s sensible to make a rule that eliminates dangerous slides that are determined to be needless, perhaps with a suspension being the punishment for a player who takes a cheap shot.  However, completely outlawing collisions at the plate would be both a rash decision and an incorrect one.

May 25, 2011; San Francisco, CA, USA; Florida Marlins center fielder Scott Cousins (right) collides with San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey (left) to score a run in front of umpire Joe West (22) during the twelfth inning at AT

The majority of this uproar was sparked by Buster Posey‘s gruesome injury that was suffered while he was blocking the plate in 2011.  What people need to understand, is that it was a clean play.  The runner, Scott Cousins, did what he had to do to score.  There was nothing malicious about the play.  Posey’s injury was extremely unfortunate, but it occurred mainly because he was unable to get himself in proper position, which caused his leg (which was broken on the play) to be placed in a vulnerable spot.

Posey’s injury has caused lots of clubs to re-examine what they want their catchers to do when it comes to plays at the plate.  It’s completely understandable.  Catchers who block the plate are in danger of injury, one of the most serious being a concussion.  However, just like there’s no way to ensure a pitcher won’t blow out his arm (even if his innings are limited), there’s no way to guarantee a catcher won’t be injured (even if he’s instructed to not block the plate).  Catchers who instead utilize the swipe tag are still putting themselves in a position of danger.  A catcher can easily break his hand, wrist, or arm while applying a swipe tag to a runner who is barreling through the plate.

Alderson noted above that the Mets are unsure whether d’Arnaud being asked to not block the plate will be a permanent directive.  He also stated that whatever they decide will likely be adopted universally throughout their system – which is smart.

Asking d’Arnaud (or any other catcher on any other team) to not block the plate during spring training makes perfect sense.  There’s no reason to risk injury during a meaningless game.  d’Arnaud injured his knee last season in a collision that wasn’t catching related (he was attempting to break up a double play at second base), so it would be foolish if the Mets hadn’t instructed him to take it easy during spring training games.  Once the regular season begins, that line of thinking should change.

I recently finished reading Long Shot, Mike Piazza‘s autobiography.  In the book, Piazza noted that he always picked his spots (as far as when to block the plate).  If the score was out of hand and/or his team was out of contention, he usually wouldn’t risk injuring himself by blocking the dish.  However, in cases where the game was close and/or extra important, he would put his body on the line in an attempt to get the out.

Piazza had it right, and his philosophy regarding the issue is what should be adopted by the Mets and their catchers.  If the team is out of it in a particular game or if the season has already slipped away, don’t risk your health by blocking the plate.

In cases where both the potential run and game is of importance, you simply can’t, as Terry Collins noted above “let them have the plate.”  Blocking the plate is part of the game, and it should remain that way.  Universally refusing to allow a catcher to do what’s necessary to get an out at the plate, due to fear of injury, would be absurd and hurt the game of baseball.

Think of it this way…

It’s the 162nd game of the season.  The Mets need a win to lock up a playoff spot.  It’s the top of the seventh, there’s a runner on second base, and the Mets are up by a run.  An opposing player lines a single to left and the runner rounds third and heads for home.  Travis d’Arnaud receives the throw and is able to set himself and prepare for the ensuing collision.  Should he block the plate, or give the runner a lane to score while attempting a swipe tag?  How that’s even a debatable question is beyond me.

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