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Emptying the plate: baseball to ban collisions at home

As well as the trade news last week from Florida, the Playing Rules Committee also voted to end the long-standing "tradition" of runners coming into home-plate and bowling over catchers. But will the change have any real results?

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Absolutely no possibility of anything going wrong here...
Absolutely no possibility of anything going wrong here...
Matt Kartozian-US PRESSWIRE

The proposal is still in its early stages, but will likely be based off the similar rules which are in play for the game at the non-professional level. However, there's still a lot of process to go through. The draft version has to be approved by the Rules Committee, in time for the next set of owners' meetings, which take place next month. If the new rules are given the green-light there, they then need to be endorsed by the Major League Baseball Players Association. The Rules Committee's chairman, Mets General Manager Sandy Alderson believes this can all be done in time to get the rules in play for the upcoming season.

Here's an example of the American Legion rule, to show you the kind of thing which could be implemented.

K. Collisions.

The intent of this Rule is to encourage base runners and defensive players to avoid collisions whenever possible.

1. When there is a collision between a runner and a fielder who clearly is in possession of the ball, the umpire shall judge:
a. Whether the collision by the runner was avoidable (e.g.,could the runner have reached the base without colliding) or unavoidable (e.g., the runner's path to the base was blocked), or
b. Whether the runner was actually attempting to reach the base (or plate) or if he was attempting to dislodge the ball from the fielder.

If it is deemed that the runner a) could have avoided the collision and reached the base, or b) attempted to dislodge the ball, the runner shall be declared out, even if the fielder loses possession of the ball. The ball is dead, and all base runners shall return to the last base touched at the time of the interference.

a. Ruling 1: If the fielder blocks the path of the base runner to the base (or plate), the runner may make contact, slide into, or collide with a fielder, as long as the runner is making a legitimate attempt to reach the base or plate.
b. Ruling 2: If the collision by the runner is flagrant, the runner shall be declared out and ejected from the contest. The ball shall be declared dead.

2. If the defensive player blocks the base (plate) or base line without the ball, obstruction shall be called. The runner is safe, and a delayed dead ball shall be called.
a. Ruling: If the runner collides flagrantly, he shall be declared safe on the obstruction, but will be ejected from the contest. The ball is dead.

3. Malicious Contact is illegal. Any player who, in the judgment of the umpire, maliciously contacts another player is automatically ejected, and if the offender is a runner, is declared out.

a. The majority of intentional collisions occur at home plate, where the catcher is blocking the plate. Runners are to slide directly to the plate, or away from the catcher, to avoid making contact with the catcher, especially when the defender is in possession of the ball. If there is any intentional and excessive force, or if there is any perceived intent to injure another player, the offending player shall be ejected from the game. This applies regardless if committed by an offensive or defensive player.

There seems a lot of judgment needed to enforce the above, including too many words like "avoidable," "intentional" and "excessive" for me to be comfortable. Dealing with a play which occurs in a split-second, judging "perceived intent" is going to be tough. Still, guess that's why major-league umps get the big bucks - for their telepathic skills. The poster-child for the change is, of course, St. Buster. But in terms of injuries, that seems more the exception. I think an at least equal threat is the takeout slide at second, with the sole purpose of destroying the pivot man - whose attention is also likely to be on getting his throw off to first, rather than the runner. Witness the following:

I'm not able to grasp the degree of doublethink required, which allows baseball to trumpet its home-plate rule change, saying, ''The costs associated in terms of health and injury just no longer warrant the status quo," while at the same time, nodding in acceptance of the above. Even the manager of the victim called it, "a good slide," despite the season-ending broken leg that resulted. So I wonder whether replacing collisions with slides will truly decrease the number or severity of injuries occurring at home-plate: as our own Stephen Drew showed, even a slide with virtually no contact can prove devastating, never mind one where you're sliding in to another player.

Somewhat related, I note that since 2008, Little League has required the use of "disengage-able" bases, which release and move if a runner slides into them. In a two-year study prior to the decision, over an almost equal number of games played on fields of each type, "45 players sustained injuries on the stationary-base field while only two were injured on the fields with disengage-able bases." That's a 95% reduction in injury rate, yet major-league baseball opts to retain bases which require 3,500 foot pounds of force to dislodge. Ask Orlando Hudson, who had his 2007 season ended by an injury when he jammed his hand into a base.

Perhaps a more legitimate argument in favor of banning collisions is the risk of concussions, which have become an area of increasing concern, not just in baseball but across all professional sport. The number of trips to the DL increased by over 50% last season over 2012, though it's unclear whether this is due to the higher awareness, or a genuine increase in the injuries. Either way, it's certainly worth addressing: however, collisions are a relatively trivial cause. In September, USA Today found that 90% of DL stints for concussions to catchers this year, were the result of foul tips off the mask, not plays at the plate.

There have been suggestions that lighter, titanium-based catchers' masks are partly to blame. The "hockey style" masks are lighter, offer greater visibility, and protect the entire head. But in the recent ALCS, both David Ross of the Red Sox and the Tigers' Alex Avila had switched back to heavier, steel-based equipment. However, "because the hockey mask fits so closely to the face, many believe it does not do a great job of dispersing the force of impact. Steel masks... do give, and the bars are farther away from the face and backed up with thicker padding, allowing for better dispersal of the force of impact." MLB seems to have been virtually silent on this topic too.

Overall, to me, while probably no bad thing, the proposal to outlaw home-plate collisions feels perilously close to the recent one requiring metal-detectors to be installed at all major-league parks: a cosmetic fix, designed far more to address a perceived risk, rather than the ones which are actually more serious. Collisions at home-plate - whether they result in injury or not - always receive a great deal more attention than a slide into second-base, simply because they make for better highlight-reel fodder, appealing to the Roman gladiator buried (sometimes, not too deeply) inside virtually every sports-fan.

Witness the video below, my favorite from the genre of home collisions. This shows Diamondbacks catching prospect Stryker Trahan confronted by a runner approaching home-plate full-speed, with carnage on his mind. It doesn't quite end as you'd expect.