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Matt Smith is the editor and lead writer at BaseballGB. An Oakland A's fan, Matt has been obsessed with baseball since 1998 and started writing about the sport in 2006.

Weekly Hit Ground Ball: Posey’s injury poses many questions

WHGB11The recent injury suffered by the San Francisco Giants’ catcher Buster Posey has led many to debate whether the rules should be changed to stop such collisions at the plate. 

I have always found it curious that this type of physical play is allowed to happen in the first place.  Baseball is typically a non-contact sport and allowing two players to collide in this way – the runner deliberately trying to smash the catcher, who is effectively a sitting duck – just seems odd. 

There’s no skill to it, the play is merely a test of misguided bravado.  It’s not ‘playing hard’, it’s ‘playing dumb’.

Still, plays at the plate are one of the most exciting parts of baseball.  That’s shown by the buzz that sweeps through the crowd when a player tags up or hurtles around third while the outfielder pegs the ball in from the outfield.  You don’t want to take that away from the game by changing the rules to greatly hand the advantage to one side.  It should be a contest, just one that involves skill (a masterful sweeping tag by the catcher, an acrobatic leap and slide by the runner etc) rather than muscle.

The incident and resulting injury have hit the headlines because of the person who ended up on the wrong end of the collision.  If it had happened to the Giants’ back-up catcher Eli Whiteside for example then – rightly or wrongly – it wouldn’t have generated such a loud reaction. 

Buster Posey is one of the brightest young stars in the game, a player of great importance to his team and the sort of talent that any baseball fan, regardless of their rooting interests, should be sad to see shelved for any length of time.  It’s natural that an incident involving him should raise concerns, but perhaps the Giants and Posey might have acknowledged them more before the incident even happened. 

On any given day a catcher could be involved in a close play at the plate.  If the potential loss of Posey would be so devastating, should he be put at such risk in the first place? 

Moving him to another fielding position would be going too far, certainly so early in his career.  If someone is a good catcher and can hit as well as Posey can then that’s a great advantage for any team.  However, there are ways that a catcher can protect himself through the position they take up when fielding a play at the plate.

Posey got himself into an awkward position to receive the ball and that clearly played its part in him suffering an injury.  Similarly you often see catchers blocking the plate and essentially challenging the baserunner to run them over if they want to score.  Posey didn’t quite do that in this case, Scott Cousins did have part of the plate to slide into, but it’s the sort of thing you see in the Majors time and again and it leaves you wondering how more injuries don’t occur. 

As Posey begins his recovery, the Giants should think about whether they can do more in helping their young star protect himself in future; working on his positioning and making it clear to him that he doesn’t have to put his body on the line.

This may make it harder to stop the runner in some cases, but the risk of letting a run score every now and then has got to be worth taking when the alternative is to lose the heartbeat of your team for a substantial length of time.

Pitchers should pitch in at the plate

In discussing Interleague play last week, I only made a brief mention of the issues caused by the two leagues playing by different rules.  Two National League games on ESPN America made me think about the topic more closely this week.

ESPN America was showing the game between the Tampa Bay Rays and Detroit Tigers before rain disrupted play and the channel turned its attention to the Washington Nationals-Milwaukee Brewers game instead. 

We joined the action just after Mike Morse had hit a home run off Zack Greinke to tie the game at 3-3.  It was the only blot on Greinke’s strong pitching performance and he backed that up with his first home run in a Brewers’ uniform.  It wasn’t a cheap effort either, sailing high through the sky and just bending the right-way around the foul pole. 

Greinke had previously hit a home run for the Royals during Interleague play and was known as a decent hitter prior to his professional pitching career.  He wasn’t the only pitcher swinging the lumber to good effect either.

The next night on ESPN America, Cliff Lee went 2-for-4 at the plate for the Phillies while driving in three runs.  Carlos Zambrano, probably the best-hitting pitcher in the Majors, had a 3-for-3 night against the Mets on Thursday as well.  Then you had the D-Backs’ Zach Duke hitting a three-run homer on Saturday against the Astros, and the Astros’ J.A. Happ hitting a longball of his own yesterday. 

Watching pitchers get key hits is one of the joys of National League play and most baseball fans also appreciate seeing a pitcher do the less-flashy, but equally important and skilful tasks such as laying down bunts to advance runners.  I don’t mind the two leagues playing by different rules; it adds something to the Majors by creating two slightly different styles of the game.  However, if consensus called for the rules to be aligned then there’s no doubt which way it should go. 

There are a very small number of genuinely star-level hitters who would be affected by the DH being discarded (demonstrated starkly on Saturday when the Toronto Blue Jays used Corey Patterson as a DH. Yes he hit a walk-off home run, but he’s still a long, long way from being an impact bat, as his lifetime sub .300 on-base percentage shows). On the other hand, pitchers taking their spot in the batting lineup forces managers into making additional tactical decisions about in-game substitutions and, more importantly, pushes pitchers into developing another side to their game.  That’s something all professional sportsmen should take pride in doing, even if that means using their athletic talent and dedication simply to become adequate at a particular skill.

Infielder Wilson Valdez’s recent pitching effort may have been something of a freak event, but pitchers stepping up to the plate should continue to be a regular part of baseball.

Seeing-eye singles

I keep hoping that the Twins will recover some good form to make my prediction that they would get to the World Series look marginally less silly.  Those hopes haven’t come to much yet.  All is not completely lost though.  Their loss against the Angels on Friday, letting a 5-0 lead slip in the final two innings, could have pushed them over the edge; however they followed it up with a stunning victory on Saturday.  Anthony Swarzak pitched eight shut-out innings in a spot start, taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning, and Danny Valencia hit a walk-off single in the tenth to win the game 1-0.  That showed a lot of character in Ron Gardenhire’s team.

Evan Longoria in the lead-off spot for the Rays?  Manager Joe Maddon is never afraid to try something unconventional and it might be just what’s needed to help the third baseman out of a slump.

It will take a while for the Giants’ gloom to lift, but Brandon Crawford really gave their fans something to smile about on Friday night. He became only the sixth player in Major League history to hit a grand slam in his first big league at-bat.

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  1. BaseballGB » Weekly Hit Ground Ball: The Draft - June 6, 2011

    [...] the point that Posey got himself into a “bad position” on the play.  As stated in this column last week, there are ways for the catcher to protect himself on that sort of play.  Again, that’s not to [...]

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