Don’t be fooled by Major League Baseball’s new rule banning collisions at home plate. It is not the Buster Posey Rule. Sure some fans, pundits and MLB officials may formally or informally call it that after the San Francisco Giants star catcher was injured in a collision in 2011. But that is only part of the story. If Major League Baseball truly cared about player safety when it comes to collisions at home plate, the rule would have been implemented in 1971 and dubbed the Ray Fosse Rule.

Pete Rose of the Cincinnati Red plowed into Fosse, then a 23-year-old catcher for the Cleveland Indians, to win the 1970 All-Star Game. The game was meaningless, of course, except to Fosse, who suffered a broken shoulder and whose career never really blossomed after a brilliant start (he later played for the Oakland A’s, Seattle Mariners and Milwaukee Brewers, and he’s had a pretty fair run as a broadcaster for the Oakland A’s).

By the way, here’s what Pete Rose told the Associated Press after he found out about the new rule:

“What are they going to do next, you can’t break up a double play? You’re not allowed to pitch inside. The hitters wear more armor than the Humvees in Afghanistan. Now you’re not allowed to be safe at home plate? What’s the game coming to? Evidently the guys making all these rules never played the game of baseball.”

Back to Buster Posey. In 2011, Florida’s Scott Cousins plowed into the former Rookie of the Year, bending him backwards. His leg snapped and he writhed in agony behind the plate. His season was over, and the Giants lost perhaps their single most important player. With him, the Giants won the 2010 and 2012 World Series. Without him, they failed to make the playoffs.

Since that 2011 incident, Giants manager Bruce Bochy has pushed for banning collisions at home plate. Obviously, because of Posey. And for the most part, baseball pundits, officials and old-school players said collisions were just part of the game.

So why, after more than a century of runners trying to flatten catchers on close plays at the plate, has Major League Baseball decided to change the rules? Several reasons: Money and winning are the top two. Posey, for instance, signed a nine-year, $167 million contract earlier this year. But he’s not only the only superstar catcher making big money. The St. Louis Cardinals signed catcher Yadier Molina to a five-year, $75 million deal. Minnesota’s Joe Mauer is in the middle of an eight-year, $184 million contract.

So the guy who squats behind the plate for three hours every game, directs the pitchers, and positions the fielders gets paid a lot — especially if they can hit a little, too. And with all that cash at stake, it becomes easier to see why team owners see the eminent good sense of preventing major injuries to their catchers.

And then there’s the role of sabermetrics.

Let’s presume a player starts every game and plays every inning. He’ll play at least 1,458 innings in a season, and more with extra-inning and playoff games). So one out in one inning becomes devalued greatly, unless of course that out ends a superstar’s season.

Sabermetrics, once a nerdy statistical subculture, is now overrunning baseball (Exhibit A: Oakland General Manager Billy Beane and “Moneyball“). Using stats is not new in the game. But now it’s a driving force. Beane once dumped guys thought to be big names that scouts loved for a misfit band of players few had heard of (see Scott Hatteberg). The A’s continue to win with low payrolls and the complex statistical calculations of a player became more intriguing to guys running teams.

New measures developed by Bill James and other sabermetrics pioneers — runs created, OPS (on-base plus slugging) and WAR (wins above replacement), just to name a few — have become a top priority. So more teams have hired young stats guys as GMs and assistants to GMs. (By the way, Buster Posey’s WAR in 2012 was 7.4. That means, in his MVP year, he was worth nearly seven-and-a-half wins more than any replacement the Giants had in the minors or on the bench.)

So now that the major leagues are looking more at these exotic numbers, one run in one inning of one game is so devalued that allowing a runner to plow into a catcher is dangerous, not only because one or both of them might get hurt, but because it is just not that important in the grand scheme of all those outs, innings and games.

Another reason for the change is right in front of us. Both San Francisco’s Bruce Bochy and Oakland’s Bob Melvin were catchers. In fact, a number of managers now were once catchers. And that makes sense — after all catchers are considered field generals. The St. Louis Cardinals’ Mike Matheny made a strong push for the ban on collisions at the plate. He’s another former catcher who retired from the game, citing an ongoing issue with concussions. He also manages the aforementioned All-Star Yadier Molina.

And concussions are a concern too. Major League Baseball officials must have been looking at the National Football League’s recent settlement with former players over the issue. The agreement was for $765 million and involved 4,500 players. Could the MLB allow players to continue to take these hits at the plate in good faith, knowing they could cause head injuries? The safe bet is to just ban them outright, right?

Whatever the reason for the change, it doesn’t really matter. The new rule will punish runners for targeting catchers, punish catchers for blocking the plate and a decision on both will be reviewable immediately to umpires (another new rule: an instant replay feature). All that is good for America’s pastime.

After all, we watch sports because on any given day we may see something magical, improbable. It’s about watching world-class athletes (even baseball players) show excellence in competition and performance, not writhing in pain and being carted or carried off the field.

  • Honest Wagner

    Pete Rose, god help his sorry soul, is right. But he’s missing something: Players are *already* declining to break up double plays. Major League Baseball seems bent on making the American Pastime so boring as to be unwatchable. Never mind that you can’t skip out of work for a few hours to catch a day game anymore or that games last twice as long as they used to, MLB also has been either a driver of or complicit in most of the other changes that are eroding the character of the game, whether that’s the steroid-fueled era where we all sat around on our hands waiting for home runs or this new no-contact era we seem to be moving into. We don’t have to turn baseball into the cartoon of violence that is American football, but we shouldn’t have to turn it into tennis, either. I don’t know what name to put on the sterile activity the MLB wants to sell. Just don’t call it baseball.


Alex Helmick

Alex Helmick is the supervising editor of KQED's newscast unit. He leads a team of 10 and edits content for KQED’s 20 daily newscasts as well as occasionally editing The California Report.

Before joining KQED, Alex worked in Geneva, Switzerland, where he reported from the United Nations European Headquarters and later hosted a 2-hour daily current events program. In 2009, he covered the war in Afghanistan and its impact on the humanitarian crisis in the country. He has also covered business in Chicago and produced the evening news for WBEZ.

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