More on Carlos Santana and Yesterday’s Big Collision

First, I apologize to readers who were rightfully angered and outraged that the original title of yesterday’s post about the home plate collision between the Indian’s Carlos Santana and the Red Sox Ryan Kalish stated that Carlos Santana “Got What He Deserved”.  It was a stupid thing for me to write.

No player deserves to suffer a potentially serious injury simply because he was a bit too aggressive in trying to make a play.

I wrote and published the piece immediately after watching the video.  It stirred my pet-peeve about catchers blocking the plate without the ball, which I believe violates both the letter and the spirit of the rules.  However, to blame Carlos Santana for doing something catchers routinely do and which MLB refuses to stop was just flat wrong.

Writing what I did also stirred up needless controversy and completely undermined what the post really should have been about.  The following is more along the lines of what I should have written yesterday.

Someone posted a comment to yesterday’s post stating that MLB rules clearly allow catchers to block the plate without the ball if they are in the act of “fielding” a throw from another player.  He cited the Note to MLB Rule 7.06(b) which states in its entirety:

“NOTE: The catcher, without the ball in his possession, has no right to block the pathway of the runner attempting to score. The base line belongs to the runner and the catcher should be there only when he is fielding a ball or when he already has the ball in his hand.”

The first sentence of the Note and the first half of the second sentence could not be more clear: “The catcher, without the ball in his possession, has no right to block the pathway of the runner attempting to score” and “The base line belongs to the runner…”

The second half of the second sentence provides two exceptions to this bright-line rule: the catcher can be in the base path if: (1) he already has the ball in his hand; or (2) when he is fielding the ball.

The comment contended that “fielding the ball” includes catching throws from other fielders.  I do not believe this is the most reasonable interpretation, and I contend it was not way the rule was originally enforced.

Instead, “fielding the ball” meant fielding a batted ball (i.e., a bunt or a swinging bunt), where as a matter of necessity the catcher must cross the base path to field the ball in play.

Let’s watch the video of yesterday’s collision again.  See how Santana set up to receive the throw from right field, and as the throw comes in toward him, his back leg slides across the foul line and into the base runner’s path?

Sliding his back leg into the path of the uncoming runner is obviously unnecessary for Santana to “field” the throw.  Instead, it is done for the sole purpose of blocking the base path and impeding the runner’s progress for an additional period of time so that the catcher (Santana) has additional time to catch the ball and apply the tag before the runner (Kalish) scores.

There’s no way that Santana’s maneuver does not violate both the letter and the spirit of the first sentence and the second half of the second sentence of the Note to Rule 7.06(b).  In fact, allowing catchers to block the plate in this manner renders those portions of the Note superfluous and irrelevant.

This is obviously a legalistic argument, but I am hardly the first person to make it.  Here’s what Bill James wrote in his Historical Baseball Abstract, 1988 Ed. at pp. 187-188:

“The modern method of blocking the plate is, quite simply, illegal.  If you read the rule book (Rule 7.06 B), it is quite clear that the catcher is not allowed to block home plate in any way, shape or form without having the ball in his hand.  Period.”

James then spends the next couple of pages explaining his research into baseball history on the subject and the evidence supporting his claim that catchers didn’t block the plate between 1900 and the Second World War the way they do today.

As I stated yesterday, I believe the reason the rule is either interpreted differently today or simply not enforced as the game has evolved is that the fans find collisions at the plate, where the runner fights to score and the catcher fights to keep him from scoring, exciting.  Nevermind that it means that more catchers and more baserunners are hurt by more collisions which could easily be prevented.

However, the rule against catchers blocking the plate is to a certain degree self-enforcing.  What I mean is catchers who routinely block off the plate as aggressively as Santana did yesterday eventually get seriously hurt because eventually a base runner will clobber him.

A number of comments to yesterday’s post assigned the blame on the play to Red Sox rookie Ryan Kalish for coming in with a high slide.  I don’t buy this argument at all.

The Note to the Rule clearly states, “the baseline belongs to the runner.”  In that case, why should Ryan Kalish, a rookie fighting to stay on a major league roster, be required to run around the catcher or slide prematurely?  In either case, he’s essentially conceding the run because the catcher is bending the rules.

Someone stated that young players are taught to either slide or throw an upright block, and not to slide late and hard.  Frankly, I played little league ball for years, and I don’t ever remember a catcher ever trying to block the plate the way major league catchers do.

In fact, I would be very surprised if high school or college players are allowed to block home plate as aggressively as the pros do, because it’s just asking for more serious injuries that could easily be prevented.

I think the game would be exciting enough if the rule were clarified to provide that unless the catcher has the ball in his hand or the throw in from another fielder reasonably requires the catcher to move into the base path in order to catch it, the catcher simply can’t be in the base paths.

If that were the rule (and it was enforced), injuries like Santana’s would be avoided.

P.S.  Here’s the text of Rule 7.06(b) with comments and notes from mlb.com.

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4 Comments on “More on Carlos Santana and Yesterday’s Big Collision”

  1. Bill Vogel Says:

    I agree with you 100%. If the catcher wants to exercise his “right” to block the base path I suppose the runner has the “right” to slam into him and bend his extended leg backwards, potentially ending the catcher’s career. Living with a knee that bends backwards is fine only if you’re wading for shrimp and call yourself a flamingo.

    • Burly Says:

      If catchers are allowed to block the plate in the manner Santana did, collisions are inevitable. Sometimes, the catcher is going to get hurt, sometimes the base runner is going to get hurt and sometimes no one is going to get hurt. This time it was the catcher who got hurt.

      I posted a comment on August 4 stating that Santana was expected to be back before the end of the season. That was incorrect. He reportedly had surgery today on his strained lateral collateral ligament, and is expected to return next Spring Training.

  2. Tom Rhoads Says:

    See the definition of “obstruction” in Rule 2 – that’s the missing piece of the puzzle. Receiving a throw may be considered fielding in that *if* the fielder’s position to receive a thrown ball puts him in the path of the runner, it’s not obstruction. However, the rule also says that it’s up to the ump whether the fielder is “in the act of fielding” in this situation (or in any possible obstruction case for that matter).

    My read is that Santana could be called for obstruction in this situation, but I would want to see the play better (the tiny web highlight clip isn’t very good). The only part of his body that’s in the baseline is his extended leg. Honestly, it seems like a risky thing to do. On the other hand, the throw appeared to be coming in fairly low (great throw, no?) and he either had to split or squat to catch it. Squatting would limit his mobility, so he split his legs.

    However, just because I think Santana was probably within the rules doesn’t mean I want to see home plate collisions. I think the rules ought to be written and enforced in a way that doesn’t encourage players to risk injury to themselves or others. This is a live issue again in 2010 after Buster Posey’s season-ending collision with Scott Cousins. In that case I would say the fault lies with the runner. Cousins clearly went hard into Posey, leading with his shoulder. That’s football, not baseball, and it stunned me to see it.

    • Burly Says:

      I’ve watched the Cousins-Posey collision a few times, and I don’t really blame Cousins for what happened. While Posey was not blocking home as aggressively as Carlos Santana did last year, at the time the collision happened Posey appeared to be in the base path trying to catch the ball and apply the tag.

      Cousins is a marginal major leaguer who was hitting about .160-something at the time the collision happened, and he’s already 26 years old. That essentially means that his only way to stay in the majors is to do everything he possibly can to score in that situation, short of an outright violation of the rules.

      It’s up to MLB to change the rules if they want to reduce the number of home plate collisions. I still think the best way to do this is to insist that umpires enforce a rule that catchers cannot move into the base path until the ball is actually in their hands, or the ball can only be caught by moving into the basepath (which is rarely the case).


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