Baseball Must Protect the Catcher

Baseball history tells us that perhaps the hardest animal to find is a strong offensive catcher. Mike Piazza leads the all-time catchers list with an OPS of .9217, which places him 47th on the all-time list among all players. Mickey Cochrane is the No. 2 catcher on the all-time list, ranking 68th at .897. Every other position is represented before catcher, and only three catchers (active catching leader Joe Mauer being the other) are in the top 100 in the OPS department.

There’s a reason that great offensive catchers are few and far between, and might not be seen again. With the seemingly season-ending injury to San Francisco’s Buster Posey on Wednesday night, the top offensive catcher in each league is injured. With all of the things that can happen to put a catcher out of action, it makes little sense to leave an offensive star at that position with rules that ask base runners to flatten them.

Mauer signed an eight-year, $184 million contract with the Twins last year. He played 137 games last season, but didn’t play until late this spring training because of knee surgery, and has appeared in only nine games so far this season. Mauer has what is called “bilateral leg weakness,” a neurological disorder that causes weakness in both legs. While the disease apparently isn’t related to catching, his second knee surgery certainly was.

Posey was trying to set up to tag out Scott Cousins of the Marlins when Cousins barreled into him; dving and leading with his shoulder to Posey’s shoulder and head. Posey wasn’t able to handle the ball, but the hit by Cousins bent the Giants’ catcher backwards, tearing ligaments in his ankles and breaking his leg. Although the club won’t say it, it seems clear that the former first-round pick, and last year’s NL Rookie of the Year and post-season hero, is done for 2011.

Not only that, but he may not be able to come back to the spot he’s manned for the last year. Giants trainer Dave Groeschner told Amy Gutierrez of CSN Bay Area that while the injury is serious, he did not rule out that Posey could catch again.

“He has age on his side; he’s a great athlete,” Groeschner said. That’s a sobering thought for Giants’ fans, who now must think of Posey as just a possibility at catcher, but also at shortstop, where he was a freshman All-American in 2006; first base, where he started his major league career; or the outfield.

When the play happened, I thought, “That’s baseball.” But does it have to be? I rolled my eyes when I saw that Posey’s agent, Jeff Berry, was going to call MLB vice president, and longtime catcher Joe Torre, to ask for a rules change. Torre told Colin Cowherd of ESPN Radio a rule to protect catchers won’t happen.

“No, that’s the game,” Torre said. “Even at second base, if you’re there, you’re in harm’s way. We teach (runners to) get in there and knock the ball out of his glove if you’re talking about a catcher or second baseman. Try to knock the second basemen over. That doesn’t mean you want him to get hurt.”

I love Torre, but after giving it some thought, I disagree with him. Just because that’s the way it’s been, it doesn’t have to be that way forever.

Giants manager Bruce Bochy, a former big-league catcher himself, thought the same thing, saying, “It’s part of baseball. I understand that guys run into catchers. I do think we need to consider changing the rules here a little bit because catchers are so vulnerable. … Here’s a guy (Posey) who’s very popular in baseball. Fans want to see him play and now he’s out for a while. So I’d like to see something considered where we can protect these guys a little bit more. They just don’t have that protection to take a guy coming in full speed with that kind of force.”

That makes sense. Hockey used to allow players to play that didn’t wear helmets, but enacted a rule that requires them to. The NFL has gone to great lengths to limit helmet-to-helmet hits, which have been part of their sport for decades. Other sports consistently talk about increasing the safety of their athletes. So why should a catcher be a sitting duck? Cousins could have easily slid in foul territory and been safe, but he decided to flatten the catcher.

The Giants have a lot invested in Posey. He’s the centerpiece of their offense, in addition to being one of the keys to their superb pitching staff. He does everything well, and shouldn’t have to switch positions until the position causes wear and tear in his knees. Mauer is already feeling the effects of catching after those two knee surgeries. The position does enough to whittle away at catchers’ skills. Should they be subjected to collisions that no other player on a field is subjected? And should the Twins, with their financial investment, have to worry about Mauer getting run over on a play at the plate?

Baseball should take a page from hockey and football, and make a rule to enhance player safety. Call a base runner that bowls over a defenseless catcher out. If a catcher, like Posey, is in a “defenseless position,” as the NFL would say, make him off limits. If he has the ball and is actually blocking the plate, it’s a play. If not, the play is like one at second base on a double play, where the runner can slide, but not barrel in shoulder first.

History already has too few great offensive catchers. Teams and players shouldn’t have to worry about their futures because “this is the way baseball has always done it.” Runners are bigger, stronger and faster than they’ve ever been. To preserve the precious all-around great catchers baseball has, runners should be given a red light when they put a catcher’s well-being in danger.