Posey Leveled. Is a Clean Hit a Retaliation-Worthy Offense?

You be the judge: Did Scott Cousins go out of his way to hit Buster Posey?

By now, you’ve either seen the replay or willfully avoided it. In the 12th inning of Wednesday’s game between the Giants and the Marlins, Scott Cousins came barreling home with what he hoped would be the winning run. Giants right fielder Nate Schierholtz fired a strike that would have nailed the runner had catcher Buster Posey held onto the ball.

Posey did not hold onto the ball. Cousins, unaware of this, leveled him.

It was a split-second play, Cousins reacting as he was taught—to initiate contact with the catcher in hopes of dislodging the baseball. His approach was standard, and his hit was clean.

As with many plays involving baseball’s codes, however, there is a caveat: Posey was positioned perfectly, toward the pitcher’s mound, just up the line. He did not block the plate before he had the ball (which would have given Cousins unlimited leeway to do whatever he had to). The runner was offered a clear path to the dish—a tactic enacted specifically to avoid unnecessary contact. (Watch the play here.)

The result: a broken leg and torn ankle ligaments for the Giants’ most indispensable player, who will be out of action indefinitely.

The question in the wake of this devastating news is whether Cousins’ slide was appropriate. As is true with many sections of the Code, there are multiple ways to answer.

Yes, Cousins’ takeout was appropriate. It’s the hard-nosed approach ballplayers should take when trying to score on a contested play. It is, argue many within the game, as close as a play comes to embodying the competitive spirit of baseball. A collision at the plate is, without question, the most exciting moment in a given game.

Then again, if Cousins could have scored without contact, why not do it that way? (Take, for example, last year’s collisions involving Angels catcher Bobby Wilson and Indians catcher Carlos Santana, each of whom was run over by vicious hits; because they both were blocking the plate without the ball, repercussions for the baserunners were minimal.)

“Is it a cheap shot?” asked Giants manager Bruce Bochy on Giants’ flagship KNBR (as reported by the San Jose Mercury News). “It depends who you’re talking to. They happen all the time, home-plate collisions. I think he thought the ball was going to beat him. He decided to go at Buster and try to knock it loose, that’s what it looked like to me. But there was a lane for him.” (Listen to it here.)

Bochy knows this drill well. He was a big league catcher for nine seasons, a manager for 17. He has been blown up by baserunners, and understands that it’s part of a catcher’s job description. But it’s also part of his current job description to protect his guys. As such, he called for baseball to examine the rule regarding home-plate collisions.

He’s not the only one.

“You leave players way too vulnerable,” Posey’s agent, Jeff Berry, told ESPN’s Buster Olney. “I can tell you Major League Baseball is less than it was before [Posey's injury]. It’s stupid. I don’t know if this ends up leading to a rule change, but it should. The guy [at the plate] is too exposed.

“If you go helmet to helmet in the NFL, it’s a $100,000 fine, but in baseball, you have a situation in which runners are [slamming into] fielders. It’s brutal. It’s borderline shocking. It just stinks for baseball.”

Berry took his complaints to Joe Torre, who heads up on-field operations for MLB.

Whatever Torre decides, as the rules currently stand, actions like Cousins’ are entirely permissible. After watching replays, several members of the Giants spoke out in defense of the Florida outfielder. “We think it was (a clean hit),” said Freddy Sanchez in the Mercury News. Added Schierholtz, “It’s part of the game. There’s really no right way to take a hit.”

Schierholtz, of course, was once on the other side of the equation, when he plowed into China’s catcher during the 2008 Olympics.

Nobody was more clear on the propriety of the event than Cousins himself, who was reportedly in tears upon hearing that Posey might be lost for the remainder of the season.

“It’s a baseball play,” he said in the Palm Beach Post. “It’s part of the risk of being a catcher. We’re trying to win games also. I’m not going to concede the out by any means, not in that situation, not ever. I’m on this team to help do the little things to help this team win a game and if that means going hard and forcing the issue on the bases because I have speed, then that’s what I’m going to do.”

On a micro level, the question now is: Should the Giants retaliate?

The answer is as complex as the issues leading up to the question. The play was clean. From a long view it was also unnecessary, but in the moment it’s tough to begrudge Cousins the decision he made.

Cousins did not play in Wednesday’s series finale, and a 1-0 score prevented any batters from being intentionally hit.

Cousins said he called Posey twice, and plans to send him a written apology. It might not be enough. If the Giants do seek revenge, it will be typical fare: Sometime during the teams’ next meeting, Aug. 12-14 in Florida, Cousins will be drilled in the ribs, thigh or backside. It will be small payback for the loss of Posey, who will almost certainly not have returned by that point, but it will have satisfied the Code’s requirement. When a player of Posey’s stature gets injured on a questionable play, payback is frequently part of the response.

Perhaps the definitive comment came from Giants broadcaster Mike Krukow, via the San Francisco Chronicle:

I hate what happened last night, but it was a clean play. The law of the land. It was a hard, aggressive play, and hell, it won the game (7-6) for them. What, you change the rules so no contact is allowed? No way to do that.

Tell you what, though. When I pitch against that guy (Cousins), I drill him. Oh, yeah, I’m smokin’ him. That’s legal, too, last time I checked.

Then again, should the Giants opt to let it slide, it will likely fail to make waves. This may be one of those instances in which the victim’s reaction dictates his teammates’ response: If Posey is angry, fastballs will undoubtedly fly in August. If, as a catcher, he appreciates Cousins’ clean intentions, that outcome is far less certain.

- Jason

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15 Comments

Filed under Buster Posey, Running Into the Catcher, Scott Cousins

15 responses to “Posey Leveled. Is a Clean Hit a Retaliation-Worthy Offense?

  1. kevin

    Will be interesting to see how this unfolds. Clearly it wasn’t intentional but with only a split-second available it seems reasonable that Cousins decided to crash into Posey. I can’t say that I would have recognized that a lane was open with that amount of time either. Was curios though, on the Carlos Santana play last year, was there any retaliation from the Tribe? I don’t recall that there was.

  2. If Posey comes up with that ball, it’s an easy sweep tag if Cousins doesn’t clean him up. I agree with Keith Law here. Get rid of collisions. Call the obstruction if it’s there and stop catchers from blocking the plate without the ball (not that Posey was).

  3. Chris

    I’ve seen the replay a couple of times. There was clearly no intent on Cousins’ part. His first reaction after touching the plate was to check on Posey. As for eliminating collisions at the plate, it’s impossible to do without turning the game into something resembling beer-league softball. And if you do somehow remove them, what’s next, disallowing take-out slides to break up potential double plays?

    • Jason Turbow

      Cousins was nothing but concerned; he handled the aftermath just right – purely professional. It won’t keep him from getting dotted, thought, if that’s what the Giants choose.

  4. Very good post. I sure don’t hope they throw at him. I just don’t really agree with the reaction that has come about because of this. I’m not amazed by the reaction because this is type of reaction happens all the time. We overreact to a single extreme event that influences our decision on a matter that for the most part would have been insignificant otherwise. I don’t see a need for a rule change and the reason for the change sure shouldn’t be because a one star player was injured one time. Also, you think you could take a peek at my blog because I really want to know what you think about what I have to say on this http://chrisross91.wordpress.com/2011/05/27/buster-posey-silliness/

    • Jason Turbow

      You make some good points about sudden calls for rules changes regarding collisions with the catcher. I said essentially the same thing on the radio last night – that a leap to reaction based on an unusual event is rarely prescient. Posey’s mishap was an outlier, not the norm; to take away the most exciting play in baseball as a result would be a grave over-reaction. (I will distinguish it, however, from the point you made on your blog about base coaches wearing batting helmets after what happened to Mike Coolbaugh. It takes no more effort to don a helmet than it does a cap, and doesn’t change the game in any way. While it was clearly a reactionary rule, there’s no real downside to it. The same can not be said for legislating away contact with catchers.) Here’s hoping that clearer heads prevail.

  5. 5toolplayer

    In the context of the way the game is played…Cousins did what he was supposed to do.Still…I think a pitcher on the Giants should go vigilante & pop Hanley or Stanton.

  6. KRo

    Well-written piece. Here’s my take: The rules should be consistent around the basepaths. The runner’s objective should be to the base, not the defender. Just as a defender cannot intentionally interfere with a runner, a runner should not be able to interfere with a defender. Intentional interference with the defender attempting to get the runner out should result in an out. Same applies to the defender: intentional blocking of the plate should result in a base awarded. In this case, as the picture shows, the runner’s primary objective was obviously to interfere with the defender, rather than touch the base. Many differences between this and a runner breaking up a double play: (1) the runner is not attempting to prevent his own out, but the out of the batter, (2) the runner is sliding along the ground, rather than diving through the air, and (3) the runner must be within reach of the base. Bottom line, this is a matter of intent, and thus a judgment call, but the rules must support a penalty for ill intent. If the umpires can throw a pitcher out for intentionally throwing at a batter, then they must be able to throw a runner out for intentionally colliding with a defender. Same justification: For the safety of the players, and thus for the good of the game.

    • Jason Turbow

      Your points here are excellent, KRo. The only issue I take is that sometimes a runner’s best chance to score is to dislodge the ball from the catcher – even if he has an otherwise clear path to the plate. I have no doubt this is what went through Cousins’ mind. The throw was in time to beat him, even had he slid. At the very least, it would have been a close play (if Posey held on to the ball, of course). This collision was completely avoidable, but it gave the runner an advantage he otherwise would not have had. Posey knows the dangers of the position, as does every other catcher in the big leagues. (Catchers’ gear is called “the tools of ignorance” for a reason.) Training runners to better distinguish necessary collisions from unnecessary ones sounds like a good idea. Legislation to prevent such contact does not.

  7. Simon

    I’m not exactly sure it is a clean hit, though (this comes with both a qualifier (I’m a Giants fan) and a disclaimer (I’d be making this comment no matter who I supported)). All the baserunner had to do was 2 things:
    slide (I’m sure he remembers how to do that, doesn’t he?)
    slide away from the tag (if players of today are so much better that players of yesteryear)

    The game should not have got this far, though. The Giants did not play that well …

    Maybe the Marlins won’t play Cousins for the rest of the season against the Giants (he’s a reserve OF) anyway.

  8. Bob Cipolla

    My opinion is that the “hit” by Cousins on Posey was not clean. Yes, collisions at the plate will happen, but the intent should be to knock the ball out of the glove. Cousins launched himself inside the base line at the body of Posey who was not blocking the plate. If Posey is blocking the plate, with or without the ball, that is an invitation to contact. However, “drilling” the catcher inside the baseline does not establish intent to touch the plate nor to dislodge the ball from the glove which is about to tag you out.

  9. Shiz

    You could drill cousins 100 times and it still won’t make up for the damage he did. I am willing to bet if giants are out of contention by august, this guy is going to get hit during all his at bats the next time they meet again.

  10. Alex

    My question is simple.

    If a runner can be called out for sliding into a middle infielder at second base for going after the infielder and not the base, why does the catcher not get the same benefit?

    Second basemen block the base all of the time. On double plays, on steals, on pick offs….

    Just today on Fox Andres Torres (of the Giants) was picked from second and as he was diving back to the base the shortstop stepped in front of him and actually forced Torres’ hand to hit the infielder’s foot, essentially blocking his reach to the base. He was tagged out.

    I hate the fact that catcher’s don’t get the same protection because they have pads. There is no cushion on those things. They are pretty much the bare minimum, and leave a lot of your delicate areas exposed (achilles, etc)

    Having been a hockey goalie, I know what it’s like to be run into, have things hit at you, have people fall on you, and your job is hard enough trying to play the game without having to worry about being taken out. Posey was “in his crease” to the extent that he wasn’t in the way. He may have been in position to make a swipe tag. But so what? Does being in position to tag out a runner or make a relay at second mean I can come way off my path to run you over or spike you? If you’re at the bag, sure…you put yourself there, but when you’re as far away as you can be to still compete and I seek you out….there’s a problem there.

    • Jason Turbow

      You just hit the crux of the argument. I don’t think anybody’s suggesting that a catcher who’s set up in the baseline should be avoided, but the Giants contend that Posey was following instructions, positioning himself out of the way expressly to avoid that kind of contact. Torres was blocked from second on the play you described in a much more comprehensive manner.

      You also hit on the basis for a proposed solution that’s been gaining some traction: A rule stipulating that runners who make contact with a catcher set up entirely in fair territory be called out. (Catchers who set up even partially in the baseline would otherwise be fair game.)

      • Alex

        Yeah. I realized the Torres scenario wasn’t really the best to compare to, because it’s not really violent (unless maybe he had his hand stepped on, which he didn’t, and they player was moving to catch the throw, he wasn’t blocking him without a reason…)

        I guess my point though – and question is where do you draw the line about impeding and what is proper retaliation, or a counter move. I actually might not be opposed to having a rule that a catcher who isn’t facing a runner and who isn’t on the base path (say maybe like, 2 feet in the dirt?) can’t be run into. Kinda like the clipping rule in football.

        Face to face contact, but nothing from the sides or back. At least then there isn’t really a valid debate if both parties saw the other and knew a collision was coming. That’s what sours me the most about this hit. I don’t have a problem with the home plate collisions, but it really seems to me that Posey was not intending to force this action. He may be a rookie, but I doubt he was unaware he wasn’t in the path for a hit. I honestly think he was taken by surprise at the collision because he was “out of the way.”

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