Lost amid the recent talk about the propriety of crashing into the catcher is the fact that the catcher is hardly defenseless behind the plate. On late-breaking plays, of course—like the one in which Buster Posey was injured—he has little choice but to absorb whatever punishment is being dished out. But with time to prepare, a catcher has tools at his disposal.
From The Baseball Codes:
I might take a spike in the shoulder, but I’ve got my shin guard in his neck,” said Fred Kendall, who caught in the big leagues for a dozen seasons and whose son, Jason, became an All-Star catcher in his own right. “There are ways to counter it, if that’s the way he’s going to play. . . . If I take the baseball and put it in the web of my glove—the web, not the pocket—and I tag you, it’s just like taking a hammer and whacking you in the teeth; if I take my mask off and I throw it right where you’re going to slide; if I place my shin guards the right way, it’s like sliding into a brick wall.
Last night, the Giants received a reminder of this mindset in the most necessary way. Earlier in the day, Posey told reporters that his season was almost certainly over. Then, in the eighth inning against Milwaukee, Prince Fielder tried to score from second base on a two-out single.
The throw from left fielder Cody Ross came in on one hop, well in time and plenty high for Eli Whiteside—two days ago the Giants’ backup catcher, but now their starter—to brace for impact.
He did more than that.
Protecting his mitt with his bare hand, Whiteside lunged toward Fielder, taking the impact to the runner, punching him in the chest with the baseball as Fielder went flying. As Whiteside scrambled to his feet and saw umpire Mike Muchilinski call the runner out, he held out the ball, then flipped it insouciantly past Fielder toward the mound. (Watch it here.)
That it came at Fielder’s expense was merely bonus (if you forget why, click here). This was a message from Whiteside to his teammates, not to the Brewers: We are strong, we are resilient, and we are badass.
San Francisco’s chances to defend their title took a grave hit when Posey went down. But credit Whiteside for this: What he did was the mark of a champion.
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.”
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.
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.