Yesterday afternoon, during a wonderfully furious back and forth game of baseball between the Astros and Angels, which featured 2 homers by the best ballplayer of this or perhaps any era, Mike Trout, a grand slam by perhaps the current hottest hitter on the planet, Yuli Gurriel, lead changes between the teams, good defense, bad defense and both pitching staffs being worn to a frazzle by a barrage of hits and runs - a single event stands out from this nearly 5-hour affair. One that if seen live or in replay isn’t soon to be forgotten.
A violent collision at home plate occurred between Astros outfielder Jake Marisnick and Angels catcher Jonathan Lucroy in which the outcome was a terrifying human moment, where Lucroy was obviously unaware of his surroundings, bleeding from his face and possibly the victim of a concussion. Lucroy was attended by medical staff for several minutes. Players and coaches from both sides were clearly distraught, and Lucroy had to be carted off the field to be taken to the hospital for examination.
Nothing else I write in this article matters more than to express the hope of all of baseball fans that Jonathan Lucroy returns to his family safe and healthy to be a husband and father, and to the Angels to be a teammate to play the game he loves again as soon as possible.
What I write now is solely my opinion. It is shared by some; it is vehemently opposed by others, as seen last night and into today at The Crawfish Boxes and elsewhere. I accept that.
In the immediate aftermath of the event and the call by the review staff, fury rang out from all corners. Not just fans of the Astros, but former players in the Astros’ TV and radio booth who objected to the call. Angels fans wanted revenge against Marisnick and/or the Astros on behalf of their injured player. All understandable. Heck, I went on a multi-post rant in the game and post-game threads about how I felt, and I wasn’t particularly charitable in the moment to those who did not share my view.
It was not my finest hour.
Yet it remains my view that circumstance and a miscalculation are what caused the collision, not malice. I’ve seen video over and over again from multiple angles, as have most of you who will read this. Did Marisnick target Lucroy? Did Lucroy do anything to encourage Marisnick’s decision to alter his line to the plate? There are dozens of questions Angels and Astros fans have pondered about what each player did or did not do to try and explain what happened.
Is there sufficient explanation all can come to agreement on? No. Not a chance. Apart from bias for or against teams or players it is my view the rule on collisions at the plate is not well understood by fans, players, coaches and even umpires. (Note there was no call from the home plate umpire in the immediate aftermath of the collision).
The erudite attorneys among the Crawfish Boxes forums inform us, essentially, the onus to avoid collision is nearly entirely on the runner. The idea being, in the post-Buster Posey injury era, the catcher is exposed and the runner must do everything to avoid contact.
As an aside, with deference to the players of old and current who rail about the wussification of the game, plowing a catcher doesn’t make you a man or bestow upon the game itself a sign of toughness. Baseball is not football, and it’s not serving in the military. Overt acts of violence toward other players don’t have a place in the game and it should come as no surprise that advocating for such doesn’t come from catchers.
To get back to my point, is it reasonable to put the entirety of the responsibility to avoid contact between players on the runner, as the rules are written today?
I say no.
Imagine this: You are an elite athlete running the distance between third base and home (90 feet) at 29 feet per second. It’s laughable, right? Precious few humans who roam the planet have the ability to experience such speed. Still, you are Jake Marisnick or Mike Trout. You hit top speed toward home plate and are staring at Jonathan Lucroy or Robinson Chirinos to try and get an idea of how best to score in a tag situation.
You are unaware of the flight path of the throw to the plate. All the information you have is the body language and positioning of the catcher as you approach the plate at speeds unfathomable to most humans. People with better math skills than I have can calculate the time one has to make a decision but I’d guess it is in the hundredths of a second.
In addition, consider this: regardless the decision made by Marisnick or Trout on a dash home there is a chance for a collision because the runner does not control all the variables that could lead to a collision. It is just not possible.
So, again, you are Marisnick or Trout. The catcher in front of you starts in front of the plate and takes 4 steps during your sprint home. Each step moves the catcher up the line and toward foul territory. His body lean is toward foul territory. If you see this, and it is what I see from the views behind the plate, is it not fathomable it would lead Trout or Marisnick to believe the catcher would receive the throw not in fair territory but in foul? If so, would your decision not lead you to deviate inside the base path to avoid a tag?
If you answer the question yes or your answer is no, such a move in that moment is legal. What ultimately makes it a violation in the specific case of last night is that the throw fatefully did not carry the catcher toward foul ground but up the line toward third. As I mentioned earlier, circumstance and a miscalculation. One not entirely in the control of the runner, yet he is judged the offender. That just does not sit well with me nor should it sit well with fans of Trout, should he be in Marisnick’s shoes.
So what of Lucroy and catchers? As I said old school ball has its place, but not when it comes to violence. Catchers deserve some measure of protection on plays at the plate.
I made a proposal to address the situation in the post-game thread and wish to repeat it here. The proposal is not specifically meant to reduce home plate collisions. They will still happen. But the proposal may make it easier to determine fault. It will certainly make it easier, in my opinion, for players to play within easily understood rules and for umpires to call the game with less “gray area” for interpretation:
On non-force plays at the plate, have the same baseline rules as a play at first base.
A three foot lane halfway between third and home would be drawn on the field. Runners attempting to score must stay in this lane unless attempting to avoid a tag by a fielder who possesses the baseball. If the runner leaves the lane and makes contact with a fielder attempting to secure a throw, or makes contact with a thrown ball, he is out. A fielder may not block the running lane without possession of the ball, and if he attempts to field the ball while in the running lane and makes contact with the runner who is in the running lane, the runner is safe.
As I see it, this at the very least begins a discussion where both players have clear and unambiguous responsibility to prevent collisions at the plate. Tinker in the margins to improve the suggestion or dismiss it outright. Your call. I won’t appeal to New York for a ruling.