Baseball wants to make its game safer. In the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse, players worry about unintended consequences and wonder if the split-second chaos of baseball’s signature drama — a play at the plate — can truly be tamed.
“Somebody is trying to come score on this 17-inch-wide plate. Two guys are trying to take ownership of it,” Nationals catcher Koyie Hill said. “If you’re playing ragball in the back yard, it’s going to be a hairy situation.”
As the proposal waits for final approval, the Nationals have approached catching drills during spring training as if the rule will remain the same. Only when it changes will they alter the way they teach plate blocking.
“So far, we have assumed that there will be no change,” Manager Matt Williams said. Bench coach Randy Knorr “is taking them through all their prep work under the assumption it is the same it always has been. Then we’ll adjust once we get final confirmation.”
From one perspective, catchers cannot help but hope collisions are banned: They will no longer be allowed to be crunched by a 220-pound man hurtling toward them at full speed, often when their head is turned the other way.
“For the catcher, that’s the best rule,” Nationals starter Wilson Ramos said. “It’s pretty dangerous. You can get out of the game, out of the season if you get hurt. There are a lot of problems with the collisions. That’s a good rule.”
Others, though, cast doubt. Bob Boone caught 2,225 games over 19 major league seasons. Now a Nationals front-office assistant, he believes removing collisions would eliminate a crucial piece of the sport.
“It’s a huge play in our game,” Boone said. “In the ninth, man on second, base hit, here he comes, is he going to hang on to the ball? I think it’s a huge play.”
Boone disagrees with the proposed rule change largely because he thinks catchers can protect themselves with proper technique. He said he watches too many catchers receive a throw and brace for impact with their weight leaning on their left leg. The proper form, Boone said, occurs when a catcher keeps his weight on his right leg. That allows the catcher either to gently absorb the blow — like a defender taking a charge in basketball — or to tag the runner and hop out of the way altogether, like a matador avoiding a bull.
“As he goes by, I can get the hell out of there,” Boone said. “In order to do that, I got to be in there tight, close. If I’m not close, now I got to step with my left foot. Now I can’t move. And you’re going to take a shot.”
When he was playing for the Minnesota Twins in 2011, the Nationals’ Denard Span collided with Kansas City Royals catcher Brayan Pena and suffered a concussion. Even still, he thinks a change would have an adverse effect.
“I would really rather see the game be played the way it’s been played for 100 years,” Span said. “Maybe try to stay lower instead of guys going for shoulders and up. It’s definitely going to prevent injuries, but it’s going to change the game. I’m not looking forward to that, really.
“Now, the runner has to think about how he’s going to slide. Whenever you tell a player that you can’t do something, now we have to slow our bodies up. Usually when you’re not going 100 percent, that’s when you’re more susceptible to injury. You got to think about it in so many ways.”
Some Nationals players fear that catchers who need not worry about collisions could block home plate by laying their shin guards across home plate, increasing the risk of lower-leg injuries.
The Nationals have seen it. On July 6 last season, Ian Desmond hit a grounder to second with the bases loaded. Anthony Rendon sprinted home from third base. Padres catcher Yasmani Grandal stretched to receive the throw, and Rendon slid hard into home plate, a legal play under the proposed new rules. Rendon’s slide twisted Grandal’s knee, tearing two ligaments and knocking him out for the season.
Nationals catcher Chris Snyder, a 10-year veteran, favors outlawing collisions. But he has questions about how the rule change would be implemented. What is the punishment? What constitutes a collision? How do you determine if catcher or runner is at fault? How can a catcher block the plate?
“You go from there, what’s next?” Snyder said. “Are they going to have the little orange base like they do in my kid’s Little League on first base? In the end, I’m all for the player safety. We’ll just see how it turns out.”