The first day of Spring Training always brings excitement, and yesterday was no different. Albert Pujols reported early (as he always does) to the camp, but this year he arrived at the Angels’ complex in Tempe, AZ, and not at the Cardinals’ Florida compound. All around the league, in fact, players (some stars, some role players), reported to new teams for the first time. Unfortunately, day one of Spring Training almost always brings some kind of controversy. This year, one of the big stories is the return of San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey, and the news that he has been instructed not to block the plate in 2012. Is this move, designed to keep the young budding superstar safe, actually setting him up to get hurt?
For those of you who don’t remember, Posey was lost for the season last May to a gruesome injury suffered in a home plate collision with Florida Marlins outfielder Scott Cousins (we discussed the possible need for rules changes shortly after the injury). Posey ended up tearing three ligaments in his ankle and breaking a bone in his lower leg as a result of the play, an injury that kept him off a baseball diamond until Sunday. The fact that he’s made it back relatively quickly for such an injury says a lot for his youth, work ethic and toughness. So why would you want to take that away from him?
Manager Bruce Bochy announced Sunday that he has instructed Posey to not block the plate anymore. “I’ll take this out of Buster’s hands,” Bochy told reporters in Scottsdale, AZ (Giants Spring home). “As a manager that’s my job. I certainly don’t want people to think he’s backing off on his own. It’s something we’ll work on with him this spring (espn.com).” Bochy went on to explain that there are ways to effectively cover home plate and make tags on runners, to steal a phrase from the great Rube Baker, without standing on the tracks when there’s a train coming through (butthead).
While I’m all for protecting players on the field, especially a player like Posey, whom the Giants are expecting to be one of the cornerstones of their success for years to come, I can’t help but feel this move is a little bit misguided. You want your players to stay healthy and on the field, because they can’t help you from the bench. If the Giants don’t want Posey to get hurt, then they should put him at first base and find a sacrificial lamb to catch for them.
I believe an athlete needs to go all-out with their best efforts in order to play at their best. Whether it’s a future Hall of Famer like Derek Jeter diving into the stands to catch a pop-up, or a role player like Rick Ankiel slamming into the wall to make a catch, there shouldn’t be any half-stepping when you’re on the field. It’s how guys get hurt. While I think Bochy is right to protect Posey, the home plate collision is one of the most instinctive and fast paced plays in the game. Neither the catcher, nor the baserunner can afford to think about what’s about to happen on a home plate collision. If Posey is faced with a charging baserunner and has to stop to think about where to position himself, he’s going to get hurt again, and it might end up worse. The same goes for the baserunner. He must commit to the hit. If he wavers or changes his mind, he’s going to get hurt too.
What happened to Posey last year was mostly bad luck. For one, he wasn’t even really blocking the plate to begin with. He was up towards the front of the plate towards the pitching mound, and not exactly on the third base side (where one would traditionally stand to block the plate). Secondly, he was in good position to get hit, but crouched just a little too low. Instead of just being shoved backwards onto his behind, he was shoved basically on top of his own legs, which he then rolled backwards over.
So, in reality, blocking the plate didn’t cause the injury. A questionable decision by Scott Cousins (did he really need to hit Posey?) and bad catching posture by Posey himself caused the problem. There is a possibility that Bochy is just covering for his young catcher, and deflecting the media attention onto himself, rather than on the fact that Posey doesn’t want to get hit again. I don’t think this is the case. Posey has said, in a believable way, that he loves catching. He wants nothing more than to be behind the plate and is not afraid of getting hit. That’s the right attitude to have. As an athlete, or really any physically demanding profession, you have to go all out and rely on faith and your physical conditioning to keep you safe. If you get it in your head that you’re going to get hurt, you let up for a second, lose focus, and that’s when you get hurt.
Posey is talented enough to eventually become a solid first baseman if the team feels like they want to ensure that no one runs into him for the rest of his career. Even at that position though, things can go wrong. You could get stepped on or catch a bad hop ground ball to the eye (like Roger Dorn). The point is, athletes are always in danger of getting hurt. While it’s important to keep them safe, coddling them is not the answer. The catcher position is the most physically demanding position in the game. I think Buster Posey can handle it. If Bruce Bochy doesn’t, then play him somewhere else.
Just for the sake of being gruesome… The Injury:
Feature image courtesy of: Leila Navidi
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