Wetmore: Eliminating plate collisions doesn't change math on Joe Mauer
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Major League Baseball on Wednesday announced the first stages of what it hopes eventually will eliminate home plate collisions. It hasn't yet clearly defined how the rule will be enforced, but the intention is clear: cut down on unnecessary injuries.
Traditionalists may snicker at the rule but it's hard to argue with the intent.
Buster Posey is the poster child for supremely talented offensive catchers put in harm's way by playing the game's most dangerous position. Those that bristle at the rule change contend that toughness has always been a prerequisite to play catcher.
I struggle with that argument because of how much more information we now have about brain injuries. It takes a lot more than grit to play through dizzy spells. Or a broken leg. Or torn ligaments.
I'm not here to argue in favor of the rule change, merely to say that moving Joe Mauer to first base is still the correct call. Here are four reasons why:
1) He's a sweep-tagger.
Home plate collisions are rare in baseball games these days. Collisions for Mauer are rarer still. Posey's injury in the 2011 World Series seemed to expedite a movement across baseball. Teams with prized offensive catchers scrapped the idea of blocking the plate. Mauer and the Twins were part of that group.
In recent years, Mauer has been a sweep-tagger. He doesn't block the plate. He stands up the third-base line and in foul territory, and as the throw comes in, he extends backward to apply the tag. This new rule, therefore, wouldn't much affect the former Twins catcher. Some argue that it costs a team runs over a season, but it reduces the risk of injury. Which costs more runs over a season: making it slightly easier for opponents to score from third on a sacrifice fly; or giving catchers like Drew Butera 400 plate appearances because the starter is on the DL?
2) Foul tips still hurt.
No rule could protect a catcher from foul tips off his catcher's mask. We've seen firsthand in Minnesota the increased likelihood of a concussion after suffering one. Some refute the medical research that suggests as much but it seems to me it's plausible.
And yes, players get concussed at other positions on the diamond - we saw Justin Morneau aggravate his with a seemingly harmless dive in foul territory - but the danger is increased behind the plate.
As Mauer pointed out on his conference call with reporters announcing the move, all it takes is one.
One foul tip to put him in a fog for days, or knock him out of the lineup for weeks. I recognize that he has the potential to accrue more value at catcher because of where his bat stands among his peers at that position. But I still contend that in this case it's the better play to accept a lower ceiling for a floor that would still offer plenty of value.
3) Tired legs
Catching a full season takes a beating on one's legs. It's commonplace to watch a catcher walk more gingerly than his teammates around the clubhouse before and after games. That's certainly the case by September, when the wear and tear has accumulated. But it's not out of place to see it in May.
Matt Wieters, who is not fast to begin with, jogs up the line on ground balls by midseason. Not for lack of effort - he's one of the clubhouse leaders in Baltimore - but to conserve energy in hopes his legs hold up a full year.
Fans boo if a player doesn't run out ground ball outs in the infield. But when catchers neglect to put down their head and sprint, it's more defensible.
4) Day game after a night game
Catchers around the league frequently sit or DH in a day game following a night game. Eighteen innings in a span of 20 hours is simply too much to sustain over a full season. In recent years it's been a drastic step down in production when Mauer's backup gets four or five at-bats.
Ron Gardenhire has a tendency to give players a rest in these situations even if they're not a catcher, but it's far less likely to occur every Sunday with Mauer playing first base. The expectation, if he stays healthy, is that he'll play at least 150 games.
It may not seem like a huge deal to miss five at-bats a week. That adds up over the course of a season.
A .400 on-base percentage is a rare commodity and worth keeping in the lineup every day.