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Former Major Leaguer Gabe Kapler wants collisions to remain part of the game

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[Edit: The title originally included the word “concussion” rather than “collision”, which made Kapler look bad for something he didn’t say. It was an unfortunate malapropism on my part. I apologize for the mistake.]

Former Major Leaguer Gabe Kapler penned a thoughtful piece about the home plate collision issue over at FOX Sports. It’s nice to hear the viewpoint of someone who not only played the game but lived the actual experience of a brutal home plate collision. Kapler wants those collisions to stay in baseball, even though they caused him injury and ostensibly some time off the end of his career.

I do happen to disagree very strongly with Kapler, however, on many of his points. Rather than go through line-by-line, I’d like to summarize his main points and then respond to them broadly. His points:

  • It’s reasonable for baseball to “embrace its masculinity”, especially since both fans and players love it, and if baseball can do it safely
  • Suggested rule change: runner may hit the catcher below the shoulders, which would allow baseball to keep the collisions while reducing rate of concussions
  • Ancillary effect of above rule change: runners would be forced to further lower themselves, which would encourage aggressive slides more than collisions
  • Simultaneous news of Ryan Freel’s CTE and baseball’s decision to ban collisions should not, but will be, linked

First off, about “embracing masculinity”: Give or take a few percentage points, half of baseball’s audience is female, so that’s insulting right off the bat. That’s without mentioning men who identify more as female and vice versa, and those that have had surgical alterations. We can make arguments about our favorite things about our favorite game without showing preference to only cis men.

Then there’s the assumption that toughness, willingness to take risks, etc. are good traits to have as a man, and that’s just not true. Men die earlier than women do in part because they are socialized to embrace riskiness. According to the American Psychological Association, men are 25 percent less likely than women to have visited a doctor in the last year. Sound familiar? Baseball players are often pressured into playing through pain and avoiding the trainer as much as possible. For every one woman who is cited for reckless driving, nearly three and a half men are cited for the same offense. Men are more than three times more likely than women to drive without seatbelts. According to a recent survey, nearly ten percent more women wear helmets while riding a motorcycle than men.

To Kapler’s second and third points about amending the rules to still allow collisions but only below the head – concussions can still happen without a direct blow to the head. For instance, a runner can barrel into the catcher’s chest, and as the catcher falls back, his head slams into the dirt. Or he can even stay upright, but all the stuff inside of his skull – like his brain — bounces around like it was in a mosh pit. Furthermore, Kapler’s suggested rule wouldn’t have protected Buster Posey from Scott Cousins when the latter slammed into the former on May 2011. Posey suffered a broken fibula and severely strained ligaments in his left ankle.

As a result of that injury, many expect the Giants to eventually move Posey behind the dish to first base. The Twins have already done just that with Joe Mauer, who has suffered a concussion himself. The Giants signed Posey to a nine-year, $167 million contract extension last March; the Twins signed Mauer to an eight-year, $184 million extension in March 2010. Other teams like the Yankees with Brian McCann (five years, $85 million) and the Cardinals with Yadier Molina (five years, $75 million) also look at MLB’s decision to ban collisions with a vested interest as well.

The people in front offices don’t care so much about baseball’s culture so much as they care about their investments. The Twins having to move Mauer from catcher to first base significantly hurts their investment in myriad ways – elite-hitting catchers are rare, but elite-hitting first basemen are not; healthy catchers are rare, but healthy first basemen are common; catcher is a very difficult position to play well, but first base is a relatively easy position to play.

How about the fans? Fans may love collisions, but they love seeing their favorite teams’ star players more, and they love seeing their favorite teams win, too. I witnessed that firsthand as a Phillies fan. Tickets became extremely expensive from 2009-11, when the Phillies were on their stampede through the NL East. But the star players got old and went on the disabled list frequently, and the team stopped winning in 2012. Attendance waned and tickets became cheap and easy to find because Ty Wigginton, not Ryan Howard, was at first base. To bring it back to the Giants, they are a less profitable business when Guillermo Quiroz, not Posey, is behind the plate catching Matt Cain. This isn’t just a culture issue — it’s a business issue, too. (This is without making an aside on the $765 million settlement the NFL made with over 18,000 retired players due to concussion-related brain injuries, which Major League Baseball certainly watched with a close eye.)

But about that culture… people within a culture, particularly those that have benefited from it, are not very likely to actively help change it. The best teams in a team sport have unit cohesion. If you are going rogue, criticizing your sport’s culture (and, consequently, your team’s culture), then you are making harder for your team to be one unit with one common goal. Any other individuals who share the rogue’s viewpoint are less likely to show support lest they be bumped out of the larger group as a result. Cultures are hard to change, even when it’s obvious. I need not go through the embarrassing pages of a U.S. history textbook to illustrate this point. Attempting to change a culture at the expensive of self is heroic; attempting to preserve the status quo is often selfish. I don’t mean to say that in an insulting way to Kapler, as it is simply human nature. We wouldn’t be here if we hadn’t been so good at preserving the group and batting away dissidents.

Finally, to Kapler’s last point about Ryan Freel: yes, it is true that Freel’s chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) had to do with his crashing into inanimate objects like outfield fences, rather than bumping into catchers. Thus, Kapler argues, we shouldn’t be linking Freel’s CTE to the latest news about baseball banning home plate collisions. However, home plate collisions will always carry that concussion risk, no matter what type of headgear you wear, no matter what manner of “hitbox” boundaries you create, no matter how much you give lip service to the culture. The only thing that will absolutely make an impact on lowering the rate of concussions in baseball is banning home plate collisions.

Jeff Passan recently wrote about the issue at Yahoo! Sports. He spoke with Chris Nowinski, who is studying CTE for Boston University. Nowinski has dealt with officials from many different sports, but praised the interest and action shown by those in baseball. Passan wrote:

Not only does Nowinski laud the league’s seven-day disabled list for concussions – borne of an injury-analysis initiative run by some of the brightest minds in the sport’s labor-relations department – he said MLB officials at the meeting with Freel’s family peppered him with questions not of the defensive nature he’s seen from other sports but with a simple request: Help us improve.

To baseball players and fans of the sport, banning home plate collisions may leave a bad taste in their mouths, but ultimately, this is medicine that is good for all of us.

The Rays are considering reliever Tyler Clippard

New York Mets pitcher Tyler Clippard throws during the eighth inning of Game 4 of the National League baseball championship series against the Chicago Cubs Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
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On Thursday, we learned that the Diamondbacks were still considering free agent reliever Tyler Clippard. You can add the Rays to the list as well, per Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times.

The Rays traded lefty reliever Jake McGee to the Rockies in exchange for outfielder Corey Dickerson in late January, so Clippard would be able to slot right in behind closer Brad Boxberger. Clippard, 30, compiled a 2.92 ERA with 64 strikeouts and 31 walks over 71 innings in a season split between the Athletics and Mets. The strikeout rate was at its lowest since the right-hander become a full-time reliever in 2009, and his walk rate was at its highest since 2010, which may be a factor in his still being a free agent in February.

Report: Juan Uribe is too expensive for the Giants

New York Mets' Juan Uribe follows the flight of his solo home run off Colorado Rockies starting pitcher Chris Rusin in the third inning of a baseball game Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
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ESPN’s Buster Olney reports that, while the Giants are interested in free agent Juan Uribe, the utilityman’s asking price is too high for the club. Despite having a capable starter at every position, the Giants are a bit thin on depth and Uribe would be a nice fit given his versatility.

Uribe, 36, spent last season with the Dodgers, Braves, and Mets. He hit a combined .253/.320/.417 with 14 home runs and 43 RBI over 397 plate appearances. In his only postseason plate appearance for the Mets, he hit an RBI single in Game 3 of the World Series against the Royals.

Uribe has mostly played third base in recent seasons, but also has plenty of experience at second base and shortstop.

A study showed “grit” isn’t always a great attribute

Washington Nationals left fielder Bryce Harper slides into third with a three RBI triple during the third inning of a baseball game against the San Diego Padres, Friday, April 25, 2014, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
AP Photo/Nick Wass
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This popped up in my Twitter feed and I felt it had some applicability to baseball. This past October, Olga Khazan of The Atlantic highlighted a study in which researchers from the University of Southern California and Northeastern University performed three separate but related experiments to determine how “gritty” their subjects were.

One experiment had them solve anagrams. The second, a computer game. Finally, the third test had them solve math problems. Those who were deemed “grittier” attempted to solve fewer anagrams, which means they were sticking too long with difficult words rather than skipping and moving onto easier ones. The “grittier” crowd worked harder when losing at the computer game, but worked only as hard as the less-gritty when winning. With the math problems, the subjects when stuck were given a choice to take $1 and quit or keep going for a potential reward of $2 but $0 if they failed. The study showed that the “grittier” people weren’t any more productive but were more willing to risk the $1 for the doubled prize.

“Grit” is also a common colloquialism in baseball circles, used to refer to players who always run out a routine ground ball or pop-up. Other common characteristics include a willingness to dive for fly balls, slide into players to break up double plays, and to stick up for their teammates when there’s a disagreement between members of two teams. Often, those deemed “gritty” are in many other ways subpar players, but their perceived “grit” gives them value.

Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper is a rare superstar player who has earned the “grit” descriptor. There are many examples showing why he has earned it, but the most famous incident occurred on May 13, 2013 at Dodger Stadium. Harper turned his back to the field to chase an A.J. Ellis fly ball but went face-first into the wall, suffering abrasions on his face and a jammed left shoulder. This was during a game the Nationals were comfortably winning 6-0 in the sixth inning. At the time, the Nationals were 95 percent favorites to win the game, according to FanGraphs. Is the risk of suffering an injury — which could keep Harper out only a game or two, or cause him to miss the rest of the season — worth potentially turning a double or triple into an out?

Famously, Philadelphia fans and talking heads got on outfielder Bobby Abreu’s case in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s because he appeared gun-shy when approaching the outfield fence on fly balls. He was under a lot of pressure to sacrifice his body for the supposed good of the team, and developed a reputation as “soft”. As a more recent example, former Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins caught flack from fans when he didn’t run out a routine pop-up against the Mets on August 30, 2012. Then-manager Charlie Manuel benched the veteran. At the time, the Phillies were 62-69 and 17.5 games back of first place in the NL East and 8.5 games behind the second Wild Card. Freak injuries can happen, as Rollins’ teammate Ryan Howard showed when making the final out of the 2011 NLDS against the Cardinals. Is that non-zero injury risk worth the tiny chance that the infielder drops the pop-up and Rollins gets a single (or, in rarer cases, a double) in a game that is essentially meaningless?

The aforementioned study shows that maybe Abreu and Rollins had it right after all. Statistically, a freak injury that occurs on a “hustle” play is bound to happen. Maybe that’s what it will take to stop expecting athletes to put their bodies on the line for no realistic gain.

Zach Britton settles with the Orioles for $6.75 million

Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher Zach Britton delivers a pitch against the Boston Red Sox in the ninth inning of a baseball game at Fenway Park, Tuesday, June 23, 2015, in Boston. The Orioles won 6-4. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
AP Photo/Steven Senne
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The Orioles and closer Zach Britton avoided an arbitration hearing, agreeing to a $6.75 million salary for the 2016 season, Jon Heyman reports. The club has now handled all of its remaining arbitration cases and won’t have to go to a hearing with any players.

Britton, in his second of four years of arbitration eligibility, filed for $7.9 million while the Orioles countered at $5.6 million. $6.75 million is exactly the midpoint between the two submitted figures.

The 28-year-old lefty saved 36 games in 40 chances last season for the O’s while putting up a 1.92 ERA with a 79/14 K/BB ratio over 65 2/3 innings.