By Stephen Whyno
AP Sports Writer
Retired World Series-winning catcher Bob Boone has a CD with 60 video clips of home-plate collisions that resulted in injuries. None of those happened in the past two seasons since Major League Baseball instituted a new rule to prevent collisions.
Still, Boone hates the rule that bans blocking the plate because it has thrown catchers off their game. Going into the third season under the rule, many catchers around baseball are still struggling to adjust.
“It’s one of the biggest plays we have in the game, and we put the defensive player, the catcher, out of position,” said Boone, who works in the Washington Nationals’ front office. “What (runners) do is they dive to the outside back corner. And if you get away from that outside back corner, your thought is, ‘Hurry and get there so I can make the catch and I’ve got to go a long way to make the tag.’ I think that’s probably the biggest problem, is guys trying to make the tag before they have the ball, and they know they’re not in position.”
Catchers no longer have to brace for contact like before, when Buster Posey of the San Francisco Giants tore ligaments in his left ankle — the injury that precipitated the rule. Physically it’s easier, but mentally it’s more difficult.
Because they can’t block a runner’s path before getting the ball, catchers have to consciously worry about the right positioning while also catching the ball on the fly and making a tag.
“With so much going on, you’re paying attention to a lot of things, variables — the runner, where guys are lining up with the cut-offs and if the outfielders are going to be able to make the throw on time,” Jason Castro of the Houston Astros said. “Yet at the same time, you’re kind of trying to make sure you’re in the correct position to field the throw and still allow the runner the lane for him.”
Castro said the way he was brought up through the Astros’ organization made the transition easy because he was always taught to set up in a place that gave the runner a lane. But he understands why fellow catchers have had to retrain their brains and bodies to change their approach.
That’s true of the Nationals’ Wilson Ramos, who is still practicing making the smooth exchange from catching the ball on the fly to tagging the runner.
“I know I missed a couple balls last year, trying to just catch the ball and tag the runner,” Ramos said. “I’m trying to fix that, trying to learn more, how to go and catch the ball and then go to the plate.”
Much like a receiver in football trying to run before securing the ball, catchers must make a conscious effort to go one step at a time. While that’s nothing new, Boone pointed out that under the new rule, it’s harder for catchers to apply a quick tag like an infielder can on a would-be base-stealer at second.
“You see lot of catchers at home plate missing balls because we’re trying to be like a first baseman — try to pick balls and tag,” Nationals backup catcher Jose Lobaton said. “It’s not easy to catch the ball with one hand with a catcher’s mitt. It’s not the same as a first-base glove.”
The glove isn’t the main problem, though. It’s more about mindset.
Veteran Carlos Ruiz of the Philadelphia Phillies believes repeated practice in spring training and in game situations is the only way to perfect that.
“The key is to anticipate that play because if you’ve got a guy at second base, you have to put in your mind if you’re going to have a base hit, there’s a very good chance we have action at home plate,” said Ruiz, who’s considered one of the best defensive catchers around. “So you have to move in front of the plate. A lot of times you don’t have a bang-bang play and maybe the throw’s going to be the left side — that makes it tough. You’re going to do your best to get the ball.”
Astros manager A.J. Hinch, a major league catcher for parts of seven seasons, considers losing track of the runner the biggest issue. Josh Thole of the Toronto Blue Jays said setting up differently has been his most major adjustment and hopes umpires understand his intent is to be in the right spot.
Teammate Russell Martin doesn’t stick his leg out to block runners like he used to, but insisted he won’t let the rule change him too much. Martin is in favor of the rule for the sake of safety.
“Guys are making more money, and the last thing you want is just for one thing to take somebody’s career away,” Martin said. “Another thing is just the head issues, concussions. If somebody gets a free shot at you, you’re going to get a concussion.
Boone would prefer catchers learn how to absorb contact the right way, but of course he realizes they no longer have to because of the new reality. One thing that catchers past and present agree on is that the rule is here to stay.
“Whether people like it or not, the rule’s worked and it’s saved both runners and catchers,” Hinch said. “I applaud the effort. As we get away from sort of the initial shock of changing the rule like that, I think we’ll find that the game adjusts and the play still remains the same. We just don’t see the epic collisions that are not fun to go through.”