Great Moments in Blocking the Plate

Since the collision between Buster Posey and Scott Cousins many fans, journalists and baseball insiders have been calling for a change in the rules to prevent players from being injured on home plate collisions. The Captain is having none of that-

""Catching, you're usually not on the winning end of those. Period," Varitek said. "Some things are part of the game. But even the people who are playing hard and are in those collisions don't want to see anybody get hurt. Some things are part of the game. There's not a whole lot you can do." (from Antonio Gonzalez, The Associated Press)

 

In his fifteen seasons behind the plate, Jason Varitek has been a master blocking runners off the plate. Should a change in the rules make such plays a thing of the past, a few great moments in Tek’s illustrious career will live in fan’s hearts as an enduring memorial to blocking the plate.

 

October 13, 2008

Trailing Tampa Bay 5-1 in the eighth inning of the ALCS, Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia fields a sharply hit grounder and elects to go home with the throw. Rays left fielder Carl Crawford has no where to go but straight through Jason Varitek, who is perfectly positioned, in a couch right between Crawford and home. CC barrels into Tek and even manages to tear off his mask in the fracas, but the ball stays firmly entrenched in the mitt and the run does not score.

Unfortunately, this play doesn’t help the Sox cause all that much as Rhode Island native Rocco Baldelli drilled a three run home run in the next at bat. Varitek was shaken up on the play as well, straining his neck slightly as his mask came off.

September 2, 2009

In the second inning against Baltimore, Orioles catcher Ramon Hernandez tries to tag up and score from third on a fly ball to left fielder Jacoby Ellsbury. Ellsbury’s throw is well short, but still on target. The ball skips along the grass toward Jason Varitek as Hernandez chugs home. At the last minute, Varitek moves his left leg directly in front of the sliding Hernandez and sweeps around with the tag. His leg moves the slide off the plate and halts the runner for a brief moment, giving Jason time to apply the tag.

August 28, 2009

With the Blue Jay’s Travis Snider on first base in the 8th inning of a tie game, John McDonald lines a Daniel Bard fast ball into the left field corner. Snider is running hard on contact, rounding third as Jason Bay relays to shortstop Alex Gonzalez. Gonzalez fires a strike home where Vartiek stands tall, his left leg in front of home plate. Snider hooks Tek’s leg with his slide and is thrown off course. As he lands wide of the plate, Varitek tags him out and keeps the game knotted at 5-5. The Sox go on to score in the 9th winning 6-5, thanks in no small part to Tek’s fantastic play at the plate.

October 4, 2003

Boston faces elimination against the Oakland A’s, trialing 0-2 in the best of five division series. Derek Lowe takes on Ted Lilly in what might be the last game the Red Sox play in 2003. With a tenuous one run lead in the sixth inning, Derek Lowe gives up a single to Eric Byrnes, who then steals second and advances to third on a ground out. After walking Erubiel Durazo, Lowe throws the ball away on a ground ball from Miguel Tejada. Byrnes heads for home on the errant throw and right fielder Trot Nixon throws home. The throw takes a tough hop in front of the plate, skidding by Varitek who is braced for the collision at the plate. Byrnes bounces up in celebration as our Captain scrambles for the ball.

On his way back to the dug, with the ball still in play, Byrnes pushes Varitek as he chases down the loose ball. Recovering the baseball, Tek proceeds to tag Byrnes, who is now half way to the dugout and entirely unaware that he has yet to touch the plate. The umpire calls him out and review after review confirms what only Jason Varitek and the umpire seem to know, Tek had blocked Byrnes completely off the plate.

The Sox went on to win that game and the division series before their hearbreaking defeat in the 2003 ALCS.

While these are just a few of the fantastic plays Jason Varitek has made to help him earn his reputation as one of the best at blocking the plate, they do illustrate an important aspect of his technique. As his new protégé put it in one interview "You kind of slide sideways once you have the ball… You want to get in there and block the plate so he doesn’t try and take you out. You want him to slide.’’

This quote from Salty is a good explanation of what Varitek typically does to keep runners off the plate. Looking at the plays from above, the only one that results in an all out collision is the play against Tampa Bay. In that case, Pedoria’s throw drew Tek into the base path some. He was not positioned between Crawford and the plate to begin with, but rather in front of the plate. He moves with the throw into the base path and catches the ball as he does. The original position is a key in his technique.

Looking at his block on Hernandez, you get a clearer view of just why positioning makes such a difference. As the throw comes in Varitek is standing between the plate and the pitcher’s mound, about a foot from home. He remains there as long as possible as the ball rolls in. This shows Hernandez the plate and he slides. It is at the last minute that Varitek slides sideways and props his leg between Hernandez and the plate. Had he positioned himself that way earlier, Hernandez would not have slide and the play would have been a full collision like the Crawford play.

In both the Cousins-Posey collision and the Kalish-Santana collision from last season, the catcher is positioned in the base path as the ball is coming in. This is especially true in the Santana collision. Carlos Santana is nearly three feet up the base line with leg positioned between the runner and the plate. Kalish cannot see a clear path to home and knows from twenty feet away that he will need to run into Santana.

In Posey’s case, the positioning is not quite so obstructive when the ball reaches the plate, in large part because the throw is to the first base side of the catcher. His original positioning is very similar to Santana’s. Both catchers basically place their left foot on the base line even before moving to catch the throw. They are making clear from their position that a collision will take place. Varitek primes the runner to slide with his positioning and only then moves to block the plate.

Simply adjusting technique will not make blocking the plate a safe play. To protect players, the only real solution is a change in the rules barring collisions entirely. I sympathize with Giants and Indians fans who are upset about the loss of their young stars and would likely do just what Billy Beane is doing if I were a GM, but for my part, I don’t want the rule changed. For all the current publicity, collisions at the plate are a relatively rare event. Additionally, catchers can decide to avoid them with their technique if they so choose. The danger is real, but this a game played by men and men can choose the risks they are willing to take for it. 

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