Joe Maddon, Protecting Fielders, and the Evolution of Baseball

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My thoughts are a bit scattered as I sit here during the summer (it’s officially the summer solstice!), having applied to more work and hoping that someone hires me before our family’s medical insurance runs out.  In the meantime, the Chicago Cubs are trying to right the ship (for real this time!) as they will likely not see the San Diego Padres again in 2017 after Wednesday’s mini-home stand finale.  Why’s this a big deal, you might ask?  Well, as we saw after the series opener, there was a lot of tension after yet another slide rule controversy:

The angles weren’t very flattering for those who would side by Anthony Rizzo, as I’m sure many Cubs fans would.  He ran straight for the plate, may have redirected ever so slightly into Hedges, and slid late, although he led with his feet and not his shoulders.

The internet, as it is wont to do, had varying opinions about the slide.  Cubs fans generally think it was a clean slide, and so do most of the Cubs.  Pretty much every non-Cubs fan suggests that it was dirty or at least an illegal slide.  Hedges WAS right on top of the plate, and the smallest distance between two points on flat ground is a straight line, so I can’t really fault Rizzo for heading straight in.  If Rizzo had deviated, he would have been out even more easily, and that’s one of those plays where the runner has a decision to make about whether to try to avoid the tag or go straight in and try to slide under the tag rather than around it.  Again, I do think Rizzo slid late, and that is what’s going to ding him.

My opinion sharply differs from those of the majority of Cubs fandom.  I’m certainly glad that San Diego manager Andy Green elected not to have his players throw at any of the Cubs in retaliation, as even he admitted that was stupid.  It was definitely a bad slide in my view, but not a dirty slide.  Obviously, the Padres (minus Matt Szczur) thought it was crossing a line, and so I think most of the strife comes in determining whether the slide was dirty or not, and that’s a bit beyond my pay grade.

What I do know, however, is that because humans have differing opinions, one man’s “clean” is easily another man’s “dirty,” and that can lead to a lot of trouble.  There was a lot of crankiness after Chris Coghlan broke Jung-ho Kang two seasons ago, and you may recall (and we talked about this some on the Dreamcast) when the Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles got into a beanball war because Manny Machado slid hard into Dustin Pedroia.  Pedroia got the worst of it, but said:

“I’ve turned double plays in the big leagues for 11 years,” he said. “It’s my job, and it’s not the first time I’ve been hit and it won’t be the last. It’s baseball, man.”

Now thankfully Pedroia wasn’t broken for the season like after the Coghlan slide or the Chase Utley slide that precipitated a rule change.  But note how different players (even on the same team) felt about a singular incident, and how they reacted unfavorably afterwards.  Not every manager is as level-headed as Andy Green.

Which brings us to our normally level-headed manager, Joe Maddon.  Joe has often expressed displeasure about the new “soft” rules of baseball that are designed to protect, specifically, middle infielders and catchers.  In addition to grousing about the Rizzo slide, Maddon had complained in the past about the slide to break up the double play, particularly when Ian Happ overslid second base and an automatic double play was called in a game last month.  Maybe he does have some kind of a point about proper technique when receiving a ball, blocking a base or the plate, and turning the double play.  But at least one manager thinks he’s full of it:

Without mentioning Maddon’s name, Bochy said, “I don’t really care to visit it. I don’t. Anybody who goes into that, they don’t know what they’re talking about where Buster was at on that play.”

“I’m all for it, and I think you should be able to run into the first baseman, second baseman and third baseman, too,” said Bochy, sarcastically. “I think that’ll really make this game interesting. What’s the difference? The catcher’s gear is not to protect him from a collision. It’s to protect him from foul tips.”

“I wish the guys who make these comments were standing there when Todd Greene got hurt and say the same thing.”

The slide rule implemented at each base is designed to prevent egregious slides, but it does not necessarily outlaw collisions if the runner can slide early enough, keep his feet down, and hold on to the base.  The slide rule at home, in place since 2014, is probably a bit more annoying and controversial because like Rizzo, many players still aren’t completely clear of what they are allowed or not allowed to do.  I think that can be clarified, and will most likely lead to better training come the offseason, at least.  Collisions are not explicitly banned, as we saw with the Ben Zobrist play in the World Series.  So the key note here is that not all contact is a violation–only egregious or malicious contact.

I know many fans think the new rules are bad for baseball, but I want to mount a defense for why I think they won’t ruin the game, and part of it has to do with the fact that contact plays in high schools are more stringently governed anyway.  If the kids can’t try to murder a middle infielder or catcher, why should their athletic role models be allowed to?  Incidental collisions are still okay, but the whole goal is to prevent major injury.  So here’s how I think of these rules…

  • They exist to protect the players.

As human evolution moves forward, athletes are getting bigger, faster, and stronger.  Big + fast + strong generally means much more force per your basic introductory physics class, which means when bodies collide, the risk of actually breaking something increases.  You don’t even have to be at a base, as most of us were horrified when Kyle Schwarber was lost until the World Series after a glancing blow from Dexter Fowler in the outfield.  So minimizing the amount of impact between two large masses is probably a good thing, especially these days when we know so much more about the negative effects of concussions.  Remember Ryan Freel?

  • They exist to protect the game as we enjoy it.

Additionally, because many of these players are now paid a LOT of money, it stands to reason that no matter how macho they appear, they do not want to be hurt because that will hurt earning potential.  On the flip side, management and ownership don’t want to see a valuable (read: a highly-paid, elite talent) asset lose extended playing time, which will directly hurt both the team’s record and their bottom line (butts in seats).  The more that good and great players remain on the field, the better the game is.

  • It’s not 1905.

To those who use the “back in my day” philosophy, that’s great and all, but back in your day, there was polio and smallpox.  Maybe it’s not a bad idea to accept that medical professionals know what they’re talking about when they work with MLB to reduce injuries and life-changing maladies?

  • Reducing collisions reduces the need to enforce unwritten rules.

The fewer collisions that occur, the less we have to worry about whether someone will consider something a “cheap shot” and therefore declare beanball wars and the like.  In addition to reducing injuries, not getting suspended in the middle of a pennant race or postseason series seems like a good philosophy.

In a time when players are throwing baseballs faster, hitting them harder and farther, and displaying incredible feats of strength and athleticism, it is hardly accurate to call this game “soft” if collisions are reduced.  If anything, I would argue that the game has improved because of the new safety measures in place.  From a purely evolutionary point of view, I think most humans would prefer not getting hurt if they can help it.  At least this sports league is trying to protect both their players and their investments.


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About Rice Cube

Rice Cube is the executive vice president of snark at World Series Dreaming. He loves all things Cubs, with notable exceptions (specifically, the part of Cubs fandom that pisses him off). Follow on Twitter at cubicsnarkonia

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