Major League Baseball's newest rule change seeks to protect catcher's from injury by limiting what a baserunner can do as he seeks to score on a close play at the plate. This rule, which is most closely associated with star San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey, who missed most of 2011, the year after he was the NL Rookie of the Year and the star of the World Series winning San Francisco Giants, due to a brutal collision at home plate, will go into effect this season. Critics will rightfully point out that this new rule forces players to be a bit less aggressive and represents a real break from the past, but on balance the rule is good for baseball.
It is true that home plate collisions have long been part of the game, but they have long been a strange and peripheral part of the game. The home plate collision, although rare, is often jarring and inconsistent with the overall gestalt of baseball. Baseball is, unlike football, not a game dominated by size and brute force. There is no other play in baseball where a player runs into another with the intent of hurting him so much that he cannot make the play. Hard slides at second and third base are very different as the runner slides rather than collides. Additionally on that play, the fielder is much more easily able to get out of the way.
Removing the collision at home plate, takes a tactic away from base runners with the intention of making the game safer, but it does not change the overall dynamic or balance of the game. In this respect, these rule changes are different than the changes over the decades that have been implemented to keep batters safer from pitched balls. The required use of batting helmets, increased use of body armor and system of quicker warnings for pitchers who rely throw brushback pitches, has created an advantage for hitters that did not exist 60 years ago. Regardless of whether or not one supports throwing inside, it is hard to deny that for many years it was a legitimate part of the game, and of the game's strategy.
This new rule also allows big league baseball to pro-actively address growing concerns about safety. A rule like this at the big league level will inevitably lead to similar changes to youth baseball, although many rules of this kind already exist for younger players. This will make the game safer generally and provides a contrast with football that reflects very well on baseball. Some are beginning to question whether or not football as we know it, because of things like concussions and other related injuries, will survive for much longer. Rule changes like this one help ensure baseball's future and help its image.
It is notable that the two most famous plate collisions of the last half century are not remembered because they had a great impact on a pennant race or post-season series, but because of the violence and injuries. Pete Rose sliding into Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star Game badly damaged the career of a young catcher as Fosse was not the same player after that injury. More than 40 years later, in 2011, Scott Cousins barreled into Buster Posey causing the budding superstar, to miss almost all of his second season in the big leagues. Posey recovered enough to win the MVP and lead his team to a World Series victory in 2012, but baseball almost lost a player who has now become one of the most popular stars in the game.
The Rose/Fosse and Cousins/Posey incidents are part of the game's history, but not meaningfully connected to any other part of the game. These incidents are occasionally hailed as examples of the toughness of either the runners or the catchers in question. Additionally, Posey's injury may well have cost the Giants a playoff spot in 2011, but that is hardly the kind of effect on baseball the league should seek to preserve. Pitching inside, by contrast, has led to numerous injuries, and even one death, but the ability of pitchers to come inside and brush batters back has influenced countless big games over the years. Baseball is, at its core, a battle between the pitcher and the hitter. Much of that battle is played out on the inside corner of the plate, and the area just off the plate on inside part. No such import is connected to plays at the plate, not least because close plays at the plate are so rare.
By passing this new rule, baseball has made the game safer without upsetting the balance between offense and defense or otherwise substantially changing the game. The ability to do this and to intervene before another star, or journeyman, catcher is hurt over one run in a not very meaningful game reflects well on MLB.