JUPITER, FL. (KMOV.com) -- Yadier Molina was injured on a swipe tag on September 20, tearing the thumb ligament on his glove hand when Anthony Rizzo slid into the plate. As far as plays at home go, it was a mild interaction. But Molina was effectively lost for the rest of the season, and is still recovering in early March.
With the eight-time Gold Glove catcher getting his first Grapefruit League action Wednesday, Mike Matheny reflected on the rule changes governing catcher positioning at home plate.
“Yadi went down and did that play perfectly, and the slide wasn’t a dirty slide, he just got himself in a compromised position,” Matheny said, noting Molina’s thumb was already at risk due to a lengthy career as a backstop. “That injury is due to thousands of innings caught. You take guys who have caught for a long period of time, I imagine if you examine mine right now, [the ligament] is volatile. Every time you get a foul ball or a sinker that cuts from a lefty, you’re stretching out that ligament and it becomes weakened. That’s just part of the position.”
But his thumb was exposed because of where he needed to be in order to comply with the new rules. Major League Baseball’s rule 7.13 stipulates that catchers must allow a part of the plate to slide to, meaning catchers can’t block off access and end up having to catch the ball, then reach out to apply a tag.
But home plate gives runners the unique freedom to slide through the base. At any other station, velocity has to be controlled enough to halt a runner’s progress at the bag to prevent overshooting the target. Laying a swipe tag on a runner at home is like trying to slap a sticker on a passing car.
In the days before the new rules, Molina could have dropped his body in front of the plate, more effectively protecting his hand. But that would have likely drawn a big hit from Rizzo, who is not exactly diminutive.
“If we still had the block the plate rule, it would have looked different, but he also could have been knocked out,” Matheny said, noting the exact outcome the rule is designed to prevent. “So we still believe in the rule, in the philosophy, but we’re just going to go about it a little differently in our mentality as catchers.”
The goal is finding a balance between the old and the new.
In making a split second decision on positioning and how and where to tag a runner, a catcher can end up exposing himself to injury by over-correcting to be compliant of the new rules. Matheny and his coaches want to shift the thought process for their catchers, teaching them to focus on protection through aggression.
“As we’re learning this, and I think you’re going to have the same issue with guys at second base, you almost become so timid that you don’t defend yourself as well, maybe. You don’t know what the baserunner is going to do, and you kind of get out of your normal routine,” Matheny said. “There still needs to be an aggressive nature in how we go about it, because a lot of times you’re going in blind.”
Part of that is augmenting the swipe tag strategy with a bit more of the old-school mentality. “Typically, we’ve always seen catchers go with two-handed tags. You get the ball into the bare hand and you use the glove to tag,” Matheny said. “Not be afraid to put a tag down hard, but still not blocking the plate. There’s nothing that been said that we can’t put a hard tag on a runner.”
Matheny, who caught 13 seasons in the majors, has closely examined the rules governing catcher positioning on plays at the plate. Describing the situation as “evolving,” he remains in full support of the changes, despite the injury to Molina and the adjustment period for catchers.
“I know, deep down I know, we’re saving guys. We’re saving maybe long-term damage, too, by how this is progressing,” he said.