Outlining a catcher re-entry rule and looking into its benefits.
As expected, Major League Baseball has already implemented a handful of new rules for the 2016 season. The most notable change is the updated slide rule stemming from the Chris Coghlan/Jung Ho Kang and Chase Utley/Ruben Tejada incidents toward the end of last season.
In the spirit of improving the game, here’s another potential new rule that could make a positive impact on competitiveness and safety.
A team can re-enter a catcher that has been removed from a game under two circumstances…
1.) If a team’s starting catcher is removed from a game in favor of the backup, for whatever reason (pinch hit, pinch run, etc.), and the backup gets injured during the game, then that team will be allowed to re-enter their starting catcher, regardless of how he was originally removed from the game.
2.) If a team uses their backup catcher off the bench to pinch hit or pinch run, and then he does not stay in the game after that, he will then be allowed to re-enter the game if that team’s starting catcher has to leave the game with an injury.
Why it would work:
If nothing else, this rule would give managers some extra peace of mind. They wouldn’t have to manage every game so conservatively if they knew a.) they could bring back their first catcher if something happened to the second catcher once the first leaves the game, or b.) they could bring back the catcher that came off the bench and didn’t stay in the game if something happened to the starter.
That strategical luxury completely avoids a manager’s worst case scenario of being forced to use an “emergency catcher” to finish a game behind the plate. Here’s what Yankees manager and former catcher Joe Girardi had to say regarding this issue in an interview with the YES Network in August 2014.
“Catchers are different … it’s not like you can throw anyone behind home plate,” said Girardi.
In a pinch, any team can send an infielder to play the outfield, or vice versa. They can even have a catcher go play another position. Heck, a pitcher could go play the outfield or first base for a few innings. But it’s incredibly difficult to ask a non-catcher to go put on the tools of ignorance, especially at a moment’s notice.
“I’ve asked around and nobody wants that title,” said Sveum. “You always ask that question somewhere along the line, and nobody wants to step up. I can’t blame them.”
The idea of having to use another position player at catcher spells trouble for any team, but a catcher re-entry rule eliminates that headache. It may not be a perfect comparison, but asking a right fielder, per say, to catch the ninth inning of a one run game is almost like sending a pitcher up to pinch hit and asking him to deliver a go-ahead RBI single.
Backup catchers are usually the last men off the bench not because they’re the weakest player, but because managers can’t afford to lose their last lifeline at the position. Any manager would prefer to pinch-hit a backup catcher with pop rather than a light-hitting utility infielder in a key situation, but they can’t risk it. It’s almost like a challenge in football. Coaches often decide to hold onto their challenges until late in games so they won’t lose them when they absolutely need one.
With a re-entry rule, that lifeline can’t be lost. ESPN senior writer David Schoenfield addressed this concern in his January article for the “MLB 2.0: Reimagining baseball” series, proposing a 28-man roster.
“Back in the 1970s and even into the 1980s, teams usually carried three catchers, allowing a manager to pinch-hit for his starting catcher with a better bench option, knowing he had two backups in reserve. Now, managers are afraid to hit for their catcher and burn their only backup,” Schoenfield wrote.
That last line couldn’t have defined the struggle of managing the catcher situation at the ML level any better, and fuels the re-entry rule idea. If managers didn’t have to worry about exhausting both of their catchers because of the slight chance that an injury leaves them without one, they would have more lineup flexibility and be in greater control of their positional depth.
In some cases, a few extra innings of rest for starting catchers here and there, such as in blowouts or meaningless games, can help prevent nagging pain or serious injuries.
Girardi, who had to use four catchers throughout the 2014 season because of injuries to starter Brian McCann and backup Francisco Cervelli, knows that injury concern is high and also commented on this aspect of the catcher conundrum in that August 2014 story.
“Maybe if you get in a long game and you have a huge lead you take a guy out, but then you have to worry about what happens if the next guy gets nicked up,” said Girardi.
Talk about hitting the nail on the head. The poster child for this scenario would be Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, who has been hampered by late-season injuries each of the past few seasons. Lifting Molina in the 7th inning of a 12-2 game, for example, would be ideal, but what if backup Brayan Pena suffers an injury after replacing him? If the Cardinals were able to re-enter Molina, that situation wouldn’t be a worry for managers.
Teams with the best catchers in the league need their starters in the game as much as possible. But at a grueling position where regular rest is so crucial, teams also need to be cautious with dividing up the playing time. Reserve catchers don’t play enough these days as it is, especially in the American League where there is less of a need for pinch hitters. So the idea of taking a star catcher out of a game early would allow backups to get in some more well-deserved reps, while not overworking starters.
A good example of this would be the Orioles’ catching situation. Matt Wieters is clearly the number-one guy in Baltimore, but Caleb Joseph filled in as a more-than-capable starter during Wieters’ lengthy DL stints over the past two seasons. A re-entry rule would allow the Orioles to even out the playing time between the two to a.) keep the injury prone Wieters fresh with extra rest, and b.) keep Joseph in form with extra playing time.
One potential loophole in the rule:
Teams may have their catcher fake an injury to get their better catcher back in the game. Let’s say Buster Posey is removed in the middle of a blowout game, then the game gets close again. The Giants may try to have backup Andrew Susac fake an injury so Posey can re-enter.
The loophole would be similar to NFL players faking injuries to stop the clock during critical points in the game. Now, general sportsmanship, respect, and class across the Major Leagues would point to this not being an issue, but even so, it can’t go unaddressed if the rule were to be put in place. In this case, it would be up to the umpiring crew to make a judgement call, and they would need some form of evidence (hit by pitch, foul tip to mask, collision etc.) that eliminates doubt to prove an injury.
In a perfect world, catcher injuries wouldn’t be nearly as much of an issue and managers wouldn’t have their hands tied when handling their catcher situations. But that isn’t practical, so implementing a catcher re-entry rule to limit the negative impact of injuries and lineup inflexibility would be a step in the right direction for Major League Baseball.
*Special thanks to my Dad for inspiring this article idea a while back, and sparking some of my ideas to draw up the parameters for this potential new rule*
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