The brutal art of blocking the plate

Jason Varitek, ready and waiting.

This is the look of a determined catcher.

One knee down, the other leg planted, waiting for a throw to cut down the would-be run screaming down the third base line. And if it’s in time, that runner is dead.

For a catcher with pop but no consistent stroke, with a computerized brain data bank of every hitter and pitcher tendency in the majors, but without the durability to catch 140 games a season, being able to block the plate like no other becomes a valuable skill. So valuable, in fact, that it can bring to light all of the reasons a team still carries a player to begin with.

Jason Varitek, captain of the Boston Red Sox, has been splitting time behind the plate with the young Jarrod Saltalamacchia. He’s found his swing of late, tallying five home runs and bringing his average up to .250 in 124 at bats, and he’s been as instrumental in handling the pitching staff as ever. Josh Beckett’s great season, for example, can’t be mentioned without noting a small bit of credit belongs to his longtime battery mate.

And on Tuesday night, one of Varitek’s other skills, blocking the plate, was highlighted in dramatic fashion.

With the tying runner on in the ninth inning, Jonathan Papelbon gave up a single to Blue Jays shortstop John McDonald to left field. Darnell McDonald got to the ball and threw a dead-on strike to Varitek, who had planted his left leg out waiting for the runner.

Edwin Encarnacion came down the line. He dropped into a leg first slide. And upon contact with Varitek’s leg, he crumpled like a Ferrari running into a lightpost. Out.

Writer Steve Almond once went into great detail in describing Varitek’s build, referring to his leg as his “rippling man thigh,” in his book, Not That You Asked. In that passage, he was illustrating the helpless feeling as an A’s fan watching Eric Byrnes, their fleet-footed, surfer-like left fielder, try to slide into Varitek. In that playoff game, Byrnes came down the line, Varitek got the ball, and Byrnes seemingly ran into a highway overpass. He buckled, completely lost control of his slide, and went flying. Varitek didn’t move. Out.

Two years ago, I was at an August game in Fenway against, once again, the Blue Jays. With the game tied and the skies opening up, again, John McDonald roped one into the outfield. Travis Snider came wheeling around into the plate with Varitek waiting for Jason Bay’s throw. Varitek extended his leg across the plate, Snider slid in, and from the bleachers, it looked like his limb went back into his body, with the rest of torso stopped cold.

If he had scored, the game could have been called with the Blue Jays winning 6-5. But that wasn’t an issue — he was out, the game remained tied. And then came the rain delay, after which the Red Sox pulled out the win.

The whole episode highlighted not just how great a player Varitek is at blocking runners from scoring, but the importance of keeping that part of the game in baseball.

There’s been a lot written on the subject. Jon Couture has a good look at the blocking techniques of Varitek and Saltalamacchia. Buster Olney has been adamant that blocking the plate be removed from the game, in the wake of Buster Posey’s injury in May. Posey’s agent agrees.

I think that line of thinking, that the tactic should be barred because a marquee player in the game was hurt, is reactionary and shortsighted. Am I sorry that Posey was hurt trying to stop a run? Of course. He’s a fantastic player, and the game is more fun with him on the field. But there’s a limit to that pity. Posey braced himself flat footed and in poor position, and the tendons in his legs were primed to snap upon any contact in that spot.

Also, as bad as anyone can (and should) feel for Posey, remember that he signed up to be a catcher in the major leagues. There’s no mandate to block the plate, but if a catcher is planning to do it, he’d better know how to do it right. I’d hate to be run over by a 6’3″ athlete in the name of a run. But I’m not and never will be a big league catcher.

Blocking the plate belongs in the game. When it comes at a key point, it is one of the more dramatic moments the sport can provide. Trying to legislate it out because a player was injured is ridiculous. Injuries happen. And they’d happen less if catchers knew how to do it right.

Varitek, for one, knows how to do it right. Teach the players learn how to correctly block the plate, and baseball will be better for it.

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