MINNEAPOLIS — Though he spent many days being chased down by Division I defensive lineman, the biggest hit Kevan Smith ever endured was on the diamond.
Smith was behind the plate for Single-A Kannapolis playing at Hagerstown in 2012 when outfielder Keenyn Walker’s throw to the plate was slowed down by the high grass. Next thing he knew, Smith was down and out after a serious collision. The White Sox catcher said he eventually landed on the disabled list.
A day after Anthony Rizzo’s controversial play at the plate resulted in an early exit for San Diego catcher Austin Hedges, both White Sox backstops and manager Rick Renteria said they’re pleased with the overall response to and safety provided by Rule 7.13.
Implemented in 2014, the rule prevents runners from plowing into catchers, who no longer may block the runner’s path to the plate without the ball. Since it was instituted, the rule has resulted in fewer massive injuries like the ones previously suffered by Buster Posey and Carlos Santana. But it wasn’t soon enough for Smith, who said he’s landed on the DL twice in his career as a result of collisions at the plate.
“I remember this big guy, like 245 pounds, Matt Skole, hit me, and I thought he broke my damn neck,” Smith said. “Now I don’t have to worry about it. But then I went to get the ball, and as soon as I turned, his shoulder ran right into my face. I blacked out. After that day, I was like, I don’t want to sound soft, but it was such an eye-opening moment for me because I honestly thought I broke my neck. I was like, ‘Man, we are helpless.’ Regardless of how big I am, a 180-pounder can take me out because I’m just standing there flat-footed.”
Neither Smith nor catcher Omar Narvaez had seen Rizzo’s controversial slide as the White Sox enjoyed their first day off in two weeks on Monday.
On the play in question, replays showed Rizzo diverting his route and heading inside the baseline before he plowed into Hedges, who held on for the final out of the inning.
The Cubs first baseman told reporters Tuesday he’d heard from league officials that he would not be punished but learned he had violated Rule 7.13.
While the rule was at first confusing to almost everyone involved when it was implemented, three-plus seasons of usage have provided clarity. Renteria said his understanding is that no deviation is allowed by the base runner and that’s what he has taught players to do since the rule went into place. However, Renteria understands the quick timing involved in the play won’t always produce a smooth result.
“You go straight to the plate,” Renteria said. “It doesn’t say if the plate is being blocked that you can’t go through the guy. It just says if there is no lane you can’t deviate. Everybody kind of looks at every play at the plate to make sure nobody is going offline. Again, it’s a split-second decision everybody has to make. The player, the catcher receiving the ball trying to come back and make the tag, and the runner on his way to the plate.”
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Narvaez said the biggest uncertainty involves inaccurate throws home because the catcher has to move off his position in front of the plate. But otherwise Narvaez — who once thought he sustained a broken knee because of a collision is Rookie ball — thinks the rule has benefitted all.
“It definitely has,” Narvaez said. “It’s good for the runner and the catcher because we don’t get that collision. Before that rule I was trying to get myself out of the way and try to tag him and get out of the way. But now I try to tag him like an infielder.
“We both should know the rules.”
Both catchers prefer the current system. While they must always remain alert for a possible collision, they also know that should only happen in rare instances. Smith thinks that’s much better than the alternative, one he didn’t have to worry about as much when he played quarterback for the Pitt Panthers.
“(Then you’d) start to learn how to protect yourself,” Smith said. “You start to learn how to take that guy out. It’s like, now we’re making that guy vulnerable to get hurt. Then you’re taking about some guys who are multi-multi-million dollar players, and you’re really risking it. Football guys can brace up. Guys have pads. These baserunners don’t have pads. I have what you want to call pads, but not really. I mean, I think it’s good.”