Jung Ho Kang's injury shows need to change rules on takeout slides
The Pirates' chances of overtaking the Cardinals in the National League Central suffered a serious blow this week, as they lost three out of four games to the Cubs at home. The most devastating aspect of that defeat came on Thursday, when shortstop Jung Ho Kang was lost for the remainder of this season—and the start of next—due to a severe injury to his left knee, one caused by a takeout slide by Chicago’s Chris Coghlan. It's a loss that certainly harms Pittsburgh's chances in the postseason, and one that raises the larger question of whether MLB should do more to protect infielders from collisions, as the league has done recently with catchers.
Signed to a four-year, $11 million deal by the Pirates in January after nine seasons in the Korean Baseball Organization, the 28-year-old Kang has been worth every penny thus far. He was the Pirates' second-best hitter behind Andrew McCutchen, posting a 123 OPS+ on a .287/.355/.461 line with 15 homers. Meanwhile, he held his own in the field, splitting time between third base (54 starts) and shortstop (49 starts) and netting out as slightly above average. That helped manager Clint Hurdle cope with the absences of Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison, both of whom missed significant time due to injuries and have struggled mightily with the bat since returning. Via Baseball-Reference, Kang's 4.0 WAR is third among the team’s position players behind McCutchen and Starling Marte.
Losing Kang at a point when the team is postseason-bound is a crushing blow, particularly as the Pirates (87–59) appear fated to play in the do-or-die Wild-Card Game for the third straight year. While Pittsburgh had closed to within 2 1/2 games of the Cardinals (now 92–54) as of Sunday, the team has fallen five games back in the division, though the Pirates still hold a two-game lead over the Cubs (85–61). For what it's worth, the righty-swinging Kang is a .300/.359/.481 hitter against righties, compared to .238/.340/.381 against lefties, which is relevant because Chicago is increasingly likely to start Jake Arrieta rather than Jon Lester in the one-game playoff. The Pirates' offense tilts significantly to the right; of their six regulars with an OPS+ of at least 100, four are righties (McCutchen, Kang, Marte and Francisco Cervelli); Pedro Alvarez is a lefty and Neil Walker is a switch-hitter. Kang is the only one of those righties who's fared better against same-siders, so his loss will be magnified.
The play that ended Kang's season came in the top of the first inning, after the Cubs loaded the bases against Charlie Morton via a pair of singles and an error (in a cruel irony, it was on Kang himself). Anthony Rizzo hit a grounder to second baseman Walker, who threw to Kang in time to force Coghlan at second, who released it in time to complete the double play. In doing so, he was upended by Coghlin, who slid to the centerfield side of second base and hooked his right leg around Kang's left at the level of his shin. Kang’s left knee buckled, and he wound up suffering a fractured tibial plateau, a torn medial collateral ligament and a torn meniscus. He underwent surgery and faces a recovery time of six to eight months, which will cut into next season.
The video of the play is not for the faint of heart, but one can't have a meaningful discussion of its propriety without viewing it:
Was it a dirty play? Though his left leg reached the base, Coghlan's slide was angled away from the bag with the intent of making contact and preventing the completion of the play. It was hardly the second coming of Hal McRae, whose cross-body blocks routinely knocked second basemen into next week during the 1970s. Coghlan wasn't even directed as far off the bag as Kang himself was on this play from back in May against the Twins, identified by Fox Sports' C.J. Nitkowski.
More problematic about Coghlan's slide is the wrapping of his right leg around Kang, which one unidentified Pirate compared to that of a hockey goalie. Via the Pittsburgh Tribune’s Rob Biertempfel:
Players are taught to stack their legs as they slide to try to minimize the chances of an injury to the runner or fielder. One person in the Pirates' clubhouse, who did not want to be identified, said Coghlan separated his legs “like a hockey kick (save)” and whipped his leg into Kang.
“(Coghlan) went after him,” the source said. “It wasn't a dirty play but ... there's an adjective for it, somewhere between aggressive and dirty. There was hard intent there.”
For his part, Kang never left his feet, as middle infielders are trained to do to avoid takeout slides. The injured infielder felt that this was simply an unlucky result on a hard-nosed play, and before undergoing surgery, he released a statement through his agent, Alan Nero: "It is unfortunate that what would be considered heads-up baseball would cause such a serious injury. That said, Coghlan was playing the game the way it should be played. I'm confident he meant me no harm. I appreciate everyone's support."
Alas, Kang isn't the first infielder whom Coghlan has severely injured while breaking up a double play. In 2009 while playing with the Marlins, Coghlan took out Rays second baseman Akinori Iwamura, who suffered a partially torn ACL and a torn meniscus in his left knee. Though originally believed to be lost for the season, Iwamura’s surgery revealed that the ACL was less damaged than anticipated, and he returned after missing half the season, though his career was almost entirely downhill from the point of that injury.
Nitkowski, who pitched for 10 seasons in the majors and four more in Korea and Japan, noted that it's not entirely a coincidence that both injured infielders are Asian, as was Twins second baseman Tsuyoshi Nishioka, who suffered a fractured left fibula on a hard slide by the Yankees’ Nick Swisher in 2011:
The game in Asia is played differently. There are no collisions at the plate, there are no take-out slides. It was something that really caught my eye in the four seasons I played between Japan and Korea. On the rare occasions contact would happen, it would always involve a foreigner. Those players were looked upon as dirty players for playing the American style game in Asia.
Note that Nitkowski wasn't suggesting that Coghlan played dirty or had a particular vendetta against foreign-born infielders, and as his GIF of Kang shows, he has adapted to the stateside style of play.
The bigger question is whether it's time for MLB and the players' union to overhaul the rules regarding takeout slides in a fashion similar to what they did in early 2014 when they introduced Rule 7.13, banning collisions at home plate. As Cliff Corcoran has pointed out on several occasions, the implementation of that rule has not gone smoothly, to the point that the league issued a clarification last September, removing its application from force plays at the plate. Cliff noted that the rule applies the established principles of obstruction and interference at the other three bases to those at the plate: "That is to say: A fielder cannot obstruct the runner’s path to the base if he is not in possession of or in the act of fielding the ball, and a runner cannot make an overt attempt to dislodge the ball once the fielder is in possession of it."
Rule 7.13, which evolved as a response to Buster Posey's 2011 collision-induced broken leg and more general fears about catcher concussions, has its critics and its gray areas, particularly when coupled with instant replay reviews. Nonetheless, it has done what it was intended to do: significantly reduced the incidence of serious injuries to catchers on such plays.
At the risk of opening a can of worms that already includes the so-called "neighborhood play," it's time for the league and the union to consider more stringent rules regarding collisions elsewhere. In introducing replay, the league and the union specifically exempted review of the neighborhood play, where umpires customarily rule a forced runner out at second base if the defender touches the bag and then removes it in a split second before receiving the ball so as to avoid contact. Umpires and the rest of the industry have tolerated such plays for decades because not doing so puts middle infielders at risk of injuries along the lines of the one Kang suffered, though in his case, he was in possession of the ball while touching second.
While some amount of contact in breaking up double plays is inevitable, it does not seem unreasonable for the industry to require a runner's slide to be directed at the base instead of at the defender. Such a requirement would have called Coghlan's slide (and that of Kang himself, in the example above) beyond the pale, and while that alone wouldn't have prevented the ensuing injury, he and other players would already have been trained over the course of several months not to do such things, and penalized—with an automatic double play in less flagrant cases, and perhaps an ejection in the more flagrant ones—had previous infractions occurred.
Inevitably, calls for such a change will encounter resistance in the form of back-in-the-day machismo, but players are bigger and stronger than in McRae’s heyday (note that he’s listed at 180 pounds, Coghlan at 195), and as salaries have skyrocketed, so has the cost of losing them to severe injuries. I’ve said it before: Baseball shouldn't be a contact sport except when bat meets ball, and the game is at its best when its best players are on the field instead of in the hospital. It’s time to adjust the rules regarding takeout slides.