Major League Baseball decided last December that it wanted to ban collisions at home plate. It just needed the MLB Players Association to sign off, preferably in time for the ban to be in place for 2014.
Well, guess what. With Opening Day still more than a month away, it's happening. The rules governing collisions at home plate are here, and they're going to make things...well, let's go with "interesting."
As revealed on MLB.com, home plate collisions now fall under "Rule 7.13." It has but one aim: to "prohibit the most egregious collisions at home plate." MLB took care to note that the new rules do "not mandate that the runner always slide or that the catcher can never block the plate," but there are specific rules designed to govern the actions of both baserunners and catchers.
We'll start with the rules for runners:
A runner attempting to score may not deviate from his direct pathway to the plate in order to initiate contact with the catcher (or other player covering home plate). If, in the judgment of the umpire, a runner attempting to score initiates contact with the catcher (or other player covering home plate) in such a manner, the umpire shall declare the runner out, even if the player covering home plate loses possession of the ball.
The failure by the runner to make an effort to touch the plate, the runner's lowering of the shoulder, or the runner's pushing through with his hands, elbows or arms, would support a determination that the runner deviated from the pathway in order to initiate contact with the catcher in violation of Rule 7.13.
At first glance, these rules are perfectly sensible and perfectly fair. In theory, they'll force runners into colliding with catchers only when they have no other choice. We can (or should) all agree that this is how it should be, as fewer collisions hypothetically means fewer injuries.
However, you probably don't need me to tell you that there are inevitably going to be plays that require umpires to make tough calls. Either in real time or upon further review, it's not always going to be obvious that a runner who collided with a catcher broke the rules.
We're going to turn to the Scott Cousins-Buster Posey collision as an example (because of course we are). You can watch the video of the play at MLB.com, but we're going to look at a couple of key stills.
Here's one that shows where Cousins was before the throw from right-center had reached Posey (the red dot is the ball):
And here's one that shows where Cousins was when the throw had reached home plate:
And lastly, one that shows where both players were moments before impact:
Did Cousins deviate from his "direct pathway" to the plate to collide with Posey?
Frankly, it's still debatable almost three years later. But if this play had happened in 2014 rather than 2011, it's conceivable that the umpire could rule that Cousins did go out of his way and, thus, called him out. Posey wasn't clearly blocking Cousins' path to home plate. Also, Cousins didn't make a clear effort to touch home plate when he went barreling into Posey.
But then there's the reality that Rule 7.13 is also subject to video review. Had Cousins been called out, Marlins manager Edwin Rodriguez could have issued a challenge that may have resulted in the call being changed.
The point here isn't to do any revisionist history. It's just to point out how there's an inherent gray area in how Rule 7.13 applies to baserunners. If you thought home plate collisions were controversial before, just wait for the disputes over whether a runner went out of his way to collide with a catcher. There are going to be plenty of those, and not all of them are going to have an obvious "right" call.
As for how Rule 7.13 applies to catchers:
Unless the catcher is in possession of the ball, the catcher cannot block the pathway of a runner as he is attempting to score. If, in the judgment of the umpire, the catcher, without possession of the ball, blocks the pathway of the runner, the umpire shall call or signal the runner safe.
But then there's this:
Notwithstanding the above, it shall not be considered a violation of this Rule 7.13 if the catcher blocks the pathway of the runner in order to field a throw, and the umpire determines that the catcher could not have fielded the ball without blocking the pathway of the runner and that contact with the runner was unavoidable.
Once again, the rules sound fair enough. Essentially, what they're designed to do is ensure that catchers only instigate collisions when they actually have a shot at an out. In theory, this will stop catchers from blocking runners from home plate as a means of stalling them.
Now, consider a collision between Chipper Jones and Erik Kratz from 2012. We'll get to watching the video in just a second, but for now here's the telling still image:
The ball, once again, is the red dot. As you can see, it's clearly not in Kratz's glove. As you can also see, Kratz was very clearly in Jones' path to home plate. The result was a collision in which, upon receiving the ball, Kratz held on to it and tagged Jones out.
On a surface level, Rule 7.13 says that Jones would be called safe if that play happened in 2014. After all, he was being blocked from home plate by a catcher who didn't have the ball. The tag Kratz applied would be irrelevant, as he had to bend the rules to apply said tag.
But now let's watch the actual video of the play. In particular, watch the throw from center field to home plate:
Rather than make a beeline to home plate, that throw veered sharply up the third base line. In maneuvering to catch it, Kratz didn't end up in Jones' way by choice. In 2014, the umpire could rule that Kratz did what he had to do and, thus, allowed the Phillies to keep the out.
But then there's that gray area. It's up to the umpire to determine whether a catcher could have fielded a ball without straying into the path of the baserunner. In this case, maybe a safe call would be justified under the notion that Kratz could have caught the ball in fair territory and then tried for a swipe tag.
Once again, the idea here isn't to do any revisionist history. It's to point out that, just like there is with the language that applies to baserunners, there is an inherent gray area in how the language of Rule 7.13 applies to catchers. There are going to be times when the "right" call will be a toss-up.
In the words of St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny (via the St. Louis Post-Dispatch):
The bad thing is there's that gray area. There's still that 'Am I going to run over him or not? Is he really blocking the plate or is he not?' There are going to be those plays where the throw takes you a little up the line more than you want and you kind of lose your position...I think there are still going to be some train wrecks at home plate. I'm just encouraging my guys to do what they can to avoid it if it is avoidable.
From where I'm sitting, however, none of this is to suggest that MLB and the union have completely botched the rules that will govern collisions at home plate. In fact, the first thought I had upon reading the rules for both baserunners and catchers was something along the lines of: "Nailed it." Even after pointing out the various gray areas, I still think there's nothing wrong with the language of the rules.
But by no means should anybody even begin to think that baseball has seen the end of controversial collisions at the plate. If anything, the controversial collisions that do happen are going to be doubly as controversial now. At stake is not just whether a runner and/or a catcher was in the wrong in a given collision, but whether the proper call is an out or a run scored.
The only way it will be worth it is if the new rules help prevent collisions simply by being in existence. Baserunners and catchers will still have to make split-second decisions, but maybe more of those split-second decisions will err on the side of caution. As a result, maybe some injuries will be avoided.
Baseball has its heart in the right place with these new rules. And if they do indeed help prevent injuries, you had better believe that the league will be able to live with the extra controversy.
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