MLB Smart to Backtrack on Transfer Rule, but Collision Confusion Still Looms

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MLB Smart to Backtrack on Transfer Rule, but Collision Confusion Still Looms
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Let's give Major League Baseball credit for making an adjustment that absolutely needed to be made. What has been a major point of contention early on in 2014 will no longer be a point of contention.

But this should be just the first of two much-needed adjustments. Now that MLB has taken care of the formerly dumb-as-nails transfer rule, it needs to take care of the hard-to-miss gray area in the new home-plate collision rules.

First things first. Not long after Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com teased it was coming, MLB announced a welcome tweak to the transfer rule early this afternoon:

Here's the short-and-sweet version: Catches are going to be catches again.

If you haven't been paying attention, yes, this is indeed news.

Whereas umpires had long been lenient about granting outs to fielders who clearly caught balls before bobbling the transfer from glove to hand, the first few weeks of 2014 had seen them become much more strict about enforcing the following wording in the rule book:

In establishing the validity of the catch, the fielder shall hold the ball long enough to prove that he has complete control of the ball and that his release of the ball is voluntary and intentional.

“An example of a catch that would not count is if a fielder loses possession of the ball during the transfer before the ball was secured by his throwing hand," wrote an MLB spokesman in an email to James Wagner of The Washington Post.

Which is the exact opposite of what everyone—players included—had gotten used to.

Consider a call that victimized the Boston Red Sox on Thursday night. On a potential 5-4-3 double play, second baseman Dustin Pedroia had the ball in his glove at second base here:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

And still had it here:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

That's a clean catch if there ever was one. And because Pedroia was clearly standing on second base, it should have meant an out for the Red Sox.

But because Pedroia couldn't get the ball from his glove to his hand cleanly for the throw to first base, Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner was ruled safe at second base and the Red Sox got no outs.

"I don't like the transfer rule, I'm a middle infielder so I know it's tough," Pedroia said, via ESPN Boston. "You've got a guy sliding at you and you can't see him, you're trying to get rid of the ball quick. It's 30 degrees, sometimes you lose it. I'm not a big fan of that rule but I don't make the rules."

Well, Pedroia got his wish. Just as plays like the one he made on Thursday night had been ruled outs in the past, now they're going to be ruled outs again going forward. There is, after all, now "no requirement that the fielder successfully remove the ball from his glove in order for it be ruled a catch."

Common sense has prevailed. Let's all join hands and say it together: "Hallelujah!"

With that done, we can now talk about the next bridge MLB needs to cross. Its next tweak needs to be one that would take care of a gray area in the home-plate collision rules.

Tom Mihalek

It was obvious when MLB implemented the new rules in late February that it wasn't going to be a seamless transition from the way things were to the way MLB wants things to be. Beyond the fact that MLB was tasking players with learning entirely new instincts, the rules themselves were complicated.

A quick reminder, via MLB.com:

  • Runners are no longer allowed to go out of their way to collide with catchers (or any other fielders) who are blocking the plate. Otherwise, it's fair game to call them out even if they're safe.
  • However, catchers can no longer block the plate...Unless they have the ball in their possession. It's only when they block the plate without possession that outs can be turned into runs.
  • There is one exception, though: In events when catchers have to move into the runner's path for to field the ball, then they technically are allowed to block the plate without possession of the ball.

The basic construction of the home-plate collision rules is fine. The league could have banned all home-plate collisions, but that would have been a fool's errand. The best the league could have done is ban collisions that can be prevented, which is what these rules are all about.

But there is one major gray area, and it has to do with how to differentiate between a catcher who is blocking the plate without the ball and a catcher who isn't blocking the plate without the ball.

For example, consider where Miami Marlins catcher Jeff Mathis was set up to receive a throw on this play on April 13 in Philadelphia.

Image courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

And where Philadelphia Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz was set up to receive a throw on this play on April 19 in Colorado:

Image courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

We're looking at two pretty clear examples of catchers blocking the plate without possession of the ball. And since the throws on both plays were on target, neither catcher had the excuse of being forced into the runner's path.

In both cases, the original call on the field was out. In both cases, the call should have been overturned.

But the call was only overturned in one case: with Ruiz in Colorado. The play in Philadelphia stood, costing the Phillies a run.

“I thought the catcher did not give the baserunner a lane,” Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said, via CSN Philadelphia. “He didn’t give him a view of home plate and I saw the replay and I still say the leg was blocking, so [Tony Gwynn Jr.] did not see home plate, did not have a lane to the plate."

Now, you can take a look at the two images and say that Ruiz was blocking home more than Mathis. But even if he was, we're talking maybe a matter of six inches. Where do you draw the line?

Where indeed. The fact is there is no line at all, and that's something that needs to be changed.

Fortunately, it sounds like this is something that could be changed.

Last week, Ken Rosenthal reported that MLB was rethinking the home-plate collision rules with the idea in mind to institute "a guideline in which catchers will be asked to give the runner a lane to the plate in their initial positioning."

Here's an idea: Just use the third-base line as a rule of thumb. If catchers plant their left feet clearly to the left of the line, then they're out of line.

It wouldn't be too much to ask, as we're already seeing catchers use the third-base line in this fashion. Here's Seattle Mariners catcher Mike Zunino giving a fine example in a play at the plate in Oakland on April 3:

Image courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Implementing the third-base line as a guide for where catchers can set up would accomplish several things.

The first, obviously, is that it would help catchers. Right now they have nothing concrete to tell them where they're supposed to be if they want to abide by the new rules. This would change that.

Umpires would also be helped, as they'd have something to help them differentiate between catchers blocking the plate without the ball and catchers not blocking the plate without the ball. This would help both in the moment and in replay situations.

Lastly, runners would also be helped. From what we've seen, players appear to be under the impression that they can't make contact with catchers under any circumstances. That's actually not the case.

The rules only say that runners can't deviate from their "direct pathway to the plate" to initiate contact. If they know where catchers are supposed to be on plays at the plate, then they'll conceivably know when it's fair game to initiate contact.

With so many changes happening at once, we should acknowledge that the first month of the season likely always was going to be messy as far as figuring out what was going to work and what wasn't going to work. It was always likely that MLB was going to have to adapt on the fly.

The league has done so in going back to the way things were with catches and transfers. That's a job well done.

If the league's next step is to eliminate the gray area in the home-plate collision rules, that will be two jobs well done.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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