The rule is pretty clear. Catchers are no longer allowed to block home plate without the baseball and they must always give the runner a clear lane to the plate. If the catcher blocks the plate at all, an umpire can call the runner safe, even if he were clearly out. The play is reviewable, and as we have seen numerous times already this season, the replay office at Chelsea Market in New York City has cited catchers for blocking home plate, calls have been overturned and runners have been called safe.
Now in fairness to all involved -- catchers, base runners and umpires -- there had to be an anticipated adjustment period for everyone. Things have been done one way for such a long time that it was not going to be as simple as applying a new rule and everyone would just follow, not with a rule as non-traditional as this.
We have seen awkward slides at home this year, at times even seeing runners slide on their knees because they were so indecisive as to what to do on a close play at home. We have also seen runners try to change direction mid-slide just to avoid the catcher, fearing they'll be called out for illegal contact. There is now a new added injury risk to runners who are sliding so cautiously and awkwardly into home plate.
Another issue that has arisen in all of this is what catchers often do just prior to applying a tag on a close play. There is blocking home plate with your entire body and then there is blocking home plate with just the bottom half of your leg. Catchers will stick that leg out at the last possible second in order to provide an obstruction to prevent a runner from sliding into home. Catchers have gotten away with this because it does not appear they are truly blocking the plate, although they are. What usually happens is that a runner slides into that catcher's leg, is unable to touch home plate, and is tagged out.
There is a part of rule 7.13 that I believe has been somewhat ignored that could make all of this indecisiveness and confusion go away.
7.13.1 -- "A runner attempting to score may not deviate from his direct pathway to the plate in order to initiate contact with the catcher."
"Deviate from his direct pathway" is the key. The spirit of the rule is to protect catchers from base runners going out of their way to collide with a catcher, which is certainly very reasonable. However the rule does not say you cannot ever make contact with the catcher, it says that a runner cannot go out of his way in an attempt to make contact with the catcher.
All the language in Rule 7.13 refers to a runner deviating from his direct pathway to home plate as a violation. Catchers are told to leave a pathway open for the runner, runners are told to stay in it. So what happens when a catcher gets in the direct pathway of a runner, whether it be intentional or if a throw from a fielder takes him there? All bets are off and the catcher is no longer protected.
Runners need to change their mindset. They have been given a path to home plate, it is theirs. Should a catcher try to take that away from them, whether intentional or not, then they are free to barrel that catcher over, just like we have seen all the years leading up to this one. The intent should never be malicious but the pathway belongs to the runner, he owns it, just as rule 7.13 states.
The problem has been that runners believe they are not at all allowed to make contact with the catcher and that is just simply not true. It is this belief that has caused all the unusual slides we have seen at home.
Runners should no longer be running towards home worried about making contact with the catcher, they should instead be focusing on their direct pathway and looking for potential contact. I would suggest almost never sliding. I would teach my runners to go full speed through home plate, just like they do at first base. Should a catcher get in their direct pathway to home plate on the way then I would want them to barrel that catcher over.
That is all within the rules and what you would ultimately see is catchers no longer blocking the plate, unless of course they are inviting contact. The confusion at home plate would also be eliminated, and runners would be getting to home faster. Runs that should be scored would, while plays where a throw clearly beat a runner would likely be out, outside of a savvy slide.
Rule 7.13 was not intended to remove all home plate collisions, it was intended to protect catchers from unnecessary collisions. If a fielder makes a throw that takes a catcher in front of the plate, then that's on him. A runner shouldn't be penalized for a poor throw -- a direct pathway to home is his, he should own it and never stray from it.