Midweek Morosi: Home-plate rules a 'pathway' to confusion

MLB rules on plays at home plate are convoluted and quite possibly dangerous.

Cleveland's Michael Brantley (left) watches manager Terry Francona chat with umpire Mike Winters.

Ben Margot / AP

Early reviews on baseball's major rule changes:

* Expanded instant replay is working well and probably will become even more efficient as the season goes on -- notwithstanding Bruce Bochy's misadventures Tuesday night.

* The new rules on plays at home plate are convoluted and quite possibly dangerous, to the point that a public clarification is necessary, for players and fans alike.

Of the five replay challenges Monday, only one went longer than two minutes. Not surprisingly, it had to do with the legality of a catcher's actions at home plate under new rules aimed at increasing player safety.

That review, between the Athletics and Indians in Oakland, was by far the most controversial one. Even the next day, I didn't believe plate umpire Mike Winters made the correct call, although I credit him for initiating the review himself.

At issue was whether Oakland catcher John Jaso blocked the "pathway" of Cleveland's Michael Brantley -- who was called out on the play -- before Jaso had the ball. Under the new rule, a runner is supposed to be called safe if a catcher "blocks the pathway" to the plate when not in possession of the ball.

By the letter of the law, Brantley should have been called safe. Jaso was positioned mostly inside the chalk line as he prepared to take the throw. But Brantley was slightly inside the chalk line, too, and runners have the right to determine their own "pathways" toward home plate.  (Remember the lesson we learned on the game-ending obstruction call during last year's World Series.) On that very basic level, Jaso was in Brantley's way when he didn't have the ball. And that is illegal under Rule 7.13.

The rule doesn'€™t define precisely what "pathway" means -- one of many instances in which the language is short on specifics. Generally, though, contact doesn't need to occur in order for a pathway to be disrupted. If Brantley had to slow down or shorten his strides because Jaso was in the baseline without the ball, then Jaso violated the rule. And that certainly appears to have been the case.

"I did not have a lane," Brantley said, according to MLB.com. "As you could see, I slid into both of his legs with my shins. It's a tough call. There's a gray area in there, but at the same time, hopefully next time we'll get that call."

The "gray area" is what has me worried.

Let's not forget the genesis of Rule 7.13. The discussion began out of concern for the health of catchers after the catastrophic leg injury suffered by Buster Posey nearly three years ago. I support the rule's premise: Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association want catchers to be more protected. But as the rule has been implemented, the rule -- at least in its current form -- has dubious benefit.

The rule ought to have two major parts: Runners may not deviate from their initial third-to-home path in order to initiate contact with a catcher (as happened to Posey) and catchers may not stand in a runner's way when they don't have the ball. MLB and the union also could add in a proviso that neither the catcher nor the runner can make deliberate contact to the head of the other. And that should be it.

The rule change was described by some in the media as a "ban on home-plate collisions," but that was inaccurate. Instead, the rule attempted to make home plate contact safer -- a noble concept that unfortunately has muddled the picture. For example: The new rule says umpires "will consider whether the runner . . . lowered his shoulders or pushed through with his hands, elbows or arms" without specifically prohibiting those actions.

I would have been in favor of a rule change that mandated sliding. But that's not how the rule was written. Ask 10 people in the game what the rule actually says, and you are likely to hear 10 different interpretations. Both MLB and the players union share responsibility for issuing public clarifications.

One major league manager told me he had been told by the commissioner's office that, if a catcher has the ball and is blocking the plate, the runner can barrel into him just as had been the case last year (presuming he had no other route to the plate). But if that's the case, why doesn't the rule say it? Why didn't MLB and the union agree on hash marks to form an "alley" within which a catcher is fair game --€” a concept somewhat analogous to the charge arc in basketball or goaltender trapezoid in hockey?

I can promise you that the understanding of Rule 7.13 -- what it says, and, more important, what it doesn't say -- is not uniform among major league front offices, managers, coaches and players. That is a problem. If the wrong pairing of runner and catcher collide -- one bracing for contact, the other believing contact is illegal -- then MLB could see a superstar player injured because of an ambiguous rule.

And isn't the prevention of that the reason we're having this discussion in the first place?

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