Baseball's better (and safer) future won't always be pretty

Change can be difficult. Sometimes, even ugly. But that doesn't mean change isn't good, even necessary. Last week, we saw a couple of great examples in baseball games.

Alex Torres models the isoBLOX hat prior to Tuesday's game against the Dodgers.

Andy Hayt / Getty Images North America

Back in March, I spoke to Brandon McCarthy about the new isoBLOX cap for pitchers, and he even let me wear one for a few minutes. The cap felt so unwieldy and heavy, and McCarthy was so disdainful of this particular equipment, that I didn’t believe he or any other major leaguer would actually wear one in a game anytime soon.

I was wrong.

Saturday night, San Diego’s Alex Torres debuted the isoBLOX cap in a real game. And yes, from certain distances and angles he looked … well, funny’s one word.

The most popular jokes referenced someone named “Mario” (which doesn’t mean anything to me, but apparently anyone born after 1990 is quite familiar). I did watch Torres pitch on television Tuesday night, and the cap wasn’t particularly noticeable from the center-field camera. And my guess is that most people in the stands wouldn’t notice at all. Which is ... something, anyway.

When I talked to McCarthy in the spring, his problem wasn’t really with how the gear looks, but how it felt. Here’s what he said last winter about the looks:

“It looks ridiculous and we get so used to the way things look,” said McCarthy, who recently took a picture of himself with the headgear on and sent it to other pitchers in the league. “You mentioned the new football helmets and batting helmets, everything looks silly until it doesn't look silly anymore.”

Torres didn’t pitch well in his initial outing with the isoBLOX, giving up a hit and a couple of walks in one inning against the Dodgers. Tuesday night, he gave up a hit and retired two Giants. Torres sports a nifty 2.05 ERA, but rarely pitches in games the Padres are winning, and the cause might be helped if a better-known pitcher took it up.

If Torres keeps pitching well, though, he’s going to eventually pitch in higher-leverage situations, might even earn a save or three someday. And if he’s still wearing the gear, more people will notice.

Will the isoBLOX work for a starting pitcher who has to throw 100 pitches rather than 20? Will it work for a starting pitcher who has to throw 100 pitches when it’s 100 degrees in the shade in Arlington, Texas? I don’t know. I don’t even know if the isoBLOX will prove truly useful against a typical line drive off the bat of a major-league hitter, since it’s not really rated for that sort of impact.

But at the very least, it’s an interesting development.

There was another interesting development, last Wednesday. There’s this new rule, see, that’s intended to lower the frequency of collisions at the plate. Actually, Rule 7.13 doesn’t change anything so much as clarify and strengthen an existing rule. All of which I wrote about at length in February.

By the way, sometimes I get something right. In February, Joe Torre suggested that baserunners who violated the new rule might not just get called out; they might be ejected, fined or even suspended. My take? “I won’t be at all surprised if not a single player is suspended in the wake of a collision this season.”

Nobody’s been suspended, or even ejected. Then again, I don’t recall any violent collisions at all -- which seems like exactly the point of the changes.

Anyway, last Wednesday there was a particular play that, somehow, Major League Baseball doesn’t seem to have thought about before: a force play at home. Here’s how it went down:

Afterward, EVERYBODY said the right things:

"My immediate reaction was, 'What can I do? What adjustments do I make?'" said Pittsburgh catcher Russell Martin, who was called for obstruction after taking an upright throw for a force at the plate in the third inning. "But honestly, I don't think I need to make an adjustment -- there's an adjustment to make to the rule, when it's a force play."

"Time will tell, but I do think there will be some very intense discussions that need to be had about that play," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, who was ejected from the game for requesting a more detailed explanation for the reversed call.

--snip--

Mesoraco, the Reds' catcher, couldn't find fault with the way Martin carried out the play. "He just has to try to catch the ball and keep his foot on the base," Mesoraco said. "It's a force play, I don't know. I don't think that is the intention of the rule -- a force play like that and he's blocking the plate. I wouldn't have done anything different myself."

Martin and Hurdle both seemed to have the impression that when Rule 7:13 was compiled hastily shortly before the start of this season, no distinction was spelled out between tag and force plays -- on which the catcher must be on the plate.

Banished from the game, Hurdle used his free time to phone Joe Torre, MLB's executive vice president of baseball operations.

In fairness, it’s hard for me to believe that “Rule 7.13 was compiled hastily.” There must have been some smart people at Major League Baseball working on this for a long time, since the issue first came up with some seriousness a couple of years ago. But there was some hastiness when, with MLB coming up with its proposal for the new rule, the Players Association raised some objections. Which resulted in changes. Which still doesn’t explain why nobody thought about the force plays.

Guess what, though: Now they’ve thought about it! And whaddaya know, they got it right: “Rule 7.13 was adopted in order to prevent unnecessary collisions at home plate between a runner attempting to score and a catcher attempting to make a tag play on the runner. The Rule as intended has no function or purpose in the context of a force play (i.e., a runner attempting to score from third with the bases loaded). As a result, effective immediately, Umpires will be instructed not to apply Rule 7.13 to force plays at home plate.”

Mike Petriello, who usually writes so smartly about the game, last week accused Rule 7.13 of hurting the game. Well, no. It’s actually making the game much less violent, somewhat healthier and thus a great deal better.

Will it be ugly sometimes? Yes. Clearly.

Uglier than seeing Buster Posey’s leg exploded? No. Clearly. I would happily trade 200 questionable interpretations of Rule 7.13 for one season-ending injury.

New rules aren’t pretty. Giant baseball caps aren’t pretty. But this is what a better, safer, less violent and more beautiful game looks like. And yes, we’ll get used to it.

 

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