The battle over the battle over home plate is worth fighting

As FOX Sports' Ken Rosenthal reported last week, the new rules covering plays at home plate haven't had the desired effect, and will probably be tweaked in the coming weeks. Here's why it matters.

Phillies' Tony Gwynn Jr. is tagged out at home plate by Miami Marlins catcher Jeff Mathis.

Howard Smith / USA TODAY Sports

So last week I mentioned how interesting this season was going to be, if only because of radically expanded video review and the new rules about plays at the plate. What I didn’t know about was the new “transfer” rule, and that’s been interesting too!

Last week I wrote (again) about video review, and was figuring on writing about the other stuff this week ... and then some news broke (!) when FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal reported that changes are afoot:

The first, at minimum, would be a guideline in which catchers will be asked to give the runner a lane to the plate in their initial positioning, further reducing the possibility of collisions at home plate.

The second would be a less strict interpretation of the transfer rule, in which umpires would rule on catches the way they did in the past, using more of a common-sense approach rather than following the letter of the law.

I can see the second both ways. But lest anyone think the old way was perfect, let’s at least try to remember that they used to argue about that one, too. Basically, what’s happened is a change in emphasis; the umpires used to give fielders the benefit of the doubt, and this season they’ve not been. But it’s always going to be a gray area.

My personal opinion is that fielders don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt and at this point I’m in favor of just about anything that promotes scoring. On the other hand, precedent is a powerful and useful thing. Plus, if you’re going to give the benefit of the doubt to anyone, it’s probably the best fielders in the world who deserve it. So, whatever. This probably isn’t one of those things worth getting our knickers in a bunch over.

Essentially, this has become an issue because radically expanded video review is a huge move toward relieving umpires from the uncomfortable chore of making difficult decisions. Difficult decisions that defy reversal, anyway. But no matter how you write the rule, there will always be room for interpretation when a fielder is going from catch to throw in a heartbeat. And again, in this case precedent’s probably best, if only so everyone will shut up about it for a while. Baseball might have simply chosen to fight too many battles this spring.

But the battle against battles at the plate is very much worth fighting, and it sure seems like the battle’s been joined. Again, Rosenthal:

Tony La Russa, a Hall of Fame manager who now works in the commissioner's office, said that teams were "encouraged" in spring training to instruct their catchers to yield part of the plate from the moment a play starts.

The ambiguity of the rule, however, has led to confusion. La Russa said that catchers should be "required" to avoid blocking the plate as the runner rounds third and heads toward home, giving him a clear, visible path to the plate. A catcher is permitted to block the plate only when he has the ball, making certain collisions unavoidable.

The issue will only grow in importance as the pennant races intensify and runs become even more precious, La Russa said.

"If we allow the catcher to stand there in front of the plate and it's not a violation, then -- our managers are going to say, 'Whoa, wait a minute. We were teaching our guys to slide because they had something to slide to,' " La Russa said.

“If that's taken away, we're going to get to exactly where we started. We're going to be encouraging collisions rather than trying to avoid them. What we hope is that if we correct this initial positioning, at least then we won't have runners as soon as they make a turn deciding, 'I've got to plow this guy.'"

Any change to the rule would require the approval of the union, which is in agreement with La Russa's position, sources said. A formal modification, however, might not be necessary.

Many clubs already are teaching catchers to leave an opening for the runner at all times. Rather than rewrite the rule immediately, baseball and the union first might reach out to teams and catchers that require further instruction and ask them to adjust accordingly, sources said.

As it stands, an umpire would cause a firestorm if he determined that a runner was out by four or five feet, but ruled him safe because the catcher was blocking the plate.

“The umpires in this thing are between a rock and a hard place," La Russa said. "We have to correct it for them."

Yes, there’s a great deal to chew on there. But essentially it comes down to this ... The new rule was supposed to result in significantly fewer violent incidents at the plate. It’s done that! For that reason alone, the new rule (or interpretation) is better than the old rule (or interpretation). But it was also supposed to hold both the runners and the catchers accountable for causing less violence, and in roughly equal measures. It hasn’t done that. And if you don’t believe me, here’s a representative bit of photographic evidence:

You see the problem? Yes, the catcher may block the plate when he’s got the ball. But here he’s blocking the plate before he’s got the ball. Yes, you might argue that he’s not blocking the plate ... because you’re not in the act of blocking the plate unless there’s someone to block, and Roger Bernadina’s not at the plate yet. You might make that legalistic argument, and in fact that exact argument has been made successfully this spring, a number of times already.

Practically, though, it’s a lousy argument. If the intent is to prevent collisions, then the catcher should not be allowed to obstruct the plate until he has the ball; before then, he must leave a path for the runner. And it's pretty obvious that's what we’re going to get eventually. It’s just a question of when, thanks largely to the Players Association.

Which brings me to my little diatribe against the union. I’m tired of the union. I don’t know why the union is allowed veto power over playing rules. Well, I do understand. It’s a sop. It’s a gesture to foster goodwill, and thus probably useful. But I think it’s often worth remembering that baseball doesn’t belong to the players. Not much of it, anyway. In a business sense, it belongs to the owners. In an entertainment sense, it belongs to the fans. Baseball players are, or should be, like actors and firefighters: They work for us.

Granted, we have to make allowances for workplace safety, not to mention basic humanity. But the transfer rule has nothing to do with safety, and the union’s arguments against changing the rules around home plate are actually meant to contravene safety. Basically, players just like running into each other because it’s fun unless you get hurt. Like football, and love.

They need to fix this one, though. I don’t suppose OSHA’s ever going to take an active interest, but we know that eventually every sport will have to do everything reasonable to limit concussions. This is actually a fairly small thing, and it’s gratifying to see traditionalist La Russa on the right side.

Rob Neyer regularly collides with common sense and decency on Twitter.

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