MLB's new rule about home-plate collisions? It's progress
Feb 25, 2014 at 11:30a ET
Well, it’s here. Finally, it’s here. Nearly three months after Major League Baseball announced that there would be a new rule designed to limit collisions at home plate, there’s actually a new rule: officially, it’s Official Baseball Rule 7.13. MLB.com’s got a great deal of detail and reaction, but here’s the nut:
• Runner attempting to score may not deviate from his direct pathway to the plate in order to initiate contact with the catcher (or other player covering home plate). If, in the judgment of the Umpire, a runner attempting to score initiates contact with the catcher (or other player covering home plate) in such a manner, the Umpire shall declare the runner out (even if the player covering home plate loses possession of the ball).
• Unless the catcher is in possession of the ball, the catcher cannot block the pathway of the runner as he is attempting to score. If, in the judgment of the Umpire, the catcher, without possession of the ball, blocks the pathway of the runner, the Umpire shall call or signal the runner safe.
OK, so that second part? That’s essentially the rule that existed already. Yes, there’s a carve-out for situations where the catcher may block the plate while in the act of catching the ball, if “the catcher could not have fielded the ball without blocking the pathway of the runner and that contact with the runner was unavoidable.”
But that carve-out, or something nearly identical, already was in the rules. The problem was that the umpires weren’t interested in making that sort of judgment. Essentially, both the catcher and the runner have been allowed to do anything; the catcher was permitted to completely close off the plate, regardless of the incoming throw, and the runner was permitted to destroy the catcher if he was anywhere near the plate. You know, like this:
Technically speaking, it’s not strictly permissible to destroy a catcher. While there hasn’t been a specific rule against it, the practice would seem to be covered by Rule 9.01(d), which states, “Each umpire has authority to disqualify any player, coach, manager, or substitute for objecting to decisions or for unsportsmanlike conduct or language, and to eject such disqualified person from the playing field.”
However, I cannot think of an occasion when a player has been ejected for VWB (violence while baserunning).
Now, a Brief Historical Interlude! In 1996, Albert Belle was heading toward second base and delivered a violent blow to Fernando Vina. Belle was not ejected, but later was suspended for five games by American League prexy Gene Budig, whose rationale was: “The American League will not tolerate an act that put in serious jeopardy the safety of a player. The physical well-being of our players must be of paramount importance to all responsible individuals associated with the game." Also, Budig said Belle was being suspended "since his action not only threatened injury to an individual, but also led to the later disruption of the game."
The union protested that a) Belle didn’t actually do anything, and b) even if he did do something, there wasn’t any rule against it, or any precedent for punishment. Ultimately, the parties settled on a slap on the wrist: two-game suspension, $25,000 fine. Alas, I can’t cite a single instance since then of a baserunner being disciplined for violence.
But friends, let’s call it what it is: violence, neither sanctioned nor specifically prohibited by the official rules. Until now. So, progress. But the anti-violence advocates didn’t get everything they wanted, per Troy Renck:
The home-plate collision rule represents a compromise because collisions aren't banned. The players association felt there was insufficient time to train the catchers and base runners. I agree based on my conversation with multiple (coaches) and executives. Most said they had not begun to teach a new sweep tag to catchers or told base runners to avoid collisions. The rule, as written now, is basically how teams have been teaching it for years. Catchers are now often taught not to block the plate without the ball and runners are told not to seek contact.
This is a one-year experiment. If it goes well, it's possible a ban on collisions will follow. The idea behind the rule is to prevent injuries. It was pushed by former catcher Mike Matheny and Bruce Bochy. Like replay, it won't be perfect this season. But that doesn't mean it isn't worth exploring change.
I have great faith in players’ ability to learn new skills, especially when those new skills are little different from the old ones. But players are inherently conservative, and many will resist even the mildest of changes in the official rules. This is about changing a culture of occasional violence, and it’s difficult to change a culture overnight.
When I first saw the new rule, I spotted what seemed an obvious problem: a serious problem with the risk/reward equation. If a baserunner violates the rule, he’s ... out? Baserunners blast catchers because they believe they’ll be out if they don’t. As I read the rule, there’s little disincentive; if the runner thinks he’ll be out, he might as well kill the catcher and hope the umpire doesn’t notice. What does he have to lose? But maybe the rule that we’ve seen is incomplete. To really change the culture, you would need — wait, what’s this?
Ah, that’s more like it. But should we believe Torre? Nope. Not until somebody actually gets suspended — don’t tell me about ejections and fines, neither of which will serve as any real deterrent — and the suspension survives the appeal process. I won’t be at all surprised if not a single player is suspended in the wake of a collision this season.
Still, this is progress. You have to start somewhere, and this rule is actually classed as experimental; after this season, it must be revisited. And because concussions will only become a bigger and bigger issue, it’s highly unlikely that we’ll ever go backward. It’s just a question of how quickly we move forward.