MLB likely to adjust two rules: Plays at home & transfer catches

Catchers are encouraged to yield part of the plate, but should they be required to do so?

Duane Burleson/Getty Images

From the beginning, baseball promised that if its new rules warranted adjustments, those adjustments would be made.

Two such adjustments are likely to occur, according to sources with both Major League Baseball and the players union.

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.

Officials from the union met with MLB executives earlier this week to voice their displeasure over what constitutes a catch now that baseball has expanded instant replay, sources said.

Both sides agreed that certain plays are being called incorrectly, and MLB officials will seek to clarify what constitutes a catch in a conference call with members of the umpires union early next week, sources said.

In the first three weeks of the season, umpires and replay officials occasionally called "no catch" on balls that once were considered outs, ruling that the fielder must transfer the ball to his throwing hand cleanly.

The rulebook states that a player must have "secure possession" of the ball in his glove or hand, but the interpretation of the rule changed to include a clean transfer with the inception of expanded replay.

HIGH FASHION WITH A PURPOSE

"To say it has been a hot topic with the players would be an understatement," one union official said.

The new rule on home-plate collisions also has been a source of contention, and controversial "out" calls on plays in Cincinnati and Philadelphia during the past week sparked renewed discussion about catchers’ positioning.

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.

AROUND THE HORN

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."

Any such adjustment would not resolve all of the questions about catchers’ positioning; La Russa noted that a gray area will remain on plays in which the direction of a throw forces the catcher to block the plate.

In addition, La Russa said, baseball might need to show greater "leniency" on plays at the plate that occur when the infield is in. Such plays happen quickly, leaving catchers with little time to react.

"It’s a lot to ask to ask (a catcher) to look down at his feet," La Russa said. "But if you practice enough, you’ll know where the plate is. That one becomes the asterisk type."

The bottom line: The new rule is not perfect, just as the interpretation of the old transfer rule is not perfect.

Baseball promised to adjust, if necessary. And adjust it will.