Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Colliding with reality

This home-plate collision in last year's ALCS pitted
two catchers who had concussions during the season,
Boston's David Ross (3) and Detroit's Alex Avila.

The new rule on home plate collisions, announced Monday, is an honest effort to eradicate a dangerous play.

It's flawed, because it still permits catchers to block the plate and still permits baserunners to run into a catcher blocking the plate.

Reportedly, the rules committee wanted a must-slide/can't block rule, under which the catcher must leave part of the plate open to the runner and the runner was required to slide in rather than body-block. The players union, citing a lack of time to retrain players — spring training is already underway — resisted that.

The official new 7.13 rule reads:
1) A 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). In such circumstances, the Umpire shall call the ball dead, and all other base runners shall return to the last base touched at the time of the collision.
Then comes this interpretation:
The failure by the runner to make an effort to touch the plate, the runner's lowering of the shoulder, or the runner's pushing through with his hands, elbows or arms, would support a determination that the runner deviated from the pathway in order to initiate contact with the catcher in violation of Rule 7.13. If the runner slides into the plate in an appropriate manner, he shall not be adjudged to have violated Rule 7.13. A slide shall be deemed appropriate, in the case of a feet first slide, if the runner's buttocks and legs should hit the ground before contact with the catcher. In the case of a head first slide, a runner shall be deemed to have slid appropriately if his body should hit the ground before contact with the catcher.

The rule continues:
2) 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. Notwithstanding the above, it shall not be considered a violation of this Rule 7.13 if the catcher blocks the pathway of the runner in order to field a throw, and the Umpire determines that the catcher could not have fielded the ball without blocking the pathway of the runner and that contact with the runner was unavoidable.

It's difficult to see, frankly, how a non-sliding player is going to collide with a catcher without incurring a violation of 7.13. No lowering of the shoulder, no pushing with the arms ... pretty much every collision I can recall seeing involved some aspect of that.

This might work — if the umpires take a strict view of what it means for the catcher to be in possession of the ball. But part 2 of the rule, allowing the catcher to block the pathway to field the throw, looks like a continued license for the Mike Scoscia-style play of setting up to block the plate while waiting for the throw to arrive. Prohibiting the runner from defending himself in that collision protects the catcher — but it puts the runner at risk.

Another factor in all this: the penalty for violation may not be severe enough. A catcher blocks the plate illegally? The runner is awarded the run, which is what presumably would have happened had the catcher not committed the violation. A runner slams into a catcher? He's ruled out — which, presumably, would have been the result had he not run into the catcher.

The rule — much like the replay rule — is a one-year experiment with a planned formal review. My guess is that eventually must-slide/can't-block will be installed. I just hope it doesn't take some broken baserunner legs for it to happen.

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