Have you noticed MLB overturning more calls at the plate? Here’s why

You may have noticed an uptick in out calls at home plate getting overturned on review lately, with the mic’d-up umpires talking about violations of the collision rule or home plate blocking. Well, teams and players have noticed, too. And some of them are frustrated with what they feel is a new crackdown midseason. The numbers show those kinds of plays are getting overturned more this year. Whether that’s the result of player behavior changing or a shift in how umpires enforce an existing rule is murkier.

The rule in question is Rule 6.01(i)(1) to 6.01(i)(2), which governs how the catcher can field the ball and how the runner can approach home in plays at the plate. Introduced in 2014 — and known colloquially as the “Buster Posey Rule” after his ankle was broken in an aggressive slide — the rule is designed to keep both the runner and the catcher safe by dictating that the runner cannot alter his path to initiate contact with the catcher and (this is the relevant part) that the catcher must leave a lane to the plate.

This year, we’ve seen a rash of controversial instances in which runners are called out at home plate, but, upon review, that call is overturned, citing the catcher blocking the plate. Last season, those kinds of calls were overturned twice in 22 challenges. Already this season, there have been nine instances of outs at home overturned — ESPN reports this is the most since the rule was introduced in 2014 — which appears to be the result of stricter enforcement.

The most notable was earlier this month in a game between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Minnesota Twins. After a reversal of an out on a collision call cost the Twins the game, manager Rocco Baldelli gave an impassioned postgame critique of what he felt was a departure from the rule’s enforcement until that point.

“That play has not been called since the beginning of replay more than a couple of times,” Baldelli said. “In all of baseball — the thousands and thousands of games and plays at home where the catcher actually does block the plate, over and over and over again — that play has virtually never been called. And for someone to step in, in that situation, and ultimately make a decision, that that was blocking the plate, that’s beyond embarrassing … it’s completely unacceptable.”

Minnesota Twins catcher Gary Sanchez tags out Toronto Blue Jays' Whit Merrifield at home plate. The play was overturned on review due to the catcher blocking the plate, and the Blue Jays won 3-2 on August 7 in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

It was one of two instances that same night in which an out at the plate was overturned when challenged for collision. In 10 days since, there have been two more calls, four total in a week and a half. After one went against the San Diego Padres in a game against the Washington Nationals, Padres manager Bob Melvin said that MLB circulated a memo to teams, explaining “that they were starting to look at that a little bit harder.”

After the most recent instance, which went against the Cleveland Guardians to overturn what would have been the third out in what turned into a three-run first inning, Guardians catcher Austin Hedges said (among other things): “The play has been called a few times now recently that really has never been called before. For some reason, [MLB] feels like they need to take over the game and change the way the game is played. Guys are just out. There are plays at home that are beating the runners, and for 150 years you’re out. And now, we’re calling some type of rule that is really tricky to define.”

So, what’s going on?

After years of these sorts of plays flying largely under the radar, officials at the league office started to notice what looked to be catchers pushing the limits of what was considered legal. Essentially, a creep back toward blocking the plate that took advantage of the safety created by the collision rule. Some teams noticed, too, and called it out to the commissioner’s office.

Since the play is somewhat subjective, there are guidelines, but ultimately an umpire must make a judgment. One replay review crew might let a catcher get away with it, so to speak, while another would not.

At least one team suspected that umpires had been given instructions to crack down and call the rule more strictly.

But in a statement to Yahoo Sports, MLB said: “There has been no change to the home plate collision rule or its interpretation, and we appreciate its continued positive impact in serving the goal of player health. In response to increased recent behavior by catchers that violated the rule, we provided a routine reminder to Clubs and umpires regarding the responsibilities of the catcher and the runner. The primary message was that catchers may not block the pathway of runners unless they are in possession of the ball or are in the act of fielding the ball.”

For reference, here’s an example of a play last season in which the out call was upheld — i.e. it was determined that the catcher did not block the plate — that looks to be borderline:

And this is the play from the Twins game, which is similar, and was overturned for catcher blocking the plate:

After the particularly controversial call in Minnesota, and after teams started to reach out for clarification, MLB did circulate a memo early last week among teams and umpires that included a presentation of what constitutes legal and illegal catcher positioning, with detailed photo examples for various situations.

The intent is to create greater consistency — and strict adherence to a rule designed with safety in mind — but it could be seen as another instance in which the league has changed the enforcement of a longstanding rule midway through the season, as it did last year with the ban on sticky stuff.

The minutiae of rule enforcement is inherently esoteric, but these particular plays are always impactful. The difference between an out at home and a run scoring has an outsized ability to sway the ultimate result of a game. Teams that lose these challenges are likely going to continue to be incensed, but at least now they can’t say they weren’t warned.

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