MLB attempts to clarify home-plate collision rule, but it’s still murky

MLB attempts to clarify home-plate collision rule, but it’s still murky

No catchers were injured during this exercise. More than a few games, however, limped away.

Major League Baseball on Tuesday attempted to clarify its season-long rule concerning home-plate collisions, which for more than five months preserved the health of catchers yet too often left players, managers and umpires confused.

The language of Rule 7.13 has not changed. In a Tuesday morning email sent to the 30 teams, however, MLB provided photos of where catchers can and cannot set up on plays at the plate, explanations for each, and reaffirmed that the letter of the rule should not outweigh clear outcomes on those plays. Therefore, for example, a runner out by 20 feet should not expect to have the play overturned because of a technicality, including a catcher’s positioning.

The league, its general managers and the players’ union are expected to revisit the specifics of the rule this winter. Meantime, MLB hoped to address concerns of umpire interpretation and player confusion, and has asked managers to limit their review requests to plays for which there are clear violations.

MLB also stressed the new rule is achieving its intended outcome, which was to limit collisions and injuries. No catcher has suffered a concussion as a result of a collision, according to the league, and that’s because there have been few – if any – collisions.

'The interpretation is what we need to get cleaned up,' Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said of Rule 7.13. (Getty)
'The interpretation is what we need to get cleaned up,' Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said of Rule 7.13. (Getty)

The continuing confusion is when a catcher may leave his prescribed position – in front of the plate, both feet in fair territory – in order to adjust to the arriving baseball and enter the baserunner’s lane. When it leaves an outfielder’s hand? When it clears the infield? In the final 10 feet?

It is not defined.

Therefore, with the postseason approaching, the finer points of the rule remained somewhat hazy to catchers, who might be sure where to set up but are unsure when they are permitted to enter the runner’s lane; to baserunners, who approached the plate with hesitance; to managers, who would see identical plays called differently; to umpires, who leaned on replay officials for capricious guidance and validation.

So what MLB needed to address was the confusion, the vagueness and the notion that after six months – including spring training – very few knew precisely where they were supposed to be, or allowed to go. With good intentions, the league had taken an instinctual, sometimes violent play and painted dance steps on the third-base line. The rule has protected catchers from injury, which was the design. It also stripped the game of a competitive element, maybe its most competitive element, that being a runner’s determination to score and a catcher’s will to prevent it.

When the legislation was introduced in the spring, league and union officials said they expected the rule to evolve. By August and then September, further explanation became necessary.

In recent weeks, several managers said they remained unclear on what constituted a legal play by their catcher, where he could be positioned and when. Catchers were asked to gauge the flight of the ball, the possible length of the hop, their position at the plate and when they would receive the ball, all with a runner bearing down, and all with replay looking over their shoulders.

With about a month remaining in the regular season, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly was asked how clear he was on Rule 7.13. “The home plate play? Um, pretty decent,” he said. “The interpretation is what we need to get cleaned up.

“You see one and you see another exactly like it, and the call’s the opposite. … The clarification has to be for the umpires making the decisions. It’s hard to interpret. I’m sure they’ll try to clarify it by the postseason, for sure.”

He added, “As we get down the road with this, it will be OK. We’re getting past the point where [we’re saying], 'This is not baseball.’ ”

Asked if he was clear on Rule 7.13, A’s manager Bob Melvin said, “The short answer, no. That’s the one you’re probably going to have to make some adjustment to at some point in time.”

And Nationals manager Matt Williams steered around the question.

“I think the rule is fundamentally correct,” he said. “The injuries have not happened and that was the objective. As a rule, it’s helped our game.”

In practice, Williams said, “We’ll just play by it, and if they make changes to it, we’ll play by it, too.”

Tuesday’s clarification marked the second time this season MLB asked its umpires to practice common sense in making judgments. In April, after the better part of a month of ridiculous calls, baseball revised its hardened transfer rule, which stressed a clean transfer from glove to bare hand no matter the situation.

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