Why MLB's new home-plate collision rule is anything but easy

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Oakland's Yoenis Cespedes slides into home to score as Arizona catcher Miguel Montero prepares to attempt a tag. (AP Photo)
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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – They call it Rule 7.13 or the Posey Rule, and it is the recent amendment to the book every capable manager and umpire knows by heart, and it is that fresh legislation that carried Arizona Diamondbacks catcher Miguel Montero up the first-base line and away from home plate, the area he is designated to protect.

The rule says a catcher may block the plate if he is in possession of the baseball. It says a runner may not alter his course to the plate in order to demolish the catcher. In either case, leading with a shoulder or a forearm or, say, a poleax is forbidden. The gray areas of this – real-world absolutes such as "block the plate," "possession of the baseball" and "alter his course" – are reviewable by umpires through instant replay. They are not challengeable by managers, however.

This is where a fine idea with good intentions gets choppy. That is, in the implementation. In the enforcement. In the clarity.

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On this particular afternoon, Montero was preparing himself for the sort of play he'd executed thousands of times before. An opposing baserunner – in this case Oakland's Yoenis Cespedes, a man of considerable size and speed – had been at second base. There'd been a hard line drive into right field. Gerardo Parra, an outfielder with an arm strong and precise, had gathered the ball on a bounce and in one motion flung it back toward home plate. Cespedes rounded third. Montero waited, both eyes on the ball, Cespedes in his peripheral vision. It's March and nobody – or hardly anybody – blocks the plate in March. Nobody arrives head-high. Yet, still, there is a game to be played, and a run to be scored or denied, and Cespedes was running hard and Montero had a job to do.

So, along came the ball, and in came Cespedes, and Montero reached out and felt the thud and pivoted and swept to his left, only to discover his mitt was a good three feet short of the plate, and then the ball rolled away anyway, and Cespedes slid in for a run, and the whole thing was just so soft and unsure.

"I was thinking about the rule instead of catching the ball," Montero said. "I was thinking about if I was in the right position or not. I gotta get that outta my head."

Should he have been closer to the plate? What happens when the ball carries into the runner? Does he just let it go? In the bottom of the ninth in September, is the rule still more important than the play? The win? What will the runner do? What should the catcher do?

"I don't think the rule's changed that much, to be honest with you," Montero's manager Kirk Gibson said. "But the intent of what they're trying to do has. Basically, it was written for Buster Posey. That play is illegal."

You can still find yourself a healthy debate over that play, however. Either Posey played a difficult hop into a terrible position and was fair game. Or Scott Cousins targeted a defenseless man. At best, it's murky. Either way, Posey missed the better part of 2011 and three years later we have a rule that in some first references carries his name but few see as cut or dry.

On the very same afternoon, in another ballpark east of Phoenix, the Angels' Mike Trout roared around third base and Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis had thought this over and decided he'd keep playing these plays the way he'd always played them, so he stood with his left foot nudged up against the plate. The throw arrived from left-center field and drew Ellis across Trout's line, so he'd perhaps been in violation of Rule 7.13 momentarily, and then cleared it, and then lunged to tag out a sliding Trout. The play was reviewed. Discussion between Angels manager Mike Scioscia and the umpires revolved around safe or out, and around when Ellis had been where, and Dodgers manager Don Mattingly joined them, because between the replay and Rule 7.13 and who could challenge what, this was all new.

"I know what Mike's interpretation was," Mattingly said later. "That wasn't our interpretation. … It's just been a little confusing."

Major League Baseball and the players' union are leaning heavily on the word "experimental," which means the rule could be modified or even stricken after a year. Meantime, that leaves catchers and baserunners to tend to the rule in an environment that in few ways feels like real baseball at real game speed, and umpires with one more assignment, and managers one more thing to measure. Long-term, the rule will prevent injuries and save careers. Short-term, it will promote many semi-private conversations at and around home plate.

"We've told our guys to slide," Indians manager Terry Francona said Wednesday. "Takes away any of the ambiguity. The game's going real fast. None faster than that play."

As to whether the rule ought to be subject to a manager's challenge, Francona said, "You're getting into a lot of gray area there. Being an umpire is hard enough.

"To a person, everybody wants this to go correctly. Everybody hopes the spirit of the rule works."

It's a smart rule. It'll also ask a man running at full speed to make a decision on finesse or force, and another man to measure the arrivals of ball and baserunner, and a third man to break it down by inch and intent, all for the greater good.

"I'm going to try to get it out of my head and play it as normal as I used to," Indians catcher Matt Treanor said. "Only time will tell."

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