In its infancy, collisions rule finds supporters
Range of outcomes for each occurrence adds intrigue; safety remains the priority
It happened on a back field at the Surprise Recreation Campus in Arizona, behind the ballpark where the Royals and Rangers would shortly play a Cactus League game.
During bunting drills, the subject of Major League Baseball's new rule on home-plate collisions came up. Steve Buechele, manager of the Rangers' Triple-A Round Rock affiliate, wondered aloud about the possibility of runners getting hurt. Next thing you knew, he'd thrown his glove on the grass to represent home plate and was pantomiming slides to illustrate his point while Bengie Molina, a two-time Gold Glove Award-winning catcher who is Texas' new first-base coach, pretended to take throws from right field.
It happened during a Grapefruit League game in Fort Myers, Fla. -- Mets and Twins at Hammond Stadium.
There was a series of discussions at the plate involving, at different times, Mets manager Terry Collins, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, home-plate umpire Brian O'Nora and crew chief Bob Davidson. The chats focused on whether Mets catcher Taylor Teagarden had given Twins runner Joe Mauer a part of the plate toward which to slide, as he is now required to do.
It happened all across baseball this spring as managers, umpires, catchers and runners grappled with changing the mentality of participants on close plays at the plate. Most teams conducted clinics for their catchers on how to best adapt. And it's been a continuing topic of conversation as baseball settles into the regular season.
As Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg was getting ready for Wednesday night's game against the Braves, the clubhouse television was showing the Pirates-Reds game. In the bottom of the eighth inning, the umpires reviewed a play at the plate in which Reds runner Roger Bernadina was called out. The call was upheld by the replay official in New York.
Sandberg had a particular interest in that play, since on Sunday against the Marlins, Tony Gwynn Jr. had been called out at the plate even though Miami catcher appeared not to have given him a lane to slide to. Sandberg subsequently said he had been informed by MLB that the call should have been reversed.
It seems that everybody is still trying to figure out exactly what's permitted and what isn't.
"I was told that straddling the plate is not giving a lane," Sandberg said Wednesday. "It's very gray. We're having our catchers give a half or three-quarters of the plate to the runner, because that's what we were told. We need some information. To me, what's happening is that the baserunners are being put in no man's land as far as what they can do.
"What happened in the spring is that the baserunners were told what the rule was about and why. It seems to me that the baserunners are trying to abide by that and not go out of their way to [run into] the catcher. So now they're doing their job and the catchers are doing something different and getting the outs."
The goal of the rule -- eliminating unnecessary injuries, especially concussions -- is noble. The basic precepts -- catchers may not block the plate without the ball, runners may not veer from their path to make contact -- are deceptively simple. But putting it all together in the heat of competition with a split second to react results in some tricky judgment calls for umpires.
The managers who spearheaded the push for change, former catchers Mike Matheny of the Cardinals and Bruce Bochy of the Giants, have been encouraged so far, but admit they aren't sure how it will all ultimately work out.
"We haven't had a lot of plays at the plate, but we've had a few. And I think it's gone well," Bochy said. "Guys have been sliding; catchers aren't blocking the plate without the ball. In the early going, I've seen a change in the mindset. These runners are going to home plate trying to score a run, [as opposed to] targeting the catcher. And I think the catchers are handling it more like play at the base instead of taking away home plate without the ball. So I think it's really worked well so far."
Added Matheny: "I do think there was a step made forward. The league was very clear that for any move out of your normal path to go after a catcher, there is going to be some repercussion. You're going to be out first, and the second part of that is if you violently go after these guys, there will be further penalties.
"The [concussions] in football and hockey are not going away. We're going to see some train wrecks at home plate, too. I hope they don't cart somebody off, but that's the way this game was moving with that play if some change wasn't made."
Angels manager Mike Scioscia, famed for his ability to block the plate during his playing career, feels as though the interpretation of the rule is evolving.
"We're still waiting for the rule," Scioscia said late in Spring Training. "I know there's been a lot of discussion about it internally with Major League Baseball. I'm sure they've chewed this up and spit it out and tried to look at it from every angle. How to protect the catcher but also give the runner a right of way, and also give the catcher the ability to make a tag on the runner, which has to be part of the process. So we'll wait for the final outcome and go from there."
Like expanded replay review, which is also new this season, there are sure to be wrinkles to iron out, one reason that the rule is technically labeled "experimental."
But there are good reasons why MLB is intent on making it work. Just ask Rangers catcher Robinson Chirinos, who missed the entire 2012 season recovering from ongoing concussion issues after being struck on the facemask by a foul tip during Spring Training as a member of the Rays.
"So far, I think it's been really good," Chirinos said. "I think it's going to help a lot of catchers stay away from concussions. Hopefully that's what this rule does, and in the future we don't have a lot of people with concussions. It's no fun. I don't want any of my teammates or any other player to go through that.
"It's hard to deal with. You feel like you don't control your body. I was getting dizzy a lot, throwing up, having a hard time sleeping. Thanks goodness that's in the past."
Royals manager Ned Yost, another former catcher, is optimistic, based on what he's seen so far.
"I haven't seen anything different," Yost said. "I think it's the same. The one thing I kind of like is that you can't veer out of your path to hit a catcher. I like that. But we haven't had any issues with that."
Buechele's question was what happens when the runner, seeing a path to the plate, begins his slide, only to have the catcher drop to his knees and block the plate with his shinguard at the last moment. Phillies second baseman Chase Utley wondered what happens when the throw to the plate forces the catcher to step into the lane before he catches the ball.
That's where the umpires' judgment comes in, a reality that was brought into clear focus that day in Fort Myers.
On the play in question, Mauer indisputably scored ahead of the throw. But Teagarden took a step to his left while receiving the throw and appeared to have his foot in front of the plate. Davidson thought the catcher might have blocked the plate without the ball. Teagarden thought he had left the back of the plate open. Mauer later said he didn't originally see an opening but that it "opened up" as he got closer.
Said Collins at the time: "Now the issue is, all of a sudden, you see that play. If you're the third-base umpire, you're the only one who can really see where he's at because the home-plate umpire has got the tag. When you turn, you think, 'If [the catcher has] got the plate blocked, [the runner is] going to be safe.' So it's going to be new to everybody, and that was the whole discussion."
It's a discussion that's likely to continue for a while.