It’s important to remember that Rule 7.13 — a.k.a. the “don’t demolish the catcher” rule — was born from good intentions. No one wanted to see the next Buster Posey or Carlos Santana suffer a serious leg injury because they got run over at the plate. With all we know now about concussions, no one needed to see another catcher risk serious head trauma because they stood in there against a base runner. It’s a good idea, one that was obviously long overdue, and by at least one measure, it’s working: we haven’t had any catchers injured in collisions since the rule went into effect. We’ve had catchers getting Tommy John surgery and being assaulted by discarded masks during no-hitter celebrations, but not by collisions. That was the goal, and it’s been achieved. We should be happy about that.
Happy? Good. Because oh lord, is this not working right now. Needless to say, it hasn’t been a good few days for our old friend Rule 7.13.
On neither play is there even a hint of uncertainty about whether the runner was out. The ball (on the Martin play) and the tag (Gimenez) both unquestionably beat the runner to the base. Organized professional baseball has been around for something like 150 years, through endless changes and iterations. One thing that has never changed is that if the ball is in the glove and applied to your body (or the base, depending on if it’s a force) and you’re not on a base, you’re out. It’s one of the fundamental building blocks of the sport.
But now it’s 2014, so, surprise! Nothing is what you think it is. Both runners were called safe after instant replay reviews, with the umpires ruling that the catchers impeded the access of the runner to the plate, and thus violated the rule. Even Mesoraco, a catcher himself, didn’t understand the call, saying “I don’t think anyone really understands right now what you can do and what you can’t do,” and that apparently extends to the umpires, too, because after the Pirates game, MLB EVP Joe Torre said that the rule was applied incorrectly.
So maybe, based on that, the rule isn’t the problem. Maybe it’s the umpiring that’s the problem, if the ump made a mistake, and with time, that sort of thing will disappear, and you’ll stop hearing every catcher — in addition to Mesoraco, here’s Josh Thole (link) and Chris Robinson (link) — and manager — Ryne Sandberg (link), Terry Collins (link), and Ron Washington (link) — and runner — Ike Davis (link), David Wright (link) — insisting that they don’t understand it.
But that’s the problem really: no one understands it, and I guarantee that if you could get some umpires on the record, they’d all say something different as well. The lack of consistency means that what we have now isn’t working, and I’m starting to wonder what this might all lead to. Take, for example, the last two innings of Friday’s Mets / Marlins game, and what happened with two other plays at the plate that seemed to be obvious outs. In the eighth, Marcell Ozuna threw out Wright at the plate:
Again, a play where the ball-vs-runner outcome is not in question. The ball beat the runner by weeks, and the tag got down in time. But technically, by the letter of the rule, you could argue that Jarrod Saltalamacchia had his foot blocking the plate before he received the ball. That’s exactly what Mets manager Collins did, coming out to ask the umpires to review it, which they did, presumably while holding back laughter, and they decided to let the play stand. Wright was out. Obviously. Actual time was wasted to confirm this.
One inning later, Kirk Nieuwenhuis tried to test Ozuna’s arm with two outs in the ninth:
Again, not a whole lot of question about the play. The ball clearly beat the runner to the plate, and Nieuwenhuis didn’t seem to touch the plate anyway. (Though the GIF cuts off, he did scamper back just in case after sliding past it.) Another obvious call, but Collins challenged again — or at least came out to implore the umpires to do so, because while the first one went in the books as an official replay, this one did not — and the play stood. So this raises a few very important questions, other than why anyone is trying to run on Ozuna:
1) What makes the plays in Miami okay, but the ones in Pittsburgh and Anaheim not okay?
Any successful rule needs to be about consistency, and if you look at these plays over and over, it’s hard to see that. (Obviously, I’ve chosen just videos from the last few days, but we can probably agree that the full season to date would have many similar ones.) In all four cases, the runner is clearly out. In all four cases, the catcher’s foot is in front of the plate before the ball has arrived, though none really seem to be preventing the runner from scoring, and Martin in particular is doing his best to shift his entire weight away from the bag to the point that he completely falls over to the left in order to get out of the way. Two of the plays were kept as outs. Two turned into runs. Though not all ended up impacting the game, it’s hard to think of a more meaningful change in baseball than an out turning into a run.
In fact, there’s only one thing I can see that seems to be different, and it’s sort of terrifying. Join me, then, at item number two:
2) Is this rule giving the runner more of an incentive to run into the catcher?
Mesoraco makes contact with Martin’s leg, though not nearly enough to impede his access to the plate. (And again, that was especially silly because it was a force play, and a call that MLB had to publicly apologize for.) Calhoun makes contact with Gimenez’ leg, though again not nearly enough to block his ability to touch the plate.
Wright didn’t. Nieuwenhuis didn’t. They each tried to slide around, and whether that was conscious or not, that’s the big difference here. Wright was probably going to be out no matter what, given by how much the ball beat him, but what if Nieuwenhuis had taken a complete direct-line route right into Saltalamacchia’s leg? That play might have looked a whole lot more like one of the first two, and it might have been enough to get it overturned.
Obviously, a game-ending out at home in a one-run affair is of monumental importance; by WPA, it was the most important play of the game by a factor of more than three. Nieuwenhuis shouldn’t have been thinking “things might go better for me if I run down the catcher” at the time, but it’s not hard to imagine him seeing the other possible results and doing it differently if he had the opportunity again. And now we’re talking about whether it’s better for a runner to slam into a catcher, which seems to be slightly opposed to the original intent of the rule.
And if that’s so…
3) As a manager, why wouldn’t you beg for a replay on every play at the plate, no matter how ludcrious-seeming?
If there’s no consensus on what the rule is, and its application appears to be inconsistent, can you fault a manager for thinking that there’s a magic wand that *might* just overturn the run that just did or didn’t score? If the ball, the runner and the catcher are within the same zip code of one another, wouldn’t you do whatever you can to see if the wind just might be blowing your way that night?
Think about what that would mean. It would mean any mildly-close play at the plate now becomes a question mark, something like the mess the NFL has created with what constitutes a catch. (Mets broadcaster Keith Hernandez, rightfully so, was nearly apoplectic on the air at the thought of the Wright play becoming a run.) That means more managers going to ask for replays. Not all will be granted, but the time will be spent discussing them, and it would mean more progress to actual replay stoppages. While replay has unquestionably done more good than bad — per Baseball Savant, we’ve had 278 incorrect plays overturned, including eight on Sunday alone— the question everyone seems to have about it is how to speed it up. Giving managers an incentive to constantly bug the umpires to review these plays (remember, managers don’t put their reviews at risk, because only an umpire can officially call for a replay on the collision rule) just seems like a great way to add more and more delay.
Needless to say, this all needs to change. It’s not so much that too many of these calls are getting overturned, because the Gimenez play was merely the fifth of the season, but that nobody involved seems to know what to do or not do on a given play. It can’t be simply suspended, because it’s kept catchers healthy, and that’s the entire point, but at least simplified. It needs to be spelled out more clearly, and to require less arbitrary decision-making that can be read different ways by different people. The specifics of whatever the solution is — probably a tweak to the line that states “The rule that will be in effect in 2014 does not mandate that the runner always slide or that the catcher can never block the plate.” — may matter less than simply having one definition everyone can understand.
Now, will MLB actually do anything before this ends up hanging over our heads down the stretch or in the playoffs? There’s precedent for it, and very recently. In mid-April, Dave wrote about how much of a disaster the new transfer rule was turning out to be. Less than two weeks later, MLB revised the rule to a more sane definition. They’ll almost certainly do the same here after the season, but that might not be soon enough. When you’re not sure if a run is a run, that’s a pretty big problem.
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