Would collision rule have blocked Bucs' playoff path?
Postseason-clinching play at plate last September now likely subject to reversal
BRADENTON, Fla. -- No one is suggesting that, under incipient 2014 rules, the Pirates would not have entered last fall's playoffs. But their entrance would not have been as dramatic.
Sept. 23, Wrigley Field, bottom of the 10th. Pittsburgh first baseman Justin Morneau runs down a loose ball in front of the mound as catcher Russell Martin sets up in front of the plate, blocking Nate Schierholtz's path. Morneau flips the ball to Martin, who is bowled over by Schierholtz into a backward somersault -- but he holds onto the ball and raises it in triumph as the Bucs celebrate the 2-1 win that gets them into the postseason.
That now-iconic play would have been ruled illegal -- with Schierholtz automatically called safe -- per anti-collision rules formally announced Monday on an experimental basis by Major League Baseball following its approval by the MLB Players Association.
"I'd have to go back and check it out," Martin said of the play in context of the new rule. "I don't even know exactly where I was, so, maybe. It would be interesting ... but I guarantee one thing, if we had the rule, it would have been argued."
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle would have had the argument, because Schierholtz would have been called safe given new Rule 7.13's emphasis that "the pathway of the runner" cannot be blocked by catchers not in possession of the ball.
"I used to throw my leg out before I had the ball," said Martin, essentially describing exactly what he had reflexively done on the play in question. "In that case, the runner would now be granted home plate and called safe. If you've got your leg out and the guy runs into your leg, you'd be accused of blocking his lane to the plate."
Hurdle, fresh off MLB's Sunday night presentation of the new rule, saw it the same way.
"Good timing, I guess," the manager said of having beaten this new wrinkle. "But you know what, the 'lane' thing has always been in the rules, just wasn't enforced."
Indeed, a Note addendum to Rule 7.06(b) in the current Official Baseball Rules states: "The catcher, without the ball in his possession, has no right to block the pathway of the runner attempting to score. The base line belongs to the runner and the catcher should be there only when he is fielding a ball or when he already has the ball in his hand."
The new Rule 7.13 includes this nearly identical entry, which spells out the consequence of a violation: "Unless the catcher is in possession of the ball, the catcher cannot block the pathway of the runner as he is attempting to score. If, in the judgment of the Umpire, the catcher, without possession of the ball, blocks the pathway of the runner, the umpire shall call or signal the runner safe."
Thus, despite perceptions to the contrary, MLB did not do anything radical. In one sense, the intent is to curb the violent element in plays at the plate.
"The goal is to have runners approaching home think 'slide' first," Martin said. "I'm sure some super-aggressive players have the mindset, 'I'm destroying this guy.' That's what they want to take away."
"It will be interesting to see how it plays out," said Josh Harrison, one of the Bucs' most aggressive baserunners. "There's going to be a big gray area."
Part of that shade: Throws from the outfield rarely pierce the plate; they are on one side of it or the other.
"The only occasion when a collision might happen," Hurdle said, "is if the throw takes the catcher up the line. Otherwise .... any intent [by the runner] with elbow, upper body, head ... it's not going to work. Not acceptable."
Efforts early in Spring Training to get reactions to the anticipated rules change have naturally focused on catchers. The runners' viewpoint has been largely overlooked, but Harrison is a particularly good source here: In one of the 2012 Pirates' memorable plays, Harrison absolutely leveled Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, who stood between Harrison and he plate with the ball already in his mitt.
"My only thing is, I felt I was doing it purely out of necessity," Harrison said Monday. "If there's nowhere to go, you're kinda like, 'You know what? Something has to happen.' I'm sure there are some guys that probably do head-hunt; like with anything, some guys are going to go to extremes.
"But nobody wants to go out there and run people over just for the heck of it. Personally, we think [slide first] anyway; catchers are big guys and they got all that gear on at the same time. So you want to avoid contact."
Martin expressed concern about the new rule spoiling the spontaneity and emotional impact of big plays.
"Any meaningful run will be argued by one manager or the other," Martin said. 'Every play at the plate could be anticlimactic. 'We got the runner!' 'Did we get the runner?' 'Let's go check the replay.' Maybe it'll be good, building that suspense."
Yet Martin conceded that a measure to protect catchers is "smart."
"The main target are runners rounding third with the main intent of destroying the catcher," said Martin, who felt the problem actually is far bigger in the Minor Leagues, which, obviously, will also be subject to the new rule. "You don't see it on the Major League level as much as in the Minors, where guys are just getting their clocks cleaned."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.