You may have noticed that a recent spike in out-calls to home plate was picked up by the review, with umpires speaking to the mic about collision rule violations or blocking home plate. Well, teams and players have noticed, too. And some of them are frustrated by what they believe to be a new mid-season raid. The numbers show that these types of plays are getting knocked down more often this year. Whether this is the result of a change in player behavior or a change in how umpires enforce an existing rule is more murky.
The rule in question is rule 6.01(i)(1) through 6.01(i)(2), which governs how the catcher can catch the ball and how the runner can approach the goal in plays on plate. Introduced in 2014 – and colloquially known as the “Buster-Posey Rule” after his ankle was broken on an aggressive slide – the rule is intended to protect both the runner and catcher by mandating that the runner not change path can to make contact with the catcher and (this is the relevant part) that the catcher has to leave a lane to the plate.
This year we’ve seen a number of controversial instances of runners being called on home plate, but upon review, that call was overturned, citing the catcher who blocked the plate. Last season, such calls were canceled twice in 22 challenges. Already this season, nine cases of home outs have been overturned – ESPN reports that’s the most since the rule was introduced in 2014 – which appears to be the result of tighter enforcement.
Most notable was a game between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Minnesota Twins earlier this month. After a reversal of an out on a collision call cost the Twins the game, post-game manager Rocco Baldelli passionately criticized what he believed was a deviation from how the rule had been enforced up to that point.
“This game hasn’t been viewed more than a few times since the replay began.” said Baldelli. “In all of baseball — the thousands upon thousands of games and plays at home where the catcher actually blocks the plate over and over again — this game was virtually never called. And for someone to intervene in this situation and ultimately make a decision that that’s blocking the plate, it’s beyond embarrassing… it’s totally unacceptable.”
The story goes on
Minnesota Twins catcher Gary Sanchez tagged Toronto Blue Jays’ Whit Merrifield on home plate. The game was suspended on review because the catcher blocked the plate, and the Blue Jays won 3-2 in Minneapolis on Aug. 7. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)
It was one of two instances on the same night that an Out at the Plate was knocked over when challenged for collision. In 10 days since then there have been two more calls, a total of four in a week and a half. After one faced off against the San Diego Padres in a game against the Washington Nationals, Padres manager Bob Melvin said that MLB distributed a memo to teams stating that “they were starting to look at this a little more closely.” .
Following the most recent instance, which went against the Cleveland Guardians to knock down the third out in a three-carry first inning, Guardians catcher Austin Hedges said (among others): “The play has been called a couple of times now that that really has never been mentioned before. for some reason [MLB] feels like they need to take over the game and change the way the game is played. guys are just out. There are games at home that beat the runners and you’ve been out there for 150 years. And now we’re invoking a kind of rule that’s really difficult to define.”
So what’s up?
After years of these types of games largely flying under the radar, league office officials began noticing what appeared to be catchers pushing the boundaries of what was considered legal. Essentially a disk-locking sneak back that exploited the security created by the collision rule. Some teams also noticed and called the commissioner’s office.
As the game is somewhat subjective, there are guidelines, but ultimately a referee must make a judgement. One replay review crew could let a catcher get away with it, so to speak, while another wouldn’t.
At least one team suspected that referees had received instructions to crack down and call out the rule more severely.
However, in a statement to Yahoo Sports, MLB said: “There has been no change to the home plate collision rule or its interpretation, and we appreciate its continued positive impact on the goal of player health.” In response to the recent increase in behavior by rule-breaking catchers, we have routinely reminded clubs and umpires of the responsibilities of the catcher and runner. The main message was that catchers should not block the path of runners unless they have possession or are in the process of catching the ball.”
For reference, here’s an example of a game from last season in which the out call was sustained – i.e. the catcher was determined not to have blocked the plate – that seems borderline:
And this is the play from the Twins game which is similar and knocked over for the catcher blocking the plate:
Following the particularly controversial call in Minnesota, and after teams began seeking clarification, MLB circulated a memo among teams and umpires early last week that included a presentation of legal and illegal catcher positioning with detailed photo examples of various situations .
The intention is to create more consistency — and strict adherence to a rule designed for safety — but it could be seen as another example where the league changed enforcement of a long-standing rule midseason, like it did last year done with the ban on sticky stuff.
The details of enforcement are inherently esoteric, but these special plays are always effective. The difference between an out-at-home and a run scoring has an outsized ability to affect the final outcome of a game. Teams that lose these challenges will likely continue to be outraged, but at least now they can’t say they weren’t warned.