An experimental rule, 7.13, intended to increase player safety by eliminating "egregious" collisions at home plate was jointly announced by Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association on Monday.
The timing allows for managers, coaches, players and umpires to use the entire Grapefruit and Cactus League schedules to acclimate themselves to the rule. The intention to enact regulations was adopted at the Winter Meetings last December; now the exact wording has been agreed upon. The highlights:
• A runner may not run out of a direct line to the plate in order to initiate contact with the catcher, or any player, covering the plate. If he does, the umpire can call him out even if the player taking the throw loses possession of the ball.
• The catcher may not block the pathway of a runner attempting to score unless he has possession of the ball. If the catcher blocks the runner before he has the ball, the umpire may call the runner safe.
• All calls will be based on the umpire's judgment. The umpire will consider such factors as whether the runner made an effort to touch the plate and whether he lowered his shoulder or used his hands, elbows or arms when approaching the catcher.
• Runners are not required to slide, and catchers in possession of the ball are allowed to block the plate. However, runners who do slide and catchers who provide the runner with a lane will never be found in violation of the rule.
• The expanded instant replay rules, which also go into effect this season, will be available to review potential violations of Rule 7.13.
"There is nothing more sacred in the game than home plate, and baserunners want to do all they can to score a run, while catchers want to do their best to defend the plate -- in many cases, at all costs," said Tony Clark, executive director of the MLBPA. "Therefore, as one might imagine, the issue of home-plate collisions is one that generates spirited debate among the players. Because of this, coming up with a rule change that allows both the runner and catcher a fair and equal opportunity to score and defend was our mandate.
"We believe the new experimental rule allows for the play at the plate to retain its place as one of the most exciting plays in the game while providing an increased level of protection to both the runner and the catcher. We will monitor the rule closely this season before discussing with the Commissioner's Office whether the rule should become permanent."
MLB executive vice president of baseball operations Joe Torre added late Monday that MLB has the right to issue supplemental discipline in the form of fines or suspensions for flagrant acts.
"There will be discipline that will be my call," Torre said. "The umpires are going to look at replay on this thing, too. It's going to be a little tricky because if the manager comes out and wants to question the safe-out call, then he uses the challenge. If he wants to check if he violated the collision rule, then that's not a challenge. It's like a home run; the umpire has the discretion to go.
"The umpire has the right to eject [a player] from the game if it's blatant, and he'd be automatically out. Different umpires will view it differently."
Torre allowed that in most cases, there will need to have been an ejection for the league to suspend a player for a vicious hit, but that isn't necessarily the case.
"Even now, with an ejection, sometimes there's not a warning; we see it and the umpire has to make quick calls on these things," Torre said. "We'll watch it, and if I think something's on purpose -- [senior vice president of standards and on-field operations] Joe [Garagiola Jr.] and I will look at stuff -- we'll disicipline that player or fine him. We've done discipline beyond what an umpire does at the time."
Training materials will be distributed throughout Spring Training, but several teams had already begun to incorporate the anticipated changes into their workouts.
"We did a little bit of that [on Sunday]. I said, 'This is what I think it's going to be,' " said Blue Jays manager John Gibbons, a former catcher. "In a lot of ways, I really don't know if it's going to be a big difference. A lot of catchers don't hold their ground at the plate anymore anyway. A lot of them leak out and use the swipe tag to begin with. It will be a small adjustment. I don't think it will be that big a deal."
Still, Gibbons isn't completely sold on the concept.
"I think if you start trying to mess with the game too much, you're going to run into problems," he said. "It's a big part of the game. Game on the line, it's the winning run, guys are trying to stop that run. Instinct tells them to do one thing. But if that's the rules, we live with that. Nothing we can do about that.
"What they're trying to do is eliminate the cheap shots. I understand what they're trying to do. But sometimes things happen. You know the rule, but sometimes things happen. The game's on the line, the guy's trying to take away the run? I don't know. That's a big disagreement a lot of people have. It will be interesting. You look at the NFL, and it's almost like you can't hit anybody anymore. There are so many concussions in every sport now. Head injuries. Everything's kind of going that way."
Astros All-Star catcher Jason Castro is enthusiastic about the rule.
"I think the gist of it is outlawing ... guys going out of their way to make contact with the catcher," Castro said. "Obviously, that's a good thing. I think those kinds of plays are definitely avoidable. If a throw leads you into the runner, there's nothing you can do about that. It's pretty straightforward. No egregious contact, and you can't block the plate without the ball.
"I think those are positive changes. I don't think they'll change the game, just some safety stuff that will keep guys on the field a lot longer."
Reds catcher Devin Mesoraco is also onboard.
"I heard they wanted to do more and take away any type of contact at the plate at all," Mesoraco said. "I wasn't quite in favor of that. What they have passed now, I'm definitely in favor of. I think it makes a lot of sense. It takes away those unnecessary collisions. [But] I think nothing really gets a team going like a play at the plate. I didn't want them to take away any contact at all."
Giants manager Bruce Bochy had helped spearhead the campaign to protect catchers, but he said on Sunday that he didn't want to comment on the specifics of the new rule until he had a chance to study the wording more carefully (see below). He did say, however: "[The baserunners] are getting bigger, faster, stronger. I'm all for it."
Red Sox manager John Farrell believes there's a simple way for runners to stay within the rule.
"We're going to instruct them to slide," Farrell said. "We're talking about such a quick decision that you've got to go in feet first or a headfirst slide if you feel like that can avoid a tag. There's no contact, there's no collision.
"I think where we run the risk is if there's indecision if a guy is either going into a bent-leg slide or standing up. We're teaching the mind-set, 'Slide all the time.' "
Major League Baseball and the MLBPA will form a committee of players and managers to review developments as the season progresses and to discuss the possible application of the new rule in 2015.
Collisions at home plate
A runner attempting to score may not deviate from his direct pathway to the plate in order to initiate contact with the catcher (or other player covering home plate). If, in the judgment of the umpire, a runner attempting to score initiates contact with the catcher (or other player covering home plate) in such a manner, the umpire shall declare the runner out (even if the player covering home plate loses possession of the ball). In such circumstances, the umpire shall call the ball dead, and all other baserunners shall return to the last base touched at the time of the collision.
Rule 7.13 comment: The failure by the runner to make an effort to touch the plate, the runner's lowering of the shoulder, or the runner's pushing through with his hands, elbows or arms, would support a determination that the runner deviated from the pathway in order to initiate contact with the catcher in violation of Rule 7.13. If the runner slides into the plate in an appropriate manner, he shall not be adjudged to have violated Rule 7.13. A slide shall be deemed appropriate, in the case of a feet first slide, if the runner's buttocks and legs should hit the ground before contact with the catcher. In the case of a head first slide, a runner shall be deemed to have slid appropriately if his body should hit the ground before contact with the catcher.
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. Notwithstanding the above, it shall not be considered a violation of this Rule 7.13 if the catcher blocks the pathway of the runner in order to field a throw, and the umpire determines that the catcher could not have fielded the ball without blocking the pathway of the runner and that contact with the runner was unavoidable.