The Road to Hell and All That

I am against the proposed rule change that MLB has put forward regarding collisions at the plate, and not because I don’t value player safety but because such a rule change will inevitably force other rule changes that will water down the game and make it unfair. I have umpired college ball all the way down to seven year olds and have enforced about twenty different malicious intent rules from the stupid slide rule (If you don’t slide you’re out—even if there’s no play at the plate?) to the NAIA and NCAA’s malicious intent rules and I know firsthand that malicious intent rules do not exist in a vacuum nor do they stay at the plate.

In his piece promoting the proposed rule change tom s wrote "While the rule has yet to be written, catchers will likely be required to leave a lane of access for the runner; runners will be prohibited from trying to shake the ball loose or knock the catcher over. The NCAA has a similar rule prohibiting contact above the waist with the catcher."

Sounds all well and good, but it’s not. For this rule to be fair it has to be applicable to all position players. As is outlined in the NCAAs rules regarding runner/fielder interaction, there is an automatic ejection for maliciously running into a defender who is trying to tag a runner or a force out. An automatic double play may also be called if a player slides into a base in an attempt to take out the defensive player who is trying to throw the ball to continue a double play.

You see, once you make a rule to protect the catcher, then it’s kind of Richard to fail to protect the other players as well. Also, the penalty in the NCAA is an out and an ejection of said player. If the MLB were to adapt this philosophy, there may be no more collisions at any base and there would be automatic ejections of pretty important players for playing too hard. I do not see how this will make baseball more enjoyable for anyone to watch nor do I think that players will want to risk automatic ejections simply for sliding hard at or coming in to high on opposing defenders. But more to my point, this will change the rules and interpretations of plays so badly, that the future game will have inserted rules solely for safety’s sake, which is fine if you’re a little kid, but kind of ruins the beauty of baseball’s rule structure.

Baseball rules make sense. One of those rules states that a defender not in the act of making a play cannot obstruct a runner. If a defender not making a play gets in front of a runner and is trucked, well then, so be it. Get out of the way next time. So part of the rule tom s supposed would include the fact that the catcher must give up the lane to a runner, which is all fine and dandy as long as he is not in the act of making a play. And if a ball is coming in from the outfield then said catcher is in the act of making a play.

Regardless of what rule, in baseball there will still be many instances where a catcher will be waiting for the ball in the lane and thus considered to be in the act of making a play. Now, I’m all for not allowing this "defenseless" catcher to be hurt but if he can’t be hit above the waist it is very easy for this catcher to catch a ball high while using his legs to block the plate. Because the catcher is in the act of making a play in this instance, he is thus allowed to block the runner.

So now we need to change the rule again to state exactly when a catcher is allowed to block the plate without the ball. If the answer is never then he what? Stands off to side and has to dive back in? Stays behind the plate and has to catch the ball a foot later than he’s used to?

It’s easy as fudge to say, "Buster Posey and Mike Matheny are nice guys; we need to do something to keep their counterparts from being hurt." But in truth, there is no way to prevent collisions without changing the rules so drastically that either defenders in the act of making a play must distance themselves from the play to avoid hurting runners or players in the act of running must simply avoid all non-incidental contact with fielders. The latter way takes any advantage the runner may have on a close play and destroys it and the former way destroys any advantage the defender may have on a close play.

In baseball, the runner is allowed the lane and the fielder is allowed the play. Sometimes, them trucks meet. Catching is different than other positions in that the gear and uniqueness to the position’s location allow for him to use his legs to block the plate while catching an incoming throw. If he can block low and I can’t hit him high, what can I, as the runner, do? Likewise, if I’m catching and a play could be close and I have to receive the ball two feet from the plate to be able to properly allow a lane, what can I, as a catcher do to get the out?

I am all for player safety and I value the health of my favorite Cardinal, Yadier Molina. Nevertheless, changing this rule could very well change the structure of an important aspect of the runner/fielder dynamic. No matter how MLB changes the rules to prevent collision, they will effectively being handing an advantage to either defense or offense where before existed fairness. I know it sounds stupid to say that a rule that allows catchers to get trucked is a fair rule (I imagine catchers don’t think it’s fair) but rule interpretation is a messy thing and baseball rules are designed to be fair.

So, next year, when Yadier Molina is called for obstruction after holding on to a throw from right, blocking the runner with his legs and tagging out a runner who slid properly or when Allen Craig is called out for hitting a catcher high because the catcher’s legs blocked the plate and left him no choice, you will be watching and you will think, "Hey, that’s not fair."

But at least it will be safe.

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