A play at the plate during the sixth inning of the Miami Marlins game against the Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday afternoon perfectly illustrates the gray area that Major League Baseball inadvertently created when it adopted Rule 7.13, which provides:
(1) 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 base runners shall return to the last base touched at the time of the collision.
(2) 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.
On Sunday, Chase Utley doubled to left field and Tony Gwynn, Jr. tried to score from first base to put the Phillies ahead 4-3. As he neared Marlins catcher Jeff Mathis at home plate, Adeiny Hechavarria threw a strike from the third base line to Mathis which appeared to put Gwynn out. The call was reviewed and the out call was upheld.
On Monday, however, MLB's vice president of baseball operations, Joe Torre, called the Phillies to let them know that the ruling was incorrect because Mathis illegally failed to provide a lane for Gwynn. Therefore, the run should have counted.
The rule, which many believe was implemented in response to then-Marlin Scott Cousins' collision with San Francisco Giants all-star catcher Buster Posey in 2011, which caused Posey to miss the remainder of the season with a broken ankle, forces catchers and baserunners, and ultimately umpires, to make what is essentially an incredibly difficult judgment call.
"What we've seen is how these rules are interpreted, that's where the problem is coming," Miami manager Mike Redmond said. "That's the unfortunate thing. We're trying to get the calls right, but there is still that gray area in exactly what is out or safe. That seems to be the problem."
Gwynn agreed that the rule is difficult to interpret. "If there were some absolutes to that rule, it would make it easier for everybody," Gwynn said, "I think it's too hard to legislate whether a guy's blocking the plate, whether the throw's beating him or not."
From time immemorial, catchers have been taught to block home plate and baserunners have been taught that when a catcher is blocking home plate, an effective method of scoring involves running through the catcher to jar the baseball loose so that a tag cannot be applied. J.T. Snow's collision with Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez in the 2003 NLCS remains one of the most memorable plays in the history of the Marlins franchise.
With the recent change in the rule, neither catchers nor baserunners have figured out the appropriate way to handle this type of play. For example, the rule does not allow catchers without the ball to block the path of the runner, yet a catcher who, like Mathis on Sunday, is receiving a ball from a teammate positioned behind the baserunner, is practically forced to block the plate without the ball. We have also seen baserunners, including Giancarlo Stanton, thrown out at home seemingly because they appear to be hesitant as they approach home plate.
As evidenced by Joe Torre's acknowledgement of error to the Phillies, even umpires, including replay umpires at MLB review headquarters in New York City, are having difficulty interpreting the new rule.
Given the stakes involved-- a run for one team versus an out for their opponent-- it is imperative that MLB sort out the home plate collision rule as soon as possible. Once a consistent interpretation is achieved, catchers and baserunners can learn to position themselves appropriately.