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Baseball perfectly clarifies imperfect home-plate collision rule

Rule 7.13 will never be perfect, but it's unlikely to get better than this.


Home-plate collisions are stupid, and you should feel bad about yourself if you disagree. That was the name of a section of related articles on Baseball Nation, and while a few of the articles vanished from the section after the de-Robbing, it still exists today. I'm proud of that tiny corner of the Internet I created, mostly because home-plate collisions are stupid. If you disagree, well, you know.

Except home-plate collisions have been mostly eliminated. There will be accidents in the future -- runners too far inside the line, disoriented catchers embedded in the runner's path, that sort of thing. They will be the kind of accidents we half-expect and tolerate, though, not unlike Tim Hudson getting stepped on when trying to cover first, or two outfielders colliding in quest of the same fly ball. Conversely, the idea of a runner plowing into a catcher in an attempt to dislodge the ball is dead.

Ah, but just because that complaint went away, doesn't mean that the complainers went away. The new rules had the potential to cheese people off, and how. Look at this stupid play:

The Giants, desperately in need of a win to snap a massive losing jag, got a run via an amicus curiae brief filed on their behalf. They used the extra out to score more runs than they usually did in a week, and the game turned into a blowout. Robin Ventura covered home plate with dirt in response to the call, but only because he couldn't get the umpire in a headlock and start punching the top of his skull. It was an embarrassing call. It was also the correct call, at least according to the rules.

The most important part of the play is what didn't happen. Tyler Flowers can still eat solid food. His larynx didn't switch spots with his spleen. Gregor Blanco isn't exactly Aleksei Sytsevich, but you never know. One stray helmet to the throat can change a catcher's life, even if Pedro Martinez is running. That's the first thing to remember, the last thing to forget. The collisions are gone, and baseball is better for it, despite the occasional lamentations and protests.

The rule was born imperfect, and it will mature into a perfect rule. The options were to give the umpires a little discretion or turn the base line into an electric fence that catchers had to avoid without ambiguity. Anything else -- say, forcing the umpire and replay crews to make a safe/out call while simultaneously trying to determine the exact moment the catcher had to enter the base line to catch the ball -- would have been an impossible nightmare. The impossible nightmare was the standard, unfortunately, which led to plays like the one above.

The rule is now about as good as it gets, though. Major League Baseball clarified rule 7.13, and they did it in just about the best way possible:

The language of Rule 7.13 has not changed. In a Tuesday morning email sent to the 30 teams, however, MLB provided photos of where catchers can and cannot set up on plays at the plate, explanations for each, and reaffirmed that the letter of the rule should not outweigh clear outcomes on those plays. Therefore, for example, a runner out by 20 feet should not expect to have the play overturned because of a technicality, including a catcher’s positioning.

That's it. That's the one. With the possible exception of a minor tweak here and there, that's as good as the rule can get. Make collisions illegal. Give the umpires the ability to determine that a catcher's positioning didn't contribute to the runner not scoring. After the Giants/White Sox game up there, I wrote the following out of guilt and elation and guilt:

They were going to get shut out, yet they scored seven runs because Joe Panik hit a baseball just horribly enough. I'm all for the new rule -- the "Alex Avila rule", as Henry Schulman reminds us it should be called -- but I'm also in favor of the umpire getting the opportunity to use his discretion. This opens up an Angel Hernandez Wormhole of Stupid, but I'm okay with an umpire looking at the replay to see if the runner really couldn't score because of the catcher's positioning.

There will be an Angel Hernandez Wormhole of Stupid, just wait. It might not be the actual Angel Hernandez who causes it, but it's coming. Even with this clarification, you're going to have an umpire decide that a runner's path was impeded when it clearly wasn't. You know how there are polls in which five percent of the respondents claim Paul McCartney was killed in a car crash in 1966? This clarification will still allow for umpires to make the Paul-is-dead of judgment calls.  It'll be so stupid, you'll almost be too angry to log onto the Internet and register your disgust. Almost.

Spoiler: It's probably going to be Angel Hernandez who makes the worst call.

What the judgment-call clarification isn't, though, is a catcher writhing in pain. It isn't a catcher having headaches for three months before he can do light jogging again. It isn't the end of a career. It isn't the end of a human being's bipedalism. It isn't the end of a life. Baseball already won the ethical war when they made the change. With this tweak, they're merely improving the aesthetic side of the sport.

Feel free to use your best judgment, umpires, even if it's occasionally going to make us throw things at the TV. It beats any of the alternatives, especially since one of the alternatives was to continue the awful tradition of catchers getting maimed.