The Effect of Rules is Largely in the Interpretation
Two articles on Sports Illustrated’s website today discuss new rules or new interpretations of old rules and how the interpretations effect the new replay system.
The first has to do with umpires’ new interpretation of the rules regarding what constitutes a “catch” as opposed to a “drop” by a fielder. For as long as I’ve been a fan (since the late 1970’s) if a player caught the ball but dropped it on the exchange to his bare hand, the catch stood. Now, thanks to a recent instruction from MLB to the umpires, the umps are now ruling that if a player drops the ball without making the transfer to the bare hand cleanly, it’s not a catch. The idea was perhaps to make it easier on replay to determine whether a catch has been made, since the new interpretation gives less discretion to the umpire to determine whether a catch has been.
However, and needless to say, players and managers don’t like the new “catch” interpretation, since it runs counter to the way everyone has been playing and umpiring baseball for as long as anyone now in the professional game can remember. The Sports Illustrated article suggests that MLB may well back down and revise the new instruction to allow umpires more discretion to determine if a catch has been made before the ball is dropped during the transfer.
The second article has to do with how the new rule barring catchers from blocking the plate before they receive the ball is being interpreted on the field and upon replay review. The article suggests that based on three recent reviews of plays at the plate in which the catcher moved into the base path before the ball arrived, whether or not the catcher was ruled to have improperly blocked the plate had a lot to do with the amount by which the ball beat the runner. In other words, when the ball got there well ahead of the runner, the catcher’s blocking of the plate was acceptable, while it was not acceptable if the ball arrived at roughly the same time as the runner.
Looking at the three plays myself, I thought that the replay umpire was right to overrule the home plate umpire and call the Rockies’ Nolan Arenado safe at home. I also thought the home plate umpire made the right call in calling the Reds’ Roger Bernadina out, mainly because the throw arguably required catcher Tony Sanchez to move into the base path to receive it, which is permissible under the new rule. However, I think the replay official got it wrong in upholding the home plate umpire’s out call against the Phillies’ Tony Gwynn, Jr. where Marlins catcher Jeff Mathis clearly blocked the plate while taking the throw well on the infield side of the third base line.
Of course, I’ve long been on record that catchers shouldn’t be allowed to block the plate at all unless they’ve got the ball in their hand already. The new rule leaves a lot of grey area about what is and what is not impermissible in terms of when catchers can block the plate. I expect that we will have more controversial replay decisions in this area, because the new rule leaves so much room for interpretation.
Another thing that I expect is that for catchers who like to block the plate (the ones who are good at it like to do it because it saves their teams runs and thus increases their value as catchers), their infield teammates will try to put relay throws into the third base line so that the catchers will have an excuse to be blocking the plate before the throw hits the catcher’s mitt.