Wednesday, March 12, 2014

New Rule and Replay Won’t Reduce Controversy

By Adam Russell

Over the century and a half of Major League Baseball history, many a conversation has been started and continued from a blown call here and there. Others have centered on football-type collisions at home plate. MLB, with its new replay experiment and home plate safety rule, is trying to do away with both.

The new home plate rule is understandable, as MLB jumps on the bandwagon of player safety already captained by the NFL. As the new rule stands, a runner is only allowed to steamroll a catcher if said catcher is blocking the plate with ball in hand. Otherwise, he's off limits and the runner will be out if he makes contact with him, especially if the runner lowers his shoulder or pushes through the catcher with his upper extremities. There are a few exceptions, such as the catcher having to move into the basepath to field a thrown ball, or if the runner slides.

Just as football fans of yesteryear get a little giddy watching highlight films of Ray Nitschke, Dick Butkus and Lawrence Taylor tearing the face off of a ballcarrier and exclaim, "Now that's football!", old-time baseball fans will soon do the same with similar footage of Pete Rose demolishing Ray Fosse in the 1971 All-Star Game: "Yep, those were the days when men were men and boys carried the bats back to the dugout."

Here's the kicker, though. With limited replay also coming into effect this season, just figuring out if the catcher and runner were in the right place at the right time on a contact play at the plate could create more discussion than a good ol' bone-cruncher at the dish. Try this scenario on for size.

Albert Pujols lines a shot into the right-center field gap with Mike Trout on second base. Trout motors around third as Shane Victorino quickly gets to the ball and fires toward home. A.J. Pierzynski waits in his designated spot just in front of home plate on the third-base side. As Trout nears home, he decides it's best to make a head-first dive while Victorino's throw comes in on a hop. To catch the bounce, Pierzynski takes a step back which places his left leg right in front of home plate. WHAM! When the dust clears, Trout's hand is on the dish and the ball is lying in the dirt next to a sprawled Pierzynski.

But the plate ump initially calls Trout out for making contact with Pierzynski. Trout blows a gasket and argues that Pierzynski was illegally blocking the plate because he didn't have the ball when he stepped in front of the plate.

That gets Mike Scioscia out of the dugout because although Trout clearly made contact with Pierzynski, he didn't lower his shoulder, extend his arms or deviate from the basepath toward Pierzynski, which is legal under the new rule. Pierzynski, on the other hand, stepped into the basepath only to field a thrown ball, unintentionally blocking the plate, which is also allowed by the rule. That's the rebuttal of John Farrell as he joins the discussion.

Scioscia challenges the call, and now the replay umpires back in New York have to watch the video to determine if one player or the other was in violation of the rule. Was Trout entitled to the plate because Pierzynski was not in possession of the ball when he stepped into the basepath? Or should Trout have slid into home since there clearly was going to be a play at the plate? Was Pierzynski entitled to the plate because he made a move to field a thrown ball that carried him into the basepath? And if not, did the ball actually come into his possession before, during or after the motion of stepping backward?

See how complicated this could end up being? How much time will it take for the replay umps to split hairs in determining the right call? What if this is Game 7 of the ALCS and Trout is the potential game-winning run? Which replay official wants to call the home plate umpire and say, "Uh, no, Trout was actually safe. Game over. Angels go to the World Series."

MLB is potentially opening a Pandora's Box with the combination of the new home plate rule and replay, and the controversies most likely won't be reduced as intended. Besides, baseball is certain to eventually follow the NFL's lead and make even more stringent restrictions on home plate collisions — maybe even outlawing them altogether. If that happens, then making that call at the plate will be as simple as Little League rules: you don't slide, you're out — no replay necessary.

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