Catchers, runners on collision course to change in MLB
By Rob Biertempfel
Published: Monday, Feb. 24, 2014, 9:42 p.m.
BRADENTON, Fla. — A few days ago during a spring training drill, Pirates catcher Tony Sanchez snagged a relay throw, then dropped to his knees at the plate as if to tag an imaginary baserunner.
Sanchez got up and playfully bumped Russell Martin, who was looking on while balanced on the balls of his feet in a catcher's crouch.
Caught off guard, Martin sprawled backward as his mask flew off into the dirt. Both catchers came up laughing at the joke.
In a perfect world, all home-plate collisions would be that harmless. However, there are plenty of players who've limped away from pileups with concussions, broken bones or torn ligaments.
Ray Fosse sustained a broken shoulder when Pete Rose slammed into him during the 1970 All-Star Game. Atlanta Braves catcher Johnny Estrada suffered from post-concussion syndrome for years after being rammed by Darin Erstad in 2005.
In 2011, San Francisco Giants star Buster Posey snapped his leg and tore up his knee in a crash with Scott Cousins of the Miami Marlins. Posey's agent later asked MLB to strengthen its rules about collisions at the plate.
In December, MLB said it would tweak the rules to increase protection for runners and catchers, and began working with the players' union on changes. The new system — which will be used on an experimental basis in 2014 — was announced Monday, in plenty of time for spring training games to get under way in Florida and Arizona.
A runner may not deviate from his “direct pathway to the plate” in order to initiate a collision with either the catcher or another player covering the plate. And, unless he is in possession of the ball, the catcher cannot block the path of the runner trying to score.
At the umpire's discretion, instant replay may be used to determine if the catcher offered a clear lane and/or if the runner executed a clean slide.
“They want runners to slide, and they want catchers to give a lane so runners can slide,” Martin said. “They want to eliminate somebody going out of his way or changing his direction to hit somebody. If the flight of the ball is taking me in to the lane of the runner and he runs into me, that's unavoidable contact. You can tell. Even with that, they don't want somebody throwing a forearm at somebody's head.”
Utilityman Josh Harrison said spring training is the perfect time for players to get familiar with the new rules and perhaps break baserunning habits. In 2012, Harrison crashed into St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, who sustained upper back, neck and shoulder strains.
“I don't think guys are out there head-hunting,” Harrison said. “But when it's a play where you have no place else to go because the catcher is in the way, (a collision) is your natural reaction. Our mindset will have to change when plays are close. Same with the catchers. It will be an adjustment for us all.”
Over the past few days, MLB officials met with managers and coaches from every team to explain its proposals to increase safety for catchers and baserunners. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle had his meeting Sunday afternoon.
The rule changes were approved by team owners and the players' union, in consultation with the World Umpires Association, in Port Charlotte, Fla.
“They took a detailed look at what really creates the injuries,” Pirates owner Bob Nutting said. “They want to make sure we never lose the heart, spirit and competitiveness of the game. I have a lot of faith in their judgement.”
Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.
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