The only sure thing in life is change. However, the mere thought of change brings about stress – even when it's in the name of safety. Especially when it impacts an institution based in tradition, like baseball.
At the MLB Winter Meetings in December, when the Rules Committee voted unanimously to ban home plate collisions between base-runners and catchers, the stress level within all 30 MLB organizations increased. Although the "Old School (that's the way it's always been done, no reason to change) versus the New School (safety is the priority) debate" was futile, it continued to rage on until the verbiage and requirements of the two-step process were released by MLB in February.
Just before games in the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues began, MLB provided teams with training materials and conducted meetings with field managers to address the re-training of both catchers and base-runners for the first step of implementing Rule 7.13. The rule applies to all 30 MLB organizations, along with each affiliated minor league team.
Key points for Step One - 2014:
1) Clubs are required to train runners to slide and their catchers to provide the runner with a pathway to reach the plate at all levels throughout their organizations.
2) It is not mandated that a runner should always slide, or that a catcher can never block the plate, but those who implement correctly, will never be found to be in violation of the rule.
3) Instant replay may be used to review whether or not the rule has been violated. In determining whether a runner deviated from his pathway in order to initiate a collision, the Umpire will consider whether the runner made an effort to touch the plate, and whether he lowered his shoulders or pushed through with his hands, elbows or arms when veering toward the catcher.
Throughout the year, MLB – along with the Players Association (MLBPA) – will convene a committee of players and managers to review and address progress made, as well as what is needed for the second-step; the complete implementation of Rule 7.13 during the 2015 season.
The job of re-addressing how catchers in the Oakland A's system are now able to block the plate has been entrusted to a group of well-qualified, experienced former catchers: Midland Rockhounds' skipper Aaron Nieckula, who played catcher in the A's minor league system for four of his five professional years; Arizona Rookie League coach Gabriel Ortiz, a five-year catcher in the A's system, and, of course, Marcus Jensen, the current A's minor league hitting coordinator, who spent six years as a big league backstop after having been drafted by the San Francisco Giants in the 1st round (33rd overall) in 1990 out of Skyline High School in Oakland.
Jensen has worked with the catchers in both major league and minor league camp this spring, and in his usual calm, respectful demeanor, Jensen said all is going well and that the majority of training requires "understanding there are privileges that they no longer possess." For instance, only when the ball is in their possession are the catchers allowed to block the plate, otherwise they must give the runner the lane. If they do not, the runner may be called safe, and the run may score. However, Jensen does not see any challenge either in the re-training or in the execution of those efforts during games.
A's minor league catching prospect Kyle Wheeler agrees.
Wheeler was Oakland's 26th round pick in the 2013 draft out of Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi. He spent his rookie season in the AZL with Jensen as his manager. Wheeler echoes Jensen's belief that the key is understanding that the entitlements and privileges that once existed for catchers no longer apply.
"It's an adjustment considering we used to go directly in-line to make the runners avoid us and create their own lane but now we have to be in front of the plate," Wheeler said. "In the minor leagues, we were told, ‘that's your area and you block off the runners.' Now, we have to give that area to the runner; the term we use is ‘giving the runner the lane.'
"At first the footwork was a little different because even if you're an inch in the lane, the runner is safe! But we work on it once a week on an empty field to get our positioning right. And once we had a few reps, it became a normal thing. Small adjustment."
"The guys who have been in your shoes, understand the adjustments that need to be made, and help you out to get the best out of you," Wheeler said.
This type of cohesion among the catchers within the A's organization is one more reason why the changes required for this first step of Rule 7.13 will be successful.
It is also one more example of how bright the future is of the Oakland A's!
On a personal note: I am happy to see the review of safety. Though this is hardly relatable, I played baseball with the boys all my life, and I was the catcher. My last year, I was plowed into – intentionally, I believe - and was knocked out for a bit. I don't have more details about the event, nor much about that last season, aside from the horrible headaches and periodic dizziness.
Below is the official text of the new rule.
Collisions at home plate
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.
Rule 7.13 comment: The failure by the runner to make an effort to touch the plate, the runner's lowering of the shoulder, or the runner's pushing through with his hands, elbows or arms, would support a determination that the runner deviated from the pathway in order to initiate contact with the catcher in violation of Rule 7.13. If the runner slides into the plate in an appropriate manner, he shall not be adjudged to have violated Rule 7.13. A slide shall be deemed appropriate, in the case of a feet first slide, if the runner's buttocks and legs should hit the ground before contact with the catcher. In the case of a head first slide, a runner shall be deemed to have slid appropriately if his body should hit the ground before contact with the catcher.
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.