Players, skippers anticipating new collision rules
Announcement regarding plays at home plate could be made as early as today
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Phillies second baseman Chase Utley, a heady and hard-nosed baserunner, has already seen the play in his mind. He's rounding third and is about to score a run. The catcher, under new rules intended to eliminate home-plate collisions, is giving Utley a part of the plate to slide for. But the throw begins to tail away ...
"And the catcher has no choice but to be in front of the plate. As the runner, you know you can't hit him. Now you've put yourself in a vulnerable position to possibly get hurt," Utley said Thursday at Bright House Field. "I can just visualize a play develop where there's no choice but to make contact. So we'll see what happens."
Major League Baseball has yet to release the language of the proposal that aims to reduce injuries to both catchers and runners, but that could be coming as early as today. With exhibition games set to begin this week across Florida and Arizona, though, it is likely that announcement will be made in time to give everyone involved -- catchers, runners, managers, coaches, instructors and umpires -- a chance to familiarize themselves with the changes. Any modification also must be approved by owners, the Major League Baseball Players Association and the World Umpires Association.
Every baseball person will look at the new rule from his own perspective. Phillies personnel across the board support the goal of reducing injuries, but they remain curious to hear exactly how the new rule will be worded.
"I completely understand why they're implementing this. Nobody wants to see anybody get hurt," Utley said. "My only concern is the play where the ball takes the catcher up the line. Again, you don't want to see guys get hurt. But catchers have been blocking the plate for a long time. Runners have been trying to score for a long time. So it's definitely going to be a different element. I just hope we get the kinks out sooner rather than later."
Manager Ryne Sandberg said that "all in all," the changes are for the best.
"In some ways, I'm old-school on that play at home plate," said Sandberg. "On the other hand, I wouldn't want to lose my catcher for six months. When you talk about frontline catchers, those are big pieces of the puzzle and big parts of the team. Very important. I've seen baserunners go out of their way to harm the catcher when home plate is right there. [I've seen them] go out of their way just to bowl them over."
Catcher Carlos Ruiz admitted having mixed emotions despite the fact that he once missed a month in the Minor League after suffering a concussion in a home-plate collision and even though catchers figure to be the primary beneficiaries.
"I think it can be good for the catcher, but at the same time, it's hard," said Ruiz. "We're used to playing hard every time, and that's part of baseball. Being a catcher, you have to be tough. For me, if they kept it like always, that would be fine. But like I said, this means probably not as many guys are going to get hurt."
Ernie Whitt, the Phils' Minor League catching coordinator, spent 15 years behind the plate in the Major Leagues, mostly for the Blue Jays but also for the Red Sox, Orioles and Braves. Whitt said he'll wait to read the new rule before deciding how to teach its application.
"We've always taught to give a path to the baserunner, but we've also taught to take it away from him. So once the ruling comes down and we know what to work with, we'll move forward from there," Whitt said. "I think it's going to be difficult to do. Collisions are going to happen. You don't get a perfect throw from the outfielder or the infielder all the time, so you're moving as a catcher. And once the baserunner is running full speed, two forces are going to collide at times. I think the biggest thing they're looking for is that it's not intentional, where the baserunner will go after the catcher. And that's fine, too. We can adjust.
"I think we've [already] changed over the last decade or so. We're trying to show part of the plate for them to slide to. And as long as you do that, it's fine. We're not setting up and sitting on home plate and saying, 'Come and get us.' The biggest thing is that they're going to make it so the baserunners cannot search out the catcher and barrel over him. There's going to be contact. I'm sure they're going to say we can't drop to our knees and block them off the plate, either. The runner has to have something to go for."
First-base coach Juan Samuel oversees the Phillies' baserunning.
"We've been talking to the runners," said Samuel. "We said we don't know what it's going to be yet, so we're probably going to have to make an adjustment. For me, when you're coming full speed to home plate, I don't know if you want guys thinking. 'I can't do this. I have to do that.' Guys might be in between. But it's just one of those things. I'm interested to see what it is so we can start telling guys what's acceptable and what's not."
Having the Grapefruit and Cactus League schedules to adjust will help the integrate the process more smoothly, Utley and Sandberg believe.
"I think it's very important, not just for the players but for the people who are overseeing it," Utley said.
"The fact that we're going to get it this early with the teaching of the catchers on their footwork, teach the catchers where they're supposed to be to abide by the rule and also have a strategy for getting the out at home plate will help," said Sandberg. "So once we do get the rule, I know it will make sense."
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.