This weekend in Japan, I saw two plays at the plate where a runner was tagged out but could easily have been ruled safe due to catcher obstruction.
Since MLB began enforcing its ancient rule, that fielders without the ball are not allowed in the base line unless they have to be there to field a ball, in 2014, while civilizing tag outs on the bases, the game has become faster and moved farther from being a contest between crash test dummies.
Baseball’s best plays are those that demand speed, precision and determination, that’s why we go nuts for unbelievable catches or throws, or for runners sprinting around the bases and beating tags, or pitchers getting huge outs to get out of jams.
It’s why I’m a big fan of having fewer bone-jarring collisions, because bigger and stronger is not always better.
The problems are not with the rules, but with their enforcement, and both MLB and NPB have gone through a few iterations of when a defensive player is allowed to be in the baseline between third and home on a potential scoring play.
The biggest difference between Japan and the U.S. is that MLB still allows fielders with the ball to block the baseline, while Japan’s version, commonly known as the “collision rule,” permits only unavoidable contact and prohibits the fielder from occupying the base line even with the ball.
I bring this up because on Friday and Saturday we had cases where the catcher was in the base line waiting for the throw as the runner approached. Umpires, who by nature seem to rule the tag and ignore the obstruction, called both runners out on the field.
Both were reviewed.
On Friday, Hawks catcher Takuya Kai applied the tag after the runner slid into his foot, that was blocking home plate.
On Saturday, Eagles catcher Ginjiro Sumitani got the ball about a second before there was actually a collision, because he was literally blocking the baseline — before and after he got the ball. In MLB, umps might have made a judgement call and said, “Sure the runner was still a few steps from the catcher when the ball arrived, so he could be in the base line,” because that part was close. But in Japan, where a fielder is not even allowed to be in the runner’s path unless making a catch absolutely requires it, then the answer is clear, the runner should have been safe.
The really stupid part of the problem is that if this play happened at second or third, the umpire would automatically call obstruction. A third baseman is not permitted to block the runner’s access in any way shape or form.
But umpires are used to seeing home plate as different and asking them to call obstruction on the field of obstruction at the plate, is like asking two-dimensional beings their opinion of three-dimensional art. They can’t conceive of it, so they can’t see it. To them, it doesn’t exist.
The solution is simple: On every play at the plate, ask if this would be a valid play at any base? Should a first baseman on a pickoff play be allowed to situate himself between the runner and the bag so he can get the out? Of course not.
OFFICIAL BASEBALL RULE 7.13
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 baserunners 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.