Sports

‘I Don’t Know How You Can Block the Plate From Behind the Plate’

For years, fans and players alike have complained that no one is sure what constitutes a catch in the N.F.L. It appears that no one knows what blocking the plate means in Major League Baseball either.

Case in point: A play at home in Tuesday’s game between the Texas Rangers and the Chicago White Sox in which catcher Jonah Heim of the Rangers set up to the side of home plate, received a perfect throw from Travis Jankowski and tagged out Elvis Andrus to keep the game tied, 6-6.

The White Sox challenged the call — contending Andrus was safe and that Heim blocked the plate — and the replay review team in New York overturned it, much to the chagrin of Rangers Manager Bruce Bochy, who went out and earned himself an ejection.

“For that call to be made, I’m dumbfounded,” Bochy told reporters after the game. “It’s absolutely one of the worst calls I’ve ever seen, and it was done by replay. I just don’t get it. I don’t care how many times they’ll try to explain it. You can’t do that in that situation. It’s a shame. It’s embarrassing, really.”

Videos of the play show Heim setting up slightly behind the plate, and to the side of it. But the replay review center in New York determined he was in violation of the rules, issuing a statement that said: “The catcher’s initial positioning was illegal, and his subsequent actions while not in possession of the ball hindered and impeded the runner’s path to home plate.”

A night later, a similar debate sprung up when Gary Sánchez, the catcher for the San Diego Padres, stepped into the baseline to catch a throw and applied a tag well before the runner reached home plate — a move that is legal, according to Major League Baseball’s rules — yet was also determined by the replay crew in New York to have blocked the plate. Before the play there had been two outs in the inning and the San Francisco Giants were leading the Padres, 1-0. By the time the inning was over, the Giants led by 4-0 and ended up winning, 4-2.

Like Bochy the night before, Padres Manager Bob Melvin got himself ejected for arguing the decision. After the game he told reporters it was “one of the worst calls I’ve seen this year.”

Before they were managers, Bochy and Melvin were longtime major league catchers, both of whom played in an era where blocking the plate was seen as a necessary skill.

Things changed for catchers, however, when collisions at home plate were barred in 2014. That decision came following a few high-profile injuries, including one to Buster Posey, the All-Star catcher of the San Francisco Giants. The rules apply both to how runners approach the plate and to how catchers receive the ball.

The text of Rule 6.01(i)(2), however, does indicate there is some discretion involved to determine the circumstances for a catcher being in the way.

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. Not withstanding the above, it shall not be considered a violation of this Rule 6.01(i)(2) if the catcher blocks the pathway of the runner in a legitimate attempt to field the throw (e.g., in reaction to the direction, trajectory or the hop of the incoming throw, or in reaction to a throw that originates from a pitcher or drawn-in infielder). In addition, a catcher without possession of the ball shall not be adjudged to violate this Rule 6.01(i)(2) if the runner could have avoided the collision with the catcher (or other player covering home plate) by sliding.

A comment that accompanies the rule states that “A catcher shall not be deemed to have violated Rule 6.01(i)(2) unless he has both blocked the plate without possession the ball (or when not in a legitimate attempt to field the throw), and also hindered or impeded the progress of the runner attempting to score.”

In Heim’s case, the view from the outfield camera shows that Andrus was able to slide cleanly past the catcher, making it unclear how Heim violated those conditions.

It was especially unclear to Heim.

“I asked the umpire what I could have done differently,” Heim told reporters. “I set up on the corners. I even backed up. I don’t know what else to do. It’s upsetting.

“I don’t know how you can block the plate from behind the plate.”

If the world ever figures out what makes a catch a catch in the N.F.L., maybe the top minds can solve this mystery next.

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