Pirates learning new rules for plays at the the plate

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BRADENTON, Fla. — The fine print of the rule changes governing collisions at home plate became official Monday, 27 days before the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks open the regular season.

In a joint release, Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association characterized the guidelines, which mandate a lane to home plate for runners attempting to score from third and outlaw intentional contact with the catcher, as intended to “prohibit the most egregious collisions at home plate.”

According to Experimental Rule 7.13, runners trying to score cannot initiate contact with the catcher by straying from their path to the plate and may not use their upper body to try to dislodge the ball from the catcher. Catchers cannot block the runner’s path to the plate unless they have the ball.

Spring Training Report: Manager Clint Hurdle

Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle talks to the media from the Pirates' spring training camp in Bradenton, Fla. (Video by Peter Diana; 2/24/2014)

“If there’s a turn [rounding third base] involved, it’s going to be a different lane than if it’s a contact play coming straight down the third-base line,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “It’s going to depend upon where the runner starts once he’s past third base.”

Umpires can call a runner out, even if he was technically safe, if they judge that he violated the rule. They can also rule a runner to be safe, even if he was out by traditional definition, if the catcher blocks the plate.

Runners do not have to slide, but will avoid violating the rule if they do. Catchers can block the plate while in possession of the ball, or if the throw takes them up the third-base line.

“We believe the new experimental rule allows for the play at the plate to retain its place as one of the most exciting plays in the game, while providing an increased level of protection to both the runner and the catcher,” MLBPA executive director Tony Clark said in a statement Monday. “We will monitor the rule closely this season before discussing with the [c]ommissioner’s [o]ffice whether the rule should become permanent.”

Interpretations of the rule will be subject to video review at the discretion of the crew chief. MLB will distribute training materials regarding the new rule during spring training, and a committee of players and managers will be formed to monitor it.

Teams have slightly more than a month to reprogram their catchers, who have spent entire careers on the diamond treating home plate as their real estate and requiring runners to forcibly remove their armor-clad bodies if they wanted to touch it.

“It’s written in our DNA,” Tony Sanchez said. “Catchers take hits. We take 100-mph foul tips off the shoulder and we stay in the game. We block pitches. We use any part of our body to make sure the ball doesn’t get by us.

“Another guideline that comes with catching is you block that plate, and you don’t let anybody touch it. It’s going to be hard for guys to rewrite what’s in their DNA as far as that blocking-the-plate mentality.”

The rule changes were proposed with the idea of reducing injuries from such collisions. The most notable of those injuries in recent years affected San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey, who broke a leg and tore ligaments in his ankle in 2011 and missed the rest of the season.

“They really took a detailed look at what really creates the injury, what are the real challenges that they have,” Pirates chairman Bob Nutting said during his visit to Pirate City last week. “They went through in pretty good detail to make sure we never lose the heart and the spirit and competitiveness of the game.”

Spring training games and the early part of the regular season figure to exhibit a league learning on the fly and five weeks of familiarity with the new rules might not eradicate the old mindset.

“Not much is going to change mentality-wise,” Sanchez said. “That’s my plate, and I’m not going to give it up for somebody. In the heat of the moment, when you’re trying to catch a throw from one of the outfielders or one of the infielders and you’ve got a guy barreling down on you trying to get to the plate, I’m going to do whatever it takes to keep him from touching that plate.”

Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com and Twitter @BrinkPG.

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