Athletics vs. Angels: Reviewing Saturday's home plate review

The only person blocking the plate in this shot is the umpire. Down in front, Blue! - Ezra Shaw

Saturday's Athletics/Angels game included a play at the plate in which the umpires went to replay to see if Derek Norris blocked the runner's path to the dish. The ruling was that he did not. Was that correct, and why?

A lot of people are still trying to figure out MLB's new home plate collision rules. There are many things that a runner can't do, and those mostly haven't been a problem. The debates have come up when a catcher is perceived to have been blocking the pathway to the plate.

On Saturday, Athletics' catcher Derek Norris fielded a throw from Yoenis Cespedes and tagged out Chris Ianetta, who was trying to score. The call on the field was that Ianetta was out, and the replay review confirmed the call. Having watched the Angels broadcast (they were confident that Norris had blocked the plate) and read some of the comments on Halos Heaven, I thought it would be worth taking a look at why this (and other) calls have been upheld despite potential transgressions from the catcher.

For my part, I thought the umpires clearly got it right, but that's easy for me to say because the outcome favored my team. Here is the play:

And here is the rule:

7.13.2: 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.

The first thing to note is that this rule is being used very conservatively. We have not seen a lot of calls get overturned due to the catcher blocking the plate, and it has required a level of plate-blocking beyond the initial interpretation of most viewers. But, a good start would be to see what it looks like when a catcher does get called for a violation:

I see three huge differences in these two plays.

The first difference regards the arrival time of the ball. It's subtle, but it's there. When Norris catches the throw, Ianetta hasn't even reached the batter's box yet. Heck, he's several feet away from it; he's barely even in the frame yet if you watch the replay at around the one-minute mark. But by the time Carlos Ruiz catches it, Nolan Arenado is already halfway through the box and inches from the plate. To me, that makes the difference here:

Unless the catcher is in possession of the ball, the catcher cannot block the pathway of the runner as he is attempting to score.

In my opinion Norris had the ball a split-second before Ianetta made his attempt to score. I think that MLB should clearly define when an attempt to score has begun; is it conceived as the runner rounds third base, or does it not become a living attempt until he is actually physically trying to touch the plate? (I tend toward the latter interpretation.) If this clarification has been made and I just missed it, please correct me in the comments.

Second, I simply don't think Norris blocked the plate. Look at the replays again. Although Norris' foot is in no-man's land for a moment, Ianetta is still able to make a clean slide straight through the middle of the plate with little-to-no contact as he passes by Norris' left side. On the other hand, look at Arenado's slide, at the 0:50 mark of his video -- he goes straight through the legs of Ruiz to get to the dish. Ruiz's position essentially forces a (minor) collision, which is exactly what the rule is trying to prevent. Since Arenado slid (as the rule also requires), the collision wasn't particularly bad, but it was Ruiz's fault that it happened.

Third, and possibly the most important, is that Norris was clearly in the way because he was fielding the ball:

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 ...

Go back to the 0:50 mark to see it -- he has to reach all the way across the basepath to catch the throw, and as soon as he has it he backs off. If anything, he did a great job of staying as out of the way as possible as he fielded it. He just kind of poked his arm out as far as he could rather than moving his entire body into the basepath, which is a bit riskier for him as it opened up the possibility of missing the ball entirely -- though you could argue that his motivation for reaching was holding his position to make the tag rather than staying out of the way for the sake of the rule, which is irrelevant in this case since one way or the other it made him follow the rule. Given that he reached as far as he could rather than move his body into the path, I think he's clear here as well:

... 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.

So, there we have it. Norris had the ball before Ianetta attempted to score (in my opinion, at least), he literally did not block Ianetta's path to the plate (since he slid straight through with little to no contact), and any amount that he was in the basepath was clearly because he was making a reasonable effort to field the throw. This one looks cut-and-dried to me, and I think the umpires got it 100 percent right. What's more, this is one more data point as we all try to pinpoint the specific limits that will be applied to this rule in practice.

Also, LOL Angels:

Oh shoot, he totally blocked the plate a little bit on the Kalhoun tag (go to 1:57). Not egregiously, but a little bit -- Kalhoun had to slide into Norris' foot ever so slightly. But Norris also had the ball in plenty of time. Oh well.

No, no, no! Not in my house! - Yoenis Cespedes

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