No room for interpretation

If I can even try to care about something related to baseball after the day's events, it's the measure of sympathy I feel for the MLB umpires in San Francisco on Wednesday afternoon, waiting for Robin Ventura to stop kicking dirt on the plate, or realizing it's the only respite from bouts of screaming and spitting at them and wishing he'd kick for longer, or thinking about which one of his veins they'd focus on to keep from bursting out laughing.

The faces of the umpires involved in the Ventura dispute actually most resembled a reaction of "The hell you want us to do, Robin?"

The umpires in San Francisco correctly identified Tyler Flowers' left foot as being out in front of the plate. What they were seemingly not allowed to do was factor in much in the way of judgment on whether Flowers' blocking the plate significantly altered the play (i.e. did Blanco beat the play, and then get stopped from tapping the plate safe by Flowers' leg). Given the way the rule has been interpreted, both on Wednesday and an even more outsized example with Ryan Howard in July, umpires are not allowed to make much of a judgment call on the actual effect the foot placement had on the runner getting home on time. If the runner gets into his slide at all, umpires and reviewers are enacting rule 7.13.

Tyler Flowers, understandably, didn't take very well to the lack of flexibility.

I think that’s the tough thing for people, everybody in baseball, to grasp is the purpose of the rule is to avoid the situation like Posey had. It’s not when a guy is out by 30 feet, Oh, he blocked the plate. Well, that had no impact on that guy being safe or out. And there’s no clarification on that.
— Dan Hayes

It's a pure application of the rule--if he's blocking, the runner is safe--is likely designed to make the switch less of the burden onto umpires working the game, but that only serves to put it on players, who are even less equipped to make the adjustment. Flowers, again, was illuminating:

I’m set up inside, jammed the crap out of this guy. It’s a dribbler to first. I’ve got a bat flying behind me. I realize where the ball is — OK, Jose’s about to come home, and I just looked at it. So I had two seconds to get from behind home plate, catch a ball and make a tag, and I’m supposed to be able to make sure I don’t block the plate, catch a ball and make a tag, all within two seconds on an infield dribbler. It’s just not realistic. If it’s an outfield throw it’s one thing. I think most people are getting that. When you’re talking about such a short time period there, on a play like that, it just doesn’t make any sense.
— Dan Hayes

In a worst-case scenario, Flowers is right that it's physically and cognitively impossible for catchers to advance through all these progression swift enough and still be able to account for foot placement, and it will always be a game of luck in catchers getting prepared to make a tag without obstructing, or they will have to deal with a permanent disadvantage, as they place themselves outside of any territory where they might get called for obstruction.

However, in the best-case scenario, there is a league full of catchers who are adjusting on the fly to the new standards, and will continue to aggressively butt their heads as their pre-installed processes are slowly dragged out of them. Change could gradually be installed, but outrage over high-profile incidents such as this one could threaten the standing of the rule over the years that switch takes place over the league.

Basically, how many times is MLB willing to piss off the populace and be harangued for the clunky implementation of this rule. Given the outrage and hit they take when star catchers are lost for the season--think not just Buster Posey but also Carlos Santana before that--probably quite a bit.

In the mean time, they'll have an era of catchers like Flowers, studiously perplexed on how to deal with protocol that's flipped on its head overnight, and outrage from old lions like Hawk Harrelson, who more endangers himself when he works into a lather than any cause he's attacking. I think they can deal with that too.



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