Minnesota Twins fans are still trying to process the events that unfolded Sunday afternoon.
In a getaway game against the Toronto Blue Jays, catcher Gary Sánchez tagged runner Whit Merrifield out at home plate in the top of the 10th inning. The Blue Jays immediately challenged. They weren’t only contesting if Sánchez truly tagged Merrifield out but also if Sánchez didn’t allow a clear path for Merrifield to reach home plate.
Upon further review, league officials in New York ruled that Sánchez blocked the plate. Merrifield was safe with the go-ahead run to give the Blue Jays a 3-2 win. Target Field erupted following the announcement against the umpires. Twins fans haven’t seen a mess this chaotic since 2008 when fans threw things on the field, and Ron Gardenhire punted his hat following a controversial call at the Metrodome.
Even cool-handed manager Rocco Baldelli channeled his inner Gardy. He whipped his hat off, screamed, and pointed at the officials in an expletive-laced rant. That tirade definitely earned him some street cred with a solid chunk of the Twins fanbase. However, he wasn’t done fuming after the cool-off period following the game.
“That play has not been called since the beginning of replay, more than a couple of times, in all of baseball, the thousands and thousands of games and plays at home, where the catcher actually does block the plate,” Baldelli told the media. “Over and over and over again, that play has virtually never been called. And for someone to step in, in that situation, and ultimately make a decision that that was blocking the plate, that’s beyond embarrassing for our game.”
Why does Sánchez’s positioning at the plate matter? That goes back over a decade. In 2011, San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey broke his left leg in a collision at the plate with Florida Marlins outfielder Scott Cousins.
MLB outlawed plowing into the catcher in response to the incident. In turn, the catcher needs to allow for a lane the runner can slide in. This led to the unofficially named “Buster Posey Rule,” or rule 7.13, three years later in 2014.
Per Major League Baseball’s website, here’s a summary of the rule:
- The player has to stay on the direct line to the plate.
- The catcher must give the runner a lane to the plate UNLESS he has possession of the ball.
The way most coaches teach catchers to field potential plays at the plate is to start in fair territory and work your way closer to the plate as the throw takes you there. Sánchez started completely off the plate, with Beckham’s throw taking him into the position he was in. Additionally, Sánchez lifted his left leg while catching the throw to allow a path to the plate. Sánchez blocked the plate, but it was after he had full control of the ball, as the rule allows him to do. Merrifield didn’t attempt to slide on the outside of the plate. Instead, he slid into Sánchez to try to invoke the Posey Rule.
“I went towards the ball, where the ball was,” Sánchez through a translator after the game. “I did move my feet a little, but he had an open lane to slide on the side, and he didn’t. He slid towards me. I’m just tagging him. I had the ball first. I think the line was open for him to slide to the side. He didn’t. It was a clean play.”
The problem with many of these situations comes down to every catcher’s alibi, What am I supposed to do? Sometimes the play is clear-cut, and the catcher provides no lane at any point during the play. At other times, it can be meaningfully more complicated than that due to the development of a particular play, throw patterns, and more.
It makes it incredibly difficult to follow a rule correctly when umpires and officials in New York rarely, if ever, explain why they ruled a call that way so teams and players can make adjustments. Baseball rarely likes overturning calls made on the field, usually choosing to confirm the call or let it stand.
Remember when Baldelli talked about that play never being called? Anecdotally, he’s been right through most of the time the rule has been in place. But not recently. Turns out, a situation similar to Sunday’s affair in Minneapolis happened on the same day in a game between the Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates.
Baltimore catcher Robinson Chirinos initially tagged runner Greg Allen at the plate. However, New York overturned the call after Pittsburgh challenged the play. New York also overturned that call, and the umpires ejected O’s manager Brandon Hyde.
However, there’s a significant difference between the two plays. Sánchez initially started outside the plate and gave a clear lane before coming in to nab the baseball and apply the tag. Chirinos started in front of the plate before the throw, which never allowed the runner a clear path to home. The play was also a reactionary spot for the catcher to be in. The shortstop initially stopped the ball. It’s likely that Chirinos wasn’t expecting Allen to break for home, so he wasn’t focusing on where he was standing at the plate and just reacted to the play.
Still, this case is clearly more of a violation of the Posey Rule than Sánchez’s attempt to receive the throw and tag.
There have been grumblings and critics of the Posey Rule almost from its inception. These recent calls highlight that there is too big of a gray area with plays at the plate. You can make the case in either situation for or against invoking the rule.
It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison but think of college football’s targeting rule. It’s there for players’ safety. But what are guys supposed to do in most reactionary bang-bang plays? MLB must clarify its rule or overhaul it completely before it comes up in more meaningful regular and postseason games.
These plays at home that invoke the blocking-the-plate rule are too subjective based on who’s making the call. Honestly, it’s not hard to imagine everyone arguing both sides of the rule, depending on how it impacts their team. Every game matters with how close games will be for the Twins in a tight AL Central. Baldelli has every right to be upset about the implementation because New York never gave an interpretation.