Major League Baseball announced on Wednesday that there will be a rule change banning collisions at home plate, to take effect as soon as next season but no later than 2015. The proposal, which ESPN's Buster Olney has reported is being fast-tracked by MLB to the rules committee, makes four main points: 1) catchers cannot block the plate with any part of their body, be it a leg, an outstretched arm, or strattling the plate while standing upright; 2) runners will not be allowed to target catchers, they must make a play for the plate itself; 3) in-game, the home plate umpire will determine if either party broke the rule, but the determination is reviewable via instant replay, if necessary; and 4) post-game, discipline can be handed down from the league to any player who breaks the rule, if deemed egregious enough. The punishments will likely come by way of a large fine or short suspension.
At first glance, I thought this rule change was a good one. Keeping catchers from getting blasted by runners going full speed seems like something that would be beneficial for all involved. Real collisions are a fairly rare occurrence, so it seems as though the rule won't have a major impact on how the game is played. But after thinking about the likely ripple effects that this rule creates, it's impossible to think that the game will ever be the same.
An obvious effect is that scoring will increase, purely from the added difficulty of tagging a runner out at the plate. Since the runner no longer has to slide around the catcher, he can simply take a shorter route, start sliding earlier and cut his time to the plate dramatically. The less obvious effects stem from this. Tagging from third base will now be an automatic green light for a runner of any significant speed. Because of that, the reward for moving from second to third is now immeasurable. Bunt plays will increase in these scenarios, as will attempted stealing of third base. The reward will outweigh the risk to do so. A baserunner's aggressiveness as well as a base coach's mentality will be completely altered. It doesn't seem too farfetched to think that runs per game will increase for teams with speed on the basepaths by nearly 1-1.5, which is enormous.
Pitching will be completely affected in tough situations (RISP or late innings with score close or tied) and the pressure will increase to not allow any ball to be put into play. A runner on second will be a much higher risk to steal, which means at-bats with RISP will feature more fastballs than before. And pick-offs will have to increase to accommodate this, which is a major distraction when pitching in tough situations. Mid-range fly balls with a runner on third are all of a sudden much more dangerous and therefore, an unacceptable means of an out. And this may even extend to situations with a runner on second base because of the danger of allowing that runner to reach third. Highlight-reel outfield assists will become more scarce because of the added challenge of hitting the catcher's mitt low enough to apply the tag after he has to turn and move toward the plate. Pressure on pitchers to strikeout or force ground balls becomes intensified and many young pitchers may fold in such scenarios.
What looked like a minor rule change to protect catchers in rare collisions now looks like a monumental shift in baseball strategy. Look for ERAs to shoot up, stolen bases (and caught stealing) to skyrocket, and outfield assists to decline. Watch for pitchers shout obscenities into their gloves more often too.