Plays at the Plate Get All the Attention
By Matt Moore
There are close plays all over a baseball field and in every game. Half-steppers at first base. Fingertips on stolen base attempts. Pitches at or just below the knees throughout the game.
But nothing gets (or deserves) the amount of attention, anticipation and excitement of a play at the plate.
That excitement is heightened because of the collisions that are legal in the professional game. But even at the amateur levels, nothing comes close. Either a run is going to score or a rally is going to be cut short. The throw comes in. The runner slides (or crashes). Time seems to stop.
Knowing the rules, proper positioning and mechanics that govern plays at the plate will keep you from a bad result when all eyes are upon you.
Rules. In the professional game, almost anything goes. The catcher is fair game and the runner, in many cases, will treat him like a football tackling dummy. The closer the play, the more likely the collision will be violent. As long as the catcher holds the ball, the runner is going to be called out. I’ve never seen a runner ruled safe because there was no actual tag on a collision.
It’s different in NCAA and NFHS games. Because of safety concerns, collision and obstruction rules are in place to protect both the runner and the fielder.
The runner must be trying to reach the plate, while the catcher cannot deny access to the plate without the ball (NFHS 2-22-3) or without possession or being in the act of fielding the ball (NCAA 2-54).
Dave Yeast, the former NCAA national coordinator of umpires, explained the legal requirement on the runner in possibly the best way I’ve heard. He said that since the plate is in the ground, the runner can’t make contact high (i.e., a collision) and be trying to reach the plate at the same time. That got written into the 2011-12 NCAA rulebook (8-7) with this language: “If the defensive player blocks the base (plate) or baseline with clear possession of the ball, the runner may make contact, slide into or make contact with a fielder as long as the runner is making a legitimate attempt to reach the base (plate). Contact above the waist that was initiated by the baserunner shall not be judged as an attempt to reach the base or plate.”
The NFHS rule (8-4-2c) is stricter, declaring that a runner is out when he “does not legally attempt to avoid a fielder in the immediate act of making a play on him.” The runner is out and the ball remains live unless there was interference or malicious contact. That puts the onus of all contact onto the runner as long as the catcher has the ball.
What the rules do not cover, and can still happen on plays at the plate, are the so-called train wrecks — those plays in which the runner does what he’s supposed to do, the ball arrives at just the right (wrong) moment and there is a collision. Even violent collisions can be legal. If the catcher catches the ball in front of the plate and turns and, at the same moment, a runner has already committed to his next step, there is going to be contact. Neither has the ability to just disappear.
One additional item related to collisions: A runner who has already touched the plate can’t be called out, even if the contact is malicious. He can still be ejected, but his run counts. The lone exception to that is the force play slide rule.
Proper positioning. Some umpires firmly believe in taking plays at the plate from a set location, whether it is the third-base line extended or the first-base line extended. Both positions have faults, however.
From the third-base line extended, you can’t see a swipe tag on the runner’s backside. And from the first-base line extended, you can get blocked out and not see if the runner reached the plate, especially if he cuts to the inside.
Because a play can develop from a wide variety of angles, the best place to start is just off the dirt circle and directly behind the point of the plate. That gives you the option to read the throw and adjust accordingly. Stay along the outside of the dirt circle so that you keep your field of vision wide. You may end up along one of the foul lines extended, or you could possibly circle all the way around and end up in fair territory.
One thing you’ll have to be ready for is previous runners, the on-deck batter and the pitcher getting in your way. Use your voice to keep them clear, but also be aware they can be guilty of obstruction or interference.
No matter how you adjust and move to get the best angle, you should still be stopped and set for the play when it happens. Being set, however, does not mean dropping to one knee. That traps you and gives you little opportunity to move or react to a bad throw or a runner’s sudden movement.
Mechanics. There are two specific things you need to be aware of when it comes to your mechanics of making the call — timing and the runner actually touching the plate.
Even though everyone is waiting with more anticipation than normal considering the magnitude of the play, there is no need for you to rush.
A good technique is to call the runner safe as soon as you determine that he is, but to ensure that you see the ball — “Show me the ball!” — before you call an out. More than one umpire has been fooled thinking that an out has occurred at the plate only to find the pitcher chasing the baseball that has gotten away.
The scoring of a run is final, so once you have ruled the runner has met his responsibilities, you can’t turn back. That is why the plate is treated differently than other bases when it comes to the runner missing. If you signal safe, the run has scored. You can’t make that (or any) signal until the runner is either out or has touched the plate.
Yes, that tips off the defense when no signal is made, but the defense isn’t the one who made the mistake of not touching.
Matt Moore is a Referee associate editor.