Six weeks into the season, Major League Baseball is still searching for a way to clarify confusion over the new rule on home plate collisions but hasn't been able to settle on a way to do that, MLB executive Tony La Russa told ESPN.com on Monday.
More than two weeks after the league cleared up similar uncertainty over the new transfer rule, La Russa said MLB is "searching for that kind of specificity in the collision rule, and we still haven't gotten it. But we're getting closer."
As it works to find language that all sides can agree to, MLB is attempting to clarify confusion about plays at the plate in other ways as well. Last week, La Russa said, the league sent out videos to all 30 teams and umpires, showing plays from early in the season that MLB officials believe may not have been interpreted correctly.
Of 17 umpire-initiated reviews on plays at the plate, only two have been overturned. But MLB believes there should have been more calls reversed. The new video highlights two categories of calls that should have been a violation, La Russa said, but were allowed to stand.
The first involves plays where the catcher initially sets up properly to receive a throw, allowing the runner a path home, but then, "as he starts to receive the ball, sticks out his left leg to take the plate away," La Russa said.
Those runners have been called out, and reviews have allowed those calls to stand. That interpretation is about to change, La Russa intimated.
"Several of the videos show that this move should be considered a violation," he said. "And it will be a violation."
The other play officials believe should have been interpreted differently was a play in a Cardinals-Mets game last month in which the Cardinals' Jon Jay slid into Mets catcher Travis d'Arnaud to try to prevent d'Arnaud from turning a 4-2-3 double play with the bases loaded.
Although runners are permitted to make takeout slides at second base to attempt to thwart double plays, MLB feels plays at the plate are different because catchers have their backs turned to runners and are more vulnerable. So takeout slides of catchers will be considered violations of the rule in the future, unless a throw takes the catcher into the runner's path.
Other plays are less clear-cut, though. So even after several weeks of discussions between league officials and the players' union, the sides have been unable to agree on language that could help refine the collision rule to everyone's satisfaction.
Angels manager Mike Scioscia told ESPN.com that he believes the key to clarifying the rule is simply to determine "when a play at the plate starts."
"Does it start when a ball is hit to the outfield?" Scioscia said. "Does it start when a runner tags third? Or does it start when a runner is 45 feet away [from home]? Because then a runner is obviously looking for the lane at some point that he's supposed to have from the catcher, right? So I think we've got to determine when does the play at the plate start. ... That has to be totally defined -- with us, with umpires and with replay officials."
Scioscia, a former catcher famous for blocking the plate, said he has had extensive discussions with La Russa on the subject. La Russa said their conversations have led to more dialogue with umpires and other executives in the game about when a play at home starts.
"I've talked to Joe Torre at length about this," La Russa said. "Is it halfway up the line? Is it the last third? Those are all potential definitions."
La Russa said he is leaning toward an interpretation he heard from veteran umpires, who believe a play at home starts "when the throw [from the outfield] gets to the infield." A catcher would have to be set up and allowing the runner a lane to the plate by the time the throw reached the infield or it would be considered a violation of the rule, he said.
La Russa conceded, however, that even that definition is complicated.
"Say the runner is making the turn at third base," he said, "and when he takes his first step after going around the bag, the catcher is standing right in front of home plate. Should we blow the whistle then? Should he be called safe immediately? I think you'd have to say no, because that would be a technicality to the point of being ridiculous."
Those types of plays have fallen into a gray area that umpires, runners, catchers and executives have all struggled with, La Russa said.
There have been a couple plays, he said, where the catcher wasn't giving a runner a path but the runner was "out by five or six feet." So "it didn't seem right that the runner wasn't out because of a technicality."
Scioscia is one of a number of managers who want those sorts of calls spelled out so that replay umpires don't affect the outcome of games by applying that technicality on an important play.
"I think you're going to get inconsistent readings from a replay official that could tilt the game because it's so arbitrary right now," Scioscia said.
La Russa said that if baseball had left the original rule in place, as it was devised by the rules committee last winter, it wouldn't have created all this confusion. The original language prohibited catchers from blocking the plate under any circumstances and dictated that runners had to slide into home under all circumstances.
A number of players objected to having a rule change that drastic introduced in the middle of spring training, so the rule was softened to allow catchers to block the plate if they choose if they receive a throw before the runner arrives and to permit runners to continue to bowl over catchers who do that.
"I hope that next year we can get rid of this ambiguity and confusion," La Russa said. "But in the meantime, we'll deal with it the best we can."
Despite the controversy, La Russa issued a reminder that the rule change was sparked by "the almost unanimous agreement that we don't want our catchers to get targeted and blasted.
"Even though it's been going on for 100 years, it doesn't make sense, because we don't allow it anyplace else," he said. "You can't take out the first baseman, the second baseman, the shortstop or the third baseman. So why the catcher?
"So that's where we've got to start the conversation. In 2014, our No. 1 priority was to eliminate targeted hits on catchers. And I think everyone will admit that, at the very least, we've accomplished that."