Major League Baseball catchers have endured their fair share of injuries this season, from Russell Martin's strained hamstring in May to Matt Wieters' season-ending Tommy John surgery to Yadier Molina's torn thumb ligament that sent him to the disabled list for seven weeks after the All-Star break. Catching is a demanding job, and distressing MRI results are an inevitable part of the equation.
But a quick inventory of the 2014 carnage appears to show that catchers are less likely to miss time after being steamrolled, Pete Rose'd or otherwise sent hurtling from the vicinity of home plate. As Joe Torre routinely points out in his role as the game's executive vice president of baseball operations, MLB made major strides this year protecting catchers from "egregious" injuries like the one that threatened to end Buster Posey's career after a home plate collision with Scott Cousins in 2011.
If that agenda has produced some collateral damage in the form of confusion and hard feelings, that's a natural byproduct of what baseball considers progress.
MLB Rule 7.13, adopted in late February on a one-year experimental basis, has weathered lots of scrutiny and survived the regular season pretty much intact. Now that the playoffs are about to begin, the focus will shift from safeguarding catcher health to accuracy and disaster aversion.
Amid ongoing predictions that Rule 7.13 is a "postseason disaster waiting to happen," players, managers, fans and the people at MLB headquarters in New York would prefer that things unfold in a less suspenseful way.
"There's a little bit of concern there, yeah," Detroit manager Brad Ausmus said. "They said when they instituted the rule that it was going to be a work in progress. You just hope there are no major side effects in the playoffs this year as they work to etch this thing in stone.
"You'd hate to see a game decided on this rule. Although they've clarified it, I wouldn't call it crystal clear."
Rule 7.13 always included enough gray area to ensure that the implementation would be less than seamless. Catchers who have spent their entire careers being trained to field throws in a certain position suddenly had to make sure to leave a lane for approaching baserunners and have the ball in hand before blocking home plate. Runners who churned toward home in the single-minded pursuit of scoring suddenly had to be mindful of not diverging from their path to initiate contact with a catcher.
And umpires, entrusted with the most complicated task of all, had to assess whether baserunners and catchers adhered to the tenets of the rule while getting the biggest decision right: Was the guy safe or out at home?
From the outset, some old-school types thought the rule coddled catchers and was an affront to baseball tradition. When asked for his initial reaction to Rule 7.13 in spring training, Hall of Famer George Brett observed, "That sucks. I love that play."
Similar to the "transfer rule," which became a major source of contention before MLB set things straight in late April, Rule 7.13 has elicited some chaos and heated reactions during its season-long evolution.
The first flare-up came in June, when Torre responded to a controversial call in a Pittsburgh-Cincinnati game by telling clubs that Rule 7.13 was not intended to apply to force plays at home plate. Umpires were advised to follow that mandate moving forward.
A bigger flap arose when managers began challenging plays that were otherwise bereft of drama. When Cincinnati's Zack Cozart was out by several strides in a game against Miami only to be called safe because replay officials in New York determined that Marlins catcher Jeff Mathis didn't give him a clear path to the plate, Marlins manager Mike Redmond wigged out and team president David Samson called the decision "a travesty." Clearly, the letter of the law had overwhelmed rational thinking in a way that offended everybody's sensibilities.
On Sept. 9, Torre distributed another memo to offer clarification and inject some sanity into the process. Torre basically told umpires to take a deep breath, rely on common sense and refrain from awarding teams a run on a technicality on plays that weren't even close. He also told managers to refrain from contesting plays at home plate simply because they had the freedom to do so.
"I think managers got a little overzealous at the beginning and overused the challenge," said Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez, "and MLB came back and said, 'Let's use some common sense.' I don't think there will be a problem [in the postseason]."
MLB keeps exhaustive statistics on replay, and here's what they show: During the regular season, a total of 93 plays were reviewed because of Rule 7.13. Of that total, 68 calls were confirmed, 14 were allowed to stand because of inconclusive evidence, and 11 were overturned.
The most exhaustive review involved the Cozart play, which took a marathon six minutes, 17 seconds to resolve. On 15 other occasions, reviews of Rule 7.13 have taken less than a minute to decipher.
So what comes next? Although few if any postseason collisions in baseball history can compare with the Rose-Ray Fosse 1970 All-Star Game hit for pure effect, it's hard to forget the image of Pudge Rodriguez corralling Jeff Conine's throw from left field and surviving a body block from J.T. Snow on the final out of the 2003 National League Division Series. Once umpire Gary Cederstrom signaled Snow out, the Marlins began celebrating and the two teams called it a day.
More than a decade later, MLB is hoping that the big drama of the 2014 postseason springs from majestic homers, big strikeouts and impromptu thrills rather than umpires in headsets awaiting instructions from New York amid breathless anticipation from the stands. No news on Rule 7.13 would be the best news of all.