When I heard about the collision that fractured Buster Posey’s leg, I remembered Bill James talking about catchers and baserunners “blocking and tackling the plate” in his Historical Baseball Abstract from the ‘80s. Since I have a copy of the book, I looked up his discussion of the issue. Here’s how James began the discussion:
“The modern method of blocking the plate is, quite simply, illegal. If you read the rule book (Rule 7.06 B) it is quite clear that the catcher is not allowed to block home plate in any way, shape or form without having the ball in his hand.”
When obstruction occurs, the umpire shall call or signal “Obstruction.”
If a play is being made on the obstructed runner, or if the batterrunner is obstructed before he touches first base, the ball is dead and all runners shall advance, without liability to be put out, to the bases they would have reached, in the umpire’s judgment, if there had been no obstruction. The obstructed runner shall be awarded at least one base beyond the base he had last legally touched before the obstruction. Any preceding runners, forced to advance by the award of bases as the penalty for obstruction, shall advance without liability to be put out.
Rule 7.06(a) Comment: When a play is being made on an obstructed runner, the umpire shall signal obstruction in the same manner that he calls Time, with both hands overhead. The ball is immediately dead when this signal is given; however, should a thrown ball be in flight before the obstruction is called by the umpire, the runners are to be awarded such bases on wild throws as they would have been awarded had not obstruction occurred. On a play where a runner was trapped between second and third and obstructed by the third baseman going into third base while the throw is in flight from the shortstop, if such throw goes into the dugout the obstructed runner is to be awarded home base. Any other runners on base in this situation would also be awarded two bases from the base they last legally touched before obstruction was called.
(b) If no play is being made on the obstructed runner, the play shall proceed until no further action is possible. The umpire shall then call Time and impose such penalties, if any, as in his judgment will nullify the act of obstruction.
Rule 7.06(b) Comment: Under 7.06(b) when the ball is not dead on obstruction and an obstructed runner advances beyond the base which, in the umpires judgment, he would have been awarded because of being obstructed, he does so at his own peril and may be tagged out. This is a judgment call.
NOTE: The catcher, without the ball in his possession, has no right to block the pathway of the runner attempting to score. The base line belongs to the runner and the catcher should be there only when he is fielding a ball or when he already has the ball in his hand.
If, with a runner on third base and trying to score by means of a squeeze play or a steal, the catcher or any other fielder steps on, or in front of home base without possession of the ball, or touches the batter or his bat, the pitcher shall be charged with a balk, the batter shall be awarded first base on the interference and the ball is dead.
Now, back to James on the history of home-plate collisions: “I started looking through the guides of the twenties and thirties, looking for home-plate collisions. There aren’t any . . . There are plenty of photographs of plays at home plate, and sometimes they run into each other, but not like now.
“Basepath obstruction was a major problem in the 1880s and nineties, when baseball was in danger of becoming a contact sport. In 1897 the rules on obstruction were tightened up, and the principle of free access to the bases met with general acceptance at the other three positions. There was always something of a problem with catchers blocking the plate, but there were always limits. In 1922 two games were protested because of the intractability of catchers. National League president Heydler ruled against the protests, writing that “the unpopular practice of ‘blocking off’ runners at the plate. . . has always been the cause of dispute, ill-feeling among and serious injury to players, but against which no practical rule remedy has been found.”
James here contrasts the relatively clear path to the plate baserunners historically had with the situation in the mid-‘80s, when “the catcher [he names Mike Scioscia specifically] sets up eight foot down the third-base line and wrestles the runner until help arrives. . . . No one is expected to leave part of the plate open.”
James adds: “I think it has changed a lot just in the last fifteen or twenty years. . . . I don’t remember Elston Howard or Bill Freehan doing some of the things that they do now.”
He mentions how the violation of rule 7.06 was similar to violation of the pine-tar rule and the rule that a base runner always had to touch the next base to avoid being put out, in that both of those rules went ignored and unenforced, until Merkle’s Boner and the George Brett “Pine-Tar Incident” in 1983. James concludes: “What we have here is another situation of which no good can arise.”
Looking at video clips of the Cousins-Posey play, you can’t blame Posey in any way for what happened, since he was in front of home plate as Cousins decided to come into him rather than slide over the plate. The basic situation is, as James said 25 years ago, one that MLB needs to clarify, and one they should have dealt with after the Pete Rose-Ray Fosse incident in 1970. By the way, James doesn’t mention that incident in the article at all.