When a runner rounds third and an outfielder throws the baseball home, Ron Gardenhire’s reaction is different than it used to be. No longer is he focused on the ball, or calculating how long it will take the baserunner to reach the plate. No, he’s watching the catcher’s feet.
“You have to really stare at every one,” Gardenhire said. “The biggest thing for me to remember is, ‘Where did the catcher set up?’ ”
That’s an adjustment caused by MLB Rule 7.13, a new policy intended to eliminate collisions at home plate. The new rule has worked in the most basic way — there have been no major collisions at the plate this season — but it has had additional consequences that make managers and players uncomfortable.
The rule has two parts: prohibiting a runner from going out of his way to knock over a catcher, a guideline that has been generally accepted; and prohibiting a catcher from blocking the plate before he receives the ball, a stipulation that has created huge controversy, some notable replay reversals and plenty of uncertainty.
“It’s just tough to know what they’re going to call from play to play,” said Twins catcher Kurt Suzuki. “Sometimes you see a play that’s called one way, and the next time it goes the other way. It’s weird that we don’t really know.”
That’s the part that bothers managers and players around the game. A survey of managers of playoff-contending teams by USA Today this week found at least four who want the rule scrapped before the postseason, just to avoid a game-changing decision. “It would be a travesty if it decides the seventh game of the World Series,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus told the newspaper. Added Tampa Bay’s Joe Maddon: “It’s so unclear, you can’t ask it to be umpired consistently. It’s impossible. So I would go back to the old rule, ASAP.”
Some umpires even told USA Today that they intend not to enforce the rule during the playoffs, and let replay officials in New York sort it out, case by case.
Gardenhire’s suggestion is one that the NFL adopted several years ago: Just make a review on a scoring play automatic. “You need to go look at it every time. The catcher is supposed to be in fair territory — sometimes the play happens so quick, he never clears home plate,” Gardenhire said. “You almost should check it every time.”
In fact, that’s become his policy in the Minnesota dugout. Several outs that weren’t even close have been overturned by replay review umpires because catchers weren’t giving a “sliding lane” before they had the ball, and Gardenhire believes he missed chances to have similar plays nullified because he wasn’t focused on the catcher’s feet.
“I tell Steiny [bench coach Terry Steinbach, the dugout liaison with video coordinator Sean Harlin] every time now — get on the phone and see where [the catcher] is at,” Gardenhire said. “Now, you just don’t know.”
And not knowing is a big problem.
The Twins’ four-year run of losing seasons has coincided with the four worst seasons of hitting with runners in scoring position during manager Ron Gardenhire’s tenure. The trend bottomed out last year, but 2014 is the second-worst such season; still, the Twins have raised their average by 11 points in August. Here are the Twins’ batting averages with runners in scoring position and their team leaders (minimum of 100 plate appearances) in that category since 2002:
Year Team BA Twins leader Leader’s BA
2014 .242 Kurt Suzuki .326
2013 .225 Brian Dozier .307
2012 .252 Joe Mauer .372
2011 .248 Jason Kubel .324
2010 .285 Delmon Young .355
2009 .278 Joe Mauer .367
2008 .305 Joe Mauer .362
2007 .275 Torii Hunter .341
2006 .296 Joe Mauer .360
2005 .271 Joe Mauer .331
2004 .277 Shannon Stewart .359
2003 .268 A.J. Pierzynski .324
2002 .269 Jacque Jones .352
The problem is exacerbated with two outs; the Twins are hitting just .215 with runners in scoring position and two outs, after batting .216 last year.
As August turns to September, the pressure on AL Central teams grows. Here’s how each team dealt with the atmosphere last week:
Indians: As they try to catch the front-runners, Cleveland third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall has challenged each of his teammates to grow a “Rally Mustache” during September.
“If somebody wears one that probably shouldn’t have a mustache, it really helps,” Chisenhall said. Jason Kipnis, for instance, “has the whole, like, ‘I drive a Harley’ look going on.”
Royals: Manager Ned Yost didn’t mean to pick a fight. He just wanted more fans to enjoy a rare winner in Kansas City.
But his comments after only 13,847 attended KC’s walk-off win over the Twins on Tuesday, that “I was kind of hoping we’d have another great crowd tonight, and we really didn’t,” whipped up a controversy. “I wasn’t criticizing the fans,” Yost said the next day. “I want them to enjoy this as much as we’re enjoying it.”
Tigers: His first season in Detroit hasn’t gone as planned for former Twins closer Joe Nathan, who has blown six saves and owns a 5.25 ERA. So he decided to handle the growing criticism with humor. Nathan taped a video last week of him reading Twitter posts from some of his harshest critics, showing he’s keeping his sense of humor.
“You’ve heard of ‘Shoeless Joe’?” read one tweet from a Tigers fan. “Nathan is ‘Useless Joe.’ ”
White Sox: While not involved in a pennant race, Chicago’s players took a break from their season on Wednesday to mingle with the players of Jackie Robinson West, the group of south side ballplayers who won the U.S. Little League championship.
The team’s victory parade stopped at U.S. Cellular Field, where the big-leaguers paid tribute to the youngsters. “Maybe this pushes kids into our game, instead of something else,” first baseman Paul Konerko said.