"Not only will we practice that from the Major League level, but that's what we will begin teaching from the bottom to top," general manager John Mozeliak explained. "From an organizational philosophy, that's what we'll do."
Manager Mike Matheny, who estimates that he endured about 25-30 collisions as a catcher and had his career cut short due to concussions, has been among the most outspoken in advocating for completely abolishing home-plate collisions. This rule change does not go that far, but it is evidence that awareness about the risk of head trauma has created a healthy discussion.
"I'm not on a mission here to try to do anything except do what's right," Matheny said on Monday afternoon. "First of all, make people aware that the concussion thing is real and not just in football and hockey. It's real in baseball, and I did a real poor job of communicating that early on. And the other thing is, let's take a risk-reward analysis of this thing. What is the risk of the good of the game, let alone the individual, and the long-term repercussions? And what's the reward?"
Under this new rule, a runner "may not deviate from his direct pathway to the plate in order to initiate contact with the catcher." If a runner does so, in the judgment of the umpire, he will be ruled out.
Additionally, a catcher cannot block the plate unless he has possession of the ball. Again, the umpire can use his discretion to call the runner safe if the catcher does not leave a running lane.
A catcher with possession of the ball, however, will still be permitted to block the plate, if he chooses. And if he does, the runner will not be required to slide. That leaves open the opportunity for collisions, and also puts the onus on the home-plate umpire to determine whether either player failed to react properly.
"I don't know just how exactly it's going to be enforced, the idea that if you're not blocking the plate you can't take a run at them," Matheny said. "If that's going to be upheld, I think we're going to be in pretty good shape. I would just hope that if a guy does go out of his way to get somebody, that he's made an example of. I hope the league comes down hard on him."
The Cardinals intend to eliminate any gray area on their end by instructing their baserunners to slide feet first and their catchers to tag, not block. Of particular interest is protecting Gold Glove catcher Yadier Molina, who can now avoid having players barrel into him if he adjusts his positioning.
Matheny has already, several times during Spring Training, had his catchers practice receiving throws while standing on the corner of home plate nearest the first-base line. From there, the catcher can make a swipe tag to protect the whole plate.
"I've had all kinds of different organizations calling me, asking me to explain what it is that we're doing," Matheny said. "Not that we have this foolproof method, but we're making it very, very clear to everybody in the league -- we're giving the plate. And we're making it clear for a purpose, because if they start taking runs at us, this new rule should protect our guys to some degree and then the repercussions are going to hopefully be held in the league's hands at some point.
"I don't know how it's all going to play how except for the fact that we think it's the right thing. And the right thing is to try to keep our guys on the field."
MLB plans to give teams material during Spring Training that better outlines the new rules and will hold additional meetings with managers. There are also plans of forming a committee of players and managers to revisit the rule during and after the season.
Given his involvement in making this a topic of discussion over the past year, Matheny will likely be among those asked to assess the pros and cons of how the rule is written and then applied.
"I think it will be interesting to see how things go this year," Matheny said. "I'll be instructing our guys to slide. You can't demand it. The league doesn't. … There are still going to be some train wrecks at home plate. I'm just encouraging my guys to do what they can to avoid it if it's avoidable."