Whether or not the rule change is implemented by Opening Day, the Cardinals will be asking their catchers to handle plays at the plate differently than they have in the past. As manager Mike Matheny said on Monday, shortly before spending time tutoring the catchers on new mechanics, "We're moving forward that it is a must-slide, must-tag play."
Matheny has been on the front lines advocating for the elimination of home-plate collisions and has used his career, which ended prematurely due to concussions, to demonstrate the risks catchers face. He spoke to members of the MLB Playing Rules Committee about the issue at the Winter Meetings, after which the committee proposed a ban.
As of the January Owners' Meetings, MLB was still in the process of writing the rule changes. Those would then have to be approved by the MLB Players Association and World Umpires Association before becoming official.
While the specifics remain up for debate, the Cardinals have designated chunks of instruction time to prepare their catchers for the change.
"We have to completely revamp the mechanics from where we set up and how we go about placing a tag," Matheny explained. "But our catchers have been extremely open to it understanding the reasoning and they have adapted real well. We have accomplished a lot already in just two times working on it. [We] already have come a long ways figuring out mechanically what we can do."
The mechanics are all a work in progress, partially because the team does not yet know exactly how the rule is going to be written. The Cardinals have long taught their catchers to leave the back point of the plate open for the baserunner, even while setting up on the corner of the plate that touches the third-base line.
The organization is now instructing its catchers -- regardless of where the throw is coming from -- to plant their feet on the other corner of home plate, along the right-field line. That leaves the plate open and will require that the catcher get in a low position, where he can then make a swipe tag at any point over the plate.
"We're probably going to show all of the plate," Matheny said. "We're going to show the whole plate, give them somewhere to slide and then be in position to where we can make the tag before they can get to that point."
The instruction is not all that different than what the Cardinals give to their third basemen. The difference, of course, is that baserunners cannot do a quick swipe of the back corner of third base as they can at home.
"You have to make adjustments," catcher Yadier Molina said after Monday's exercise. "Obviously, it's not going to be the same. Right now, we can block the plate. It's going to be different for us. That's why Spring Training is going to help. You're able to practice it and then finally you've made the adjustment yourself."
The adjustment isn't necessarily an easy one, as it is a forced change to what has become an instinctual play. Tony Cruz, for example, said he is still figuring out how best to make a tag from the new position in front of the plate. His instinct is to tag with two hands and block the plate. Now, he's likely to grab the ball with two hands but tag with one.
"The first day we did it, I had to really think about it," Cruz said. "Today we did it again, and it flowed a little bit better. We'll have to see when game speed does come about. ... It's something that's evolving. We're trying it and seeing how it works. We're still trying to come up with the best way to make that play."
The Cardinals will continue to tinker with catcher positioning throughout these spring drills. There will also be an element of baserunning instruction so that all players know how to best approach home plate as a runner when anticipating a bang-bang play.
"There are little nuances there, but I'm real happy with how the guys have been, one, open to the idea, that they believe this is an idea that's going to help them," Matheny said. "They're embracing the concept, and they've jumped all over how to try and maximize it. ... We're going to be taking an angle to make sure our guys are safe."