Explaining MLB’s new push to enforce obstruction rule and curb base-blocking

Here is what Major League Baseball told managers this week: No more of this!

So what was that? Let’s explain.

On Aug. 12, 2022, Chicago White Sox star Luis Robert Jr. went roaring into second base, headfirst, on a stolen-base attempt against the Tigers. It was a big moment in the sixth inning of a tied game. Instead, it turned into a disaster for Robert and the White Sox.

As Robert neared the bag, you can see in the clip above what happened next. Detroit Tigers second baseman Jonathan Schoop dropped to one knee, then blocked Robert’s path into second by placing his entire lower left leg in front of the bag. Robert’s season would never be the same.

He should have been safe at second. Instead, with no way to reach the bag, Robert’s left hand slammed into Schoop’s ankle. Then, as the force of his slide took him past the bag, he would jam — and ultimately sprain — his left wrist. How’d that work out? He hit .165, with no home runs or RBIs, over the last month and a half of the season.

That was 2022. But by last season, as teams began to lean into more aggressive base running inspired by the new rule changes, base-blocking tactics like Schoop’s began to mushroom. So over the past several weeks, MLB has taken steps to put a stop to infielders’ not-so-subtle human-barricade tricks.

Three weeks ago, the league made a video presentation on plays like Schoop’s to all of its umpires at their annual umpires’ retreat in late January. Then, on Wednesday, it briefed all 30 managers on the same topic, industry sources told The Athletic. That briefing was first reported by ESPN.

The upshot of MLB’s message: Umpires will be empowered and encouraged to call obstruction against infielders whom they believe are illegally impeding a base runner’s direct path to a base. The only exception is at home plate, where “the Buster Posey Rule” already dictates what runners and catchers can legally do.

So what is this all about, what inspired it and what might it mean? Let’s take a look.

IS THIS A RULE CHANGE? No, it’s not, actually. MLB’s Joint Competition Committee talked extensively about implementing a new rule in each of the last two offseasons. It eventually concluded that the existing rule already covers all of this.

That rule – 6.01 (h) – specifically defines “obstruction” this way: “Obstruction is the act of a fielder who, while not in possession of the ball and not in the act of fielding the ball, impedes the progress of any runner.”

So when an infielder blocks a runner’s path to a base with his foot or his whole leg, that’s clearly “obstruction.” And umpires will be instructed to no longer allow it.

WHAT TYPES OF PLAYS ARE WE TALKING ABOUT? This rule applies mostly to plays at second and third base. But it has also become an issue at first base, where some first basemen had perfected the art of illegally blocking the bag on pickoff throws.

WHAT’S THE PENALTY IF A FIELDER GETS CALLED FOR OBSTRUCTION? Obviously, the runner is safe — but at what base? The rule specifically covers that. It says the runner should be awarded “at least one base” after the last base he had “legally touched” before the obstruction. Got that? Of course you don’t. So let’s lay out a few examples.

A runner stealing second or third — If this goes like the Robert play, the runner would simply be safe at second. There’s an exception, but we’ll get into that in a minute.

A runner advancing to second or third — Same as above. The runner is awarded that base he was attempting to advance to.

A runner diving back to first on a pickoff — If the first baseman is called for, say, obstructing the bag with his leg, the runner is awarded second.

A runner rounding third who then tries to get back — If he has already tagged and rounded the base, he would be allowed to score.

If the throw gets away from the fielder on any of those plays — A wild throw or flubbed catch is the exception here. At that point, the umpire would rule on whether the runner was likely to advance to another base — and can award him that base.

WHY DID MLB DECIDE TO CRACK DOWN NOW? There are two big reasons the people at the league decided to make this a priority:

1) They love base running! While we were all fixated on the pitch clock last season, MLB was actually just as stoked about another set of rules. Those rules — especially larger bases and pickoff limits — were put in place to encourage teams to fire up their running games.

More base stealing. More aggressive base running. They were both big points of emphasis. And the league clearly was concerned that illegal infielder roadblocks were getting in the way — literally and figuratively.

2) Players complained! You know who wasn’t a fan of those infielder blockades? The base runners themselves. At one point, a couple of months into last season, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen, complained vociferously to The Athletic, saying:

“It’s inevitable that someone is going to get hurt. … If MLB is all about preventing injuries, like they do at the plate with the catcher, why isn’t there a rule that says, ‘If you’re receiving the ball on a steal attempt, you can’t block the base?’”

Excellent question. Except for the fact that that rule already existed. And now that it’s being enforced, it will affect some teams — and some infielders — more than others.


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(Photo of the Nationals’ CJ Abrams sliding into second base, beating the tag by Luis Urías of the Red Sox: Scott Taetsch / Getty Images))

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