MLB’s “Chase Utley” Slide Rule & Demise of the “Neighborhood” Play

I used a lot of quotation marks in the title of this post, and that’s telling. Much in baseball (in all sports, I’m sure, but especially in baseball) lives on the periphery of the rules. This is especially true at the professional level. Amateur associations (NCAA, high school, most select and travel leagues, and most definitely Little League) long ago inserted safety rules to protect defenders from malicious acts on the part of base runners. Only recently is Major League Baseball following suit. And not everyone agrees this is a good idea.

Let’s start with Buster Posey

Buster Posey following take-out by Cousins

MLB began in earnest to own up to malicious actions during the 2011 season, when Giants’ catcher Buster Posey had his clock cleaned (and the ligaments in his ankle torn to shreds) by Scott Cousins, who scored from third after tagging up on a shallow fly ball to right field. He took Posey out at a dead run with a lowered shoulder. It was the game-winning score in the 12th inning. Posey was on the ground, writhing in pain, and was finally helped off the field. And he was out for the season. Have a look at that incident, HERE.

At all other levels of baseball, Cousins’ deliberate action (lowering the shoulder and plowing into the catcher) would be deemed “malicious contact” (also known by other names in various rule books). The runner would be automatically ejected from the game. If the action took place before the runner touched home, he’d be called out and the run would not count. If the contact occurred after touching home, the run would count, but he’d still be ejected from the game. As I say, at every level of the game, except for the pros.

The Posey incident was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Catchers are extremely vulnerable on plays at the plate, so a lot of catchers have endured season-ending (if not career ending) injuries inflicted by 210-pound base runners head-hunting at a dead run, shoulder first. Bigger, stronger, faster players in the modern era can do a lot of damage to a catcher on his knees at the plate.

The outcome of the Posey incident came in the 2014 with the implementation of the infamous “Posey Rule” – otherwise known as Rule 6.01(i). The rule was controversial, as you’ll recall, and was not applied consistently. The rule wasn’t very well written. On top of that, hard-liners argued that 6.01(i) has turned baseball into a game for wimps. Most who argued that are Trump supporters, I suspect, because he said as much about modern football: that he laments the “good old days” when defensive ends could take the quarterback’s head off once he broke out of the pocket. It appears to some that taking actions to forestall grave injuries is somehow unmanly. I thought we’d gotten past that, but evidently not.

What about middle infielders?

If catchers are the most vulnerable, then the next most vulnerable defensive player is the middle-infielder (the shortstop and second baseman) while in the act of turning a double-play and with the runner from first bearing down at full speed, intent on breaking up the double play. This is the position Ruben Tejada was in when Chase Utley took him out. It was a brutal take-out slide in which Utley slides so far wide of the bag, and with such obvious disregard for reaching the base, that it’s a virtual felony assault. We’ve got photos.

At every level of baseball (except the pros), what Utley did to Tejada is an egregious infraction that gets a runner thrown out of the game. It’s a special case of interference in which two outs are called – one out on the runner at second for interference (if not already out on the play), and another out on the batter-runner because his teammate interfered with the opportunity to complete the double play.

NCAA force-play slide rule. © NCAA

This type of interference is supported by what is generally known as the “force-play slide rule.” Every level of baseball (except the pros) has a version of force-play slide rule. In the NCAA rule book it’s Rule 8-4. In the FED (high school) rule book it’s Rule 1-32-1, 2. In Little League (all levels) it’s Rule 7.09(e, f). And every amateur league that I know of (and all, I suspect) that use the Official Baseball Rules (OBR) have a force-play slide rule in the supplementary league rules.

The NCAA has the most comprehensive rule, and they even give you a diagram to illustrate. But almost all force-play slide rules follow the same or a similar pattern. In short, a runner can slide directly into a base, or slide within arms-length to either side of the base, but not on the side of the base that a defender is on. Nor can the runner, after sliding, do a pop-up move to affect the throw, or hook a defender’s leg, or in any other way impede the defender’s opportunity to retire the batter-runner at first. In fact, in the high school rule book, simply sliding beyond the bag at second can get you called out.

So now, starting with the 2016 baseball season, professional baseball has its own force-play slide rule – Rule 6.01(j). And from this week forward, it will forever be known as the “Chase Utley Rule,” forever joined at the hip to the play in last year’s Dodger’s-Mets NLDS game in which Utley’s rolling block on Ruben Tejada broke the latter’s leg, ending his season and impairing the Mets’ chances of making it to the World Series.

Utley is well outside a line to the base and, worse, beyond the bag when he slides

Again, some consider this to be just part of the game. But have a look. Utley’s take-out of Tejada was a brutal move. I felt at the time (and still do) that the second-base umpire in that game erred in not calling interference, for even without a force-play slide rule the Official Rules on interference cover such blatant behavior.

Tejada upended and out of control, falling to the ground with a broken let

It takes only these two photos of the incident to make the point. In the first, Utley is well outside the direct line to the bag, and clearly intent upon taking Tejada out. But worse, look where he begins his slide: he’s beyond the bag and he’s not even trying to touch the base. In the second photo you see the result. Tejada is upended, completely out of control, at the mercy of gravity and luck. And it certainly wasn’t his lucky day.

Okay, so what’s the price? What’s the trade-off?

It’s a big one. It’s a trade-off that upsets a generations-old tradition in baseball: the neighborhood play, in which the middle-infielder is given the benefit of the doubt on whether he actually touched the bag, or if he touched it, did he have the ball at that instant, while hustling to turn the double play. The neighborhood play is another of those cases where umpires willfully turn a blind eye to the letter of the law in deference to a tradition of the law (if you will), so that infielders can defend himself from the type of vicious take-out that Utley delivered.

MLB took something away from the offense with the new force-play slide rule. In an attempt to re-balance the playing field, they have decided to eradicate the neighborhood play by making it reviewable. It hasn’t been, prior to this. Jayson Stark, in his piece on ESPN.com, puts it well: “There goes the neighborhood.”

It’s going to be interesting seeing how the elimination of the neighborhood play works out. After all, it’s a hallowed part of the culture of the game. Sometimes, killing off one thing in an ecosystem has unexpected side effects, and this is likely no exception. It will just need to play out. The force-play slide rule and the demise of the neighborhood play are now bonded atoms in a complex molecule. Not much of a metaphor, I’ll admit.

In the meantime, there is no shortage of commentary on this new move by MLB. Reactions run everywhere from your basic “sky is falling” hysteria, to reasoned (but cautious) support. Do a little Googling if you’re curious. But ultimately, the answer will play out on the field.

 

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