MLB right to suspend Utley, now must ensure play never happens again
The umpires got it wrong on Saturday night. On Sunday, Major League Baseball got it right.
With its precedent-setting suspension of Dodgers second baseman Chase Utley for Games 3 and 4 of the NLDS against the Mets, the commissioner’s office all but admitted that the umps erred by not ruling Utley out for his overly aggressive takeout slide in NLDS Game 2 that ultimately resulted in the tying run scoring and left New York shortstop Ruben Tejada with a broken right fibula.
In the very first words of its statement announcing the suspension, MLB calls Utley’s slide “illegal.” Joe Torre, MLB’s Chief Baseball Officer said, “After thoroughly reviewing the play from all conceivable angles, I have concluded that Mr. Utley’s action warrants discipline. While I sincerely believe that Mr. Utley had no intention of injuring Ruben Tejada, and was attempting to help his club in a critical situation, I believe his slide was in violation of Official Baseball Rule 5.09 (a)(13), which is designed to protect fielders from precisely this type of rolling block that occurs away from the base.”
According to that rule, “A batter is out when ... a preceding runner shall, in the umpire’s judgment, intentionally interfere with a fielder who is attempting to catch a thrown ball or to throw a ball in an attempt to complete any play.”
That rule also includes a comment, which reads: “The objective of this rule is to penalize the offensive team for deliberate, unwarranted, unsportsmanlike action by the runner in leaving the baseline for the obvious purpose of crashing the pivot man on a double play, rather than trying to reach base. Obviously this is an umpire’s judgment play.”
Utley will appeal the decision. The hearing is expected to take place before Monday’s Game 3 and a ruling is likely to be made before first pitch at Citi Field, currently scheduled for no earlier than 8:07 p.m. ET. It’s hard to imagine the suspension being overturned, though it’s also hard to remember a previous player being suspended during the postseason for a play that was deemed legal on the field.
All of that is of little comfort to the Mets, who should have been six outs away from taking a 2-0 lead in the series with ace Matt Harvey set to try and send them to the National League Championship Series in Game 3. Instead, they were left with the series tied and their starting shortstop lost for the rest of the postseason. Just how important was the Utley play? According to baseball-reference.com’s data, it increased the Dodgers’ Win Expectancy from 49% to 64%. That was the single biggest jump in the game aside from the two-run Adrian Gonzalez double two batters later that broke the tie and never would have happened had the umpires ruled correctly on Saturday.
For all the debate the play engendered, this much is certain: This has become the most controversial play of this entire baseball season. One reason for that, perhaps the most perplexing one, is that the rules were already in place for the umpires to call Utley and, in turn, Howie Kendrick—whose line drive over the mound ignited the chain of events—out. For unclear reasons they were not followed, and when the umpires compounded the bizarre nature of the situation by ruling that Tejada never touched the bag—awarding second base to Utley, who had not touched the base either and had by then had left the playing field completely—it got even stranger. It was only fitting that Gonzalez and Justin Turner would follow with game-winning and game-securing hits, ensuring the Utley Slide would become as infamous as any play in recent history.
The last time an on-field injury caused such heated debate it prompted a long-discussed change to the MLB rule book. In 2011, then-Marlins outfielder Scott Cousins barreled into Giants catcher Buster Posey, a budding superstar who the year before had won the NL Rookie of the Year while helping San Francisco win the World Series. Posey suffered a broken leg and torn ligaments in his ankle, and by 2014 the so-called Posey Rule banning home plate collisions had gone into effect. Not only have such plays vanished but so too has any nonsensical talk that they were merely “how the game ought to be played.”
That will undoubtedly be the result this time too, if only MLB will find a way to ensure that such collisions at second base, or any base for that matter, are outlawed. The fact that multiple rules already exist to govern such plays—another would seem to be Rule 7.09(e)—is irrelevant if they were ignored, but MLB now has an opportunity to at least make sure that they never happen again. Whether that takes place thanks to a new rule or by tweaking or enforcing those that are already on the books is not as important as ensuring the Utley play becomes as antiquated a part of baseball's past as the reserve clause.
As it turns out, MLB was already exploring ways to do just that. Late Saturday night Torre revealed that MLB was planning on having the Arizona Fall League test a rule, currently in place in the college game, requiring players to slide in a straight line toward second base. If the Utley play hastens the rule change at the sport's highest level it will have had at least one beneficial outcome to someone who wasn’t wearing a Dodgers uniform on Saturday.
Whether or not Utley wears that uniform again—he will be a free-agent after this season and if the Mets win the next two games the series, and perhaps the 36-year-old's career, will be over—his impact on the postseason has been unmistakable and unforgettable. Utley is now a player of little value, one whose .212 batting average, .286 on-base percentage and .343 slugging percentage for the Phillies and Dodgers this season would have been in the bottom 10 in the majors in each category if he had enough plate appearances to qualify. For the season he was worth 0.4 WAR. His career resume is, of course, far more impressive. He is a borderline Hall of Famer for the body of work he compiled in parts of 13 mostly excellent seasons with Philadelphia, and it is unfortunate that his career now has this stain attached to it. But if there is any upside to what took place at Dodger Stadium it will come when his needlessly dangerous play officially results in his game being safer.