In the wake of a pair of serious injuries suffered via questionable take-out slides at second base, Major League Baseball and the players' union have announced a couple of changes to the rule book for 2016, defining what constitutes a legal slide and making the so-called "neighborhood play" reviewable via instant replay. The two sides have also built upon last year's pace of play initiative by adding a new rule limiting the length of mound visits and trimming the mandated amount of time between innings. While there’s very little to quibble with regarding the time-savers, the new dynamic regarding double plays could itself cause injuries.
The takeout slide issue came to the fore via two late-season collisions at second base that proved to be season-ending for the defenders involved. On Sept. 17, the Pirates' Jung-ho Kang suffered multiple injuries—a fractured tibial plateau, a torn medial collateral ligament and a torn meniscus—when the Cubs' Chris Coghlan tried to break up a double play; Coghlan slid to the centerfield side of second base and wound up hooking his right leg around Kang's left. The injuries were so severe that Kang required surgery and will not be ready in time for Opening Day. On Oct. 11, in Game 2 of the Division Series, the Dodgers' Chase Utley barreled into the Mets' Ruben Tejada a few feet to the right of second base—Utley's left knee didn't even hit the ground until it was more or less even with the bag—and while Tejada was facing toward third base as he received the throw. Tejada suffered a fractured right fibula on a play that sparked a game-turning rally, though the Mets wound up winning the series.
Both plays drew heated debate with regards to whether the base runners' actions constituted dirty play or were simply examples of hard-nosed baseball. Under the new rule, Utley's slide would certainly be ruled a violation; both he and the batter (Howie Kendrick) would be ruled out. Coghlan's slide likely would have been ruled a violation as well, with the same result.
Here’s how MLB introduced the new rule in its announcement:
Under new Rule 6.01(j), which has been added to the existing Rule 6.01 on “Interference, Obstruction, and Catcher Collisions,” slides on potential double plays will require runners to make a bona fide attempt to reach and remain on the base. Runners may still initiate contact with the fielder as a consequence of an otherwise permissible slide. A runner will be specifically prohibited from changing his pathway to the base or utilizing a “roll block” for the purpose of initiating contact with the fielder. Potential violations of Rule 6.01(j) will be reviewable using instant replay. Also reviewable will be “neighborhood play” calls, which previously were exempted from replay review.
Here is the text of the new rule:
RULE 6.01(j) -- SLIDING TO BASES ON DOUBLE PLAY ATTEMPTS
If a runner does not engage in a bona fide slide, and initiates (or attempts to make) contact with the fielder for the purpose of breaking up a double play, he should be called for interference under this Rule 6.01. A "bona fide slide'' for purposes of Rule 6.01 occurs when the runner:
(1) begins his slide (i.e., makes contact with the ground) before reaching the base;
(2) is able and attempts to reach the base with his hand or foot;
(3) is able and attempts to remain on the base (except home plate) after completion of the slide; and
(4) slides within reach of the base without changing his pathway for the purpose of initiating contact with a fielder.
The hope is that the rule minimizes the number of collisions at second base—ones that are particularly dangerous because, as in the case of Tejada, middle infielders are vulnerable to being blindsided. In that regard, the purpose of the new rule is in line with that of Rule 7.13, which as of the start of the 2014 season banned collisions at home plate, drawing impetus from Buster Posey’s broken leg in '11 and more recent concerns with regards to concussions. Said Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Tony Clark: "Our goal in amending the slide rule was to enhance player safety, reduce incidents of injury and to do it in a way that respects and preserves the bona fide hustle plays that are integral to our game. I am optimistic that this new rule will accomplish those goals."
Both rules 7.13 and 6.01 are laudable in their attempts to enhance player safety, but as the implementation of the home plate rule has shown, the changes wrought by 6.01 won't necessarily come smoothly or prevent confusion, not only among players but also among umpires and managers. The home plate rule required the league to issue multiple clarifications, and it still has its critics and its gray areas, particularly when coupled with the instant replay reviews. It has, however, achieved its primary goal: significantly reducing the incidence of serious injuries to catchers on such plays.
Rule 6.01 may not be as successful in that area because it opens the can of worms regarding the neighborhood play. Umpires customarily rule a forced runner out at second base if the defender touches the bag and then removes it in a split second before getting the ball so as to avoid contact—a practice that's tolerated because not doing so puts middle infielders at risk. Previously, neighborhood plays were exempt from replay review, but as part of this change, that's no longer the case; middle infielders will need to touch the base while in possession of the ball or risk not getting the out either via the umpire's call or upon review.
Mets manager Terry Collins, who in his playing days in the minors was an undersized middle infielder (Baseball-reference.com lists him at 5'9", 158 pounds), got right to the heart of the new effort's contradiction. Via ESPN's Adam Rubin:
"We're making a slide rule that keeps you on the bag," Collins said. "You've got to be near the bag. And now we're making a decision on the neighborhood play that you've got to stay on the bag. You know what that's going to mean? Someone is going to get their clocks cleaned."
MLB and the union are aware of the conflict, with a representative of the league pointing out the inconsistency of the neighborhood play's application by umpires and Clark emphasizing that the new rules draw better boundaries for both runner and fielder. Via The New York Times' Benjamin Hoffman, MLB senior vice president for league economics and strategy Chris Marinak called the play "one of the most controversial plays we have … a product of history rather than a product of the rule book." Via the New York Daily News' John Harper, Marinek added, “It was called differently from umpire to umpire, which leads to inconsistency. Infielders have felt they had to touch the base anyway."
Said Clark: "It allows middle infielders to appreciate where they can go and where they can be safe as well as allowing players to appreciate how far they can and where they need to go to try and break up the play. They provided the framework for this.”
As with the replay rules—particularly with regards to transferring the ball after catches—and the aforementioned collision rule, we can expect that MLB will have to provide some additional guidance if confusion or controversy ensues, and that players and pundits will do their share of grumbling about the new rule. Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus probably spoke for many players when he said, "I love it as a fielder but I hate it as a runner."
As for the two pace of play changes, they produce almost no downside. Visits to the mound by managers and coaches will be limited to 30 seconds, starting when the aforementioned step out of the dugout. An MLB.com clip timing four mound visits from the World Series illustrates that such an increment should be ample time, though Reds manager Bryan Price worries that it might not be enough, saying, "This issue is the timing starts as soon as they see a coach or a manager leave the dugout. So it's not getting to the mound and having 30 seconds.... But quite often you're trying to impart something that will change to direction of tide. That might take more than 20 or 22 seconds [plus time to get to and from the dugout]."
Mound visits and pitching changes produce some of the most frequent griping about the game from fans. This rule should cut into the amount of time they cost, but it carries no penalty beyond a nudge from the umpire and does not address either visits to the mound from players who are already on the field (which don't count as official visits anyway) or the second trip to the same pitcher in the same inning. If you were annoyed by the number of times that catchers visit the mound to change signals with runners on second base, this isn’t going to solve that particular problem.
The other change is one that should be met with near-unanimous approval: 20 seconds shaved off of the between-innings times that were introduced via last year's pace of play initiatives. Those collectively helped reduce the average game length by six minutes, taking them down to two hours and 56 minutes. The between-innings breaks are now set at two minutes and five seconds for local broadcasts and two minutes and 20 seconds for nationally televised games; that change alone could trim nearly another six minutes per game.
In all, there’s far more to like than dislike with the changes announced on Thursday, and the league and the players’ union should be lauded for their attempts to protect players and to speed the game up. Still, it’s a certainty that we haven’t heard the last about these changes.