New 'Chase Utley rule' on slides passes first test on Opening Day
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MLB’s new rule protecting infielders from aggressive slides was invoked for the first time on Monday, providing us with a textbook example of what is now an illegal slide as well as a primer on how the new rule works. The play in question came in the bottom of the seventh inning of the Nationals’ 4–3 win over the Braves. After Nick Markakis led off the inning with a walk, Max Scherzer got Hector Olivera to chop a ground ball to third base. Anthony Rendon fielded the ball and threw to Daniel Murphy to start a double play, but Murphy’s pivot throw was not in time to get Olivera at first. Markakis, however, was ruled to have made an illegal slide, with second base umpire Paul Nauert invoking the new rule and declaring Olivera out as well.
Markakis’s slide was clearly in violation according to both the letter and the spirit of the rule. Though Markakis did hit the ground before reaching the base (albeit barely) and was well within reach of the base, he slid directly at Murphy with the obvious intention of breaking up the double play, and he did so with such force that his momentum carried him well beyond the bag. Here’s a look at where Markakis was relative to the bag when his slide finally came to a stop.
That’s an obvious violation of the third part of the definition of a “bona fide slide” in the new rule, Rule 6.01(j). That part of the definition states that the runner should be “able and attempt to remain on the base (except home plate) after the completion of the slide.” Markakis wasn’t sliding into second base; he was sliding into Murphy, and the umpires were correct to invoke the new rule to call Olivera out as a penalty for that slide.
It’s important to note here that the out at first base was indeed a penalty for an illegal slide. Markakis didn’t make contact with Murphy until after he had released his throw, and Olivera reached first base while the throw was still only halfway there. The ball simply wasn’t hit hard enough for the Nationals to turn the double play, and had Markakis made a legal slide, Olivera would have been safe on a fielder’s choice. But per the new rule, “If the umpire determines that the runner violated this Rule 6.01(j), the umpire shall declare both the runner and batter-runner out.” There are no qualifications there, and there is no judgment call to be made about whether or not the batter would have been out had the runner not interfered with the fielder. If the slide is illegal, both men are out.
That aspect of Rule 6.01(j) is not new. Rule 7.09(g), which remained unaltered through last year, states:
If, in the judgment of the umpire, a base runner willfully and deliberately interferes with a batted ball or a fielder in the act of fielding a batted ball with the obvious intent to break up a double play, the ball is dead. The umpire shall call the runner out for interference and also call out the batter-runner because of the action of his teammate.
Breaking up a double play has always been illegal. In effect, what Rule 6.01(j) does is to remove the “in the judgment of the umpire” part of that rule, replacing it with specific language defining a legal slide. According to the rule, a “bona fide slide” 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.
Codifying a legal slide was necessary because umpires were not reliably invoking the interference rule on runners attempting to break up double plays.
The turning point on this rule came in Game 2 of last year’s Division Series between the Mets and Dodgers. In the seventh inning of that game, Chase Utley slid late and past the second base bag into Ruben Tejada in a clear attempt to break up a double play, breaking Tejada’s leg in the process. The injury aside, neither Utley nor the batter, Howie Kendrick, were called out despite the fact that, per the existing rule, both runners should have been ruled out; Enrique Hernandez, who scored on the play, should have been returned to his previous base. Had the umpires in that game followed the rules that were already in effect, Utley’s slide would have resulted in an inning-ending double play. Instead, Hernandez scored the game-tying run, and the inning continued with one out and two men on. The play was a tremendous embarrassment for the league.
Coincidentally, it was Murphy, the fielder up-ended by Markakis on Monday, who fed Tejada the ball on that play. Utley, meanwhile, was up to his old tricks on Opening Day in the Dodgers’ 15–0 win over the Padres in San Diego. On a play at the plate in the top of the third inning of that game, Utley slid directly into Padres catcher Daniel Norris rather than sliding to the plate, which was left wide open by Norris’s positioning on the play. Utley, who was on first base when Justin Turner doubled into leftfield, crossed into fair territory halfway between third and home and made a beeline directly for Norris, who was standing to the fair side of home plate, leaving the plate full exposed for a legal slide by Utley.
There was no need for the umpires to invoke the home plate collision rule on that play, as Norris easily tagged Utley out. Nonetheless, Utley’s slide would have been in violation and necessitated an out call at home had he otherwise been safe via the action of the play.
Taken together, Utley's and Markakis’s slides suggest that, while the new rules are having their desired effect in getting umpires to honor MLB’s long-standing interference and obstruction rules, the league still has work to do to retrain its players to avoid those illegal slides in the first place.