Examining an MLB memo that explained the new Chase Utley Rule
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ST. LOUIS—Arguing against the new slide rule is like arguing against a posted speed limit. You might not like it, but there is nothing ambiguous about it. Rule 6.01(j) has been miscast as a fraternal twin of the home-plate collision rule, inviting arguments over “gray areas.” There is nothing gray about it.
This is the new normal: The days of initiating contact with a fielder for the sole purpose of breaking up a double play are over. It should be clear to everyone, including people like Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who is strongly opposed to the rule.
“In general I am against anything that smacks of over-legislation,” Maddon said. “And this strikes me as over-legislation. I’m all for penalizing reckless slides. I’m all for making sure the runner slides before making contact with the fielder. But we don’t have to take away an important part of the game. One year in Tampa Bay  we made the playoffs just because one game Johnny Damon beat the back end of a double play.”
Managers and players have been complaining about the rule this month for one reason: They didn’t bother to understand the rule well enough when it was sent to clubs in February. Illegal slides by Nick Markakis of the Braves, Jose Bautista of the Blue Jays and Colby Rasmus of the Astros drew howls of protest. But that’s like getting pulled over by a traffic cop and complaining, “That 55 mph speed limit makes no sense. I always drive 70.”
When the Blue Jays, for instance, called the MLB offices to complain about Bautista’s slide that ended a 3–2 loss to Tampa Bay on April 5, they were told it not only violated the rule two different ways, but that it also would have been illegal last year because of the way he intentionally threw his arm up to disrupt the fielder.
On Feb. 25, 2016, MLB sent a memorandum to all clubs detailing the new rule. Three days later, MLB’s Umpiring Department sent another memorandum to all umpires and officials with every club in which it provided links to 18 videos of slides that were either legal or illegal under the new rule. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED obtained a copy of that latter memorandum through a club source. The memo spells out in clear terms why each slide is either legal or illegal.
For example, the memorandum explained one particular hard slide was legal (termed “a bona fide slide”) because the runner:
• Began his slide prior to reaching the base.
• Was able and attempted to reach base with his hand.
• Appeared to be able to remain on the base.
• Was within reach of base without changing his pathway.
The memorandum also detailed examples of illegal slides. Some of those violations occurred because the runner:
• Was not able to remain on the base.
• Did not attempt to reach the base with his hand or foot.
• Initiated illegal contact with the fielder by throwing his arm/upper body and contacting the fielder above the knee.
• Did not begin his slide before the base.
• Failed to attempt to remain on base after completion of the slide.
• Was not within reach of the base without changing his pathway.
• Changed his pathway in an attempt to contact the fielder rather than reach base safely.
When you look at these videos and read the explanations, the rule cannot be any clearer. The major leagues effectively have become college baseball when it comes to breaking up double plays: The main purpose of a slide is to reach the base, not to contact the infielder.
And yet, some confusion still exists. Rasmus was called out at second base in the ninth inning in Milwaukee on April 8, ending a 6–4 Houston loss to the Brewers even though no pivot throw was attempted by Milwaukee shortstop Jonathan Villar. A veteran AL manager, referencing that play, wrote me this week to complain, “We heard from [an] ump two days ago that they talked and the fielder has to be in [the] act of attempting to throw” for a slide to be ruled illegal. “But we hadn’t heard, so who knows? Flip a coin.”
Uh, no. A slide can be ruled illegal—and a double play called—even without an attempted throw.
Clubs and players simply didn’t pay enough attention to the rule in spring training. If they did, they wouldn’t be confused about what is a legal slide or not.
Sports evolve. There was a time when you could whack a quarterback in the helmet with impunity, plow into a defenseless wide receiver or stay in the game when you had your bell rung in football; play goalie without a mask in hockey; take a charge underneath the basket in basketball; or bat without a helmet, run out of your way to truck a catcher or throw a body block on an infielder in baseball.
“That’s the way it’s always been done” is a poor excuse for logic, or else we’d still be putting runners out by throwing the ball at them. If you invented baseball today, you would require a middle infielder to actually be on the base for a putout (goodbye, neighborhood play), and you wouldn’t want your multi-million dollar infielders to be treated like duckpins.
If you want to say the rule goes too far in protecting infielders, go ahead and argue for tradition over safety. And if you believe the rule will create more stoppages for replay, you would be correct. Welcome to baseball’s version of the “what is a catch?” puzzle in the NFL.
For instance, MLB sent a memorandum on April 2 to all managers, general managers, assistant general managers and umpires in response to questions about when a defensive team can challenge a slide on the same play in which the offensive team challenges an out. It appears to be written in Stengel-ese.
“However,” it reads in part, “if the offensive team challenges the out call at first, by way of example, and the runner is ruled safe after replay review, the defensive team then would be permitted to challenge the non-call of the slide rule because result of the replay review provided the defensive team an incentive to challenge the slide rule that did not previously exist.”
Replay begets replay.
You couldn’t stop replay because of technology. And once you have replay you get a more literal game. Tags must be made. Bases must be touched. Pop-up slides can’t be pop-off slides. Kissing goodbye to the neighborhood play is another result of tumbling further down the replay rabbit hole. There is no going back. Similarly, rules are tightened to remove as much judgment and ambiguity as possible. Slide to the base as if you’re trying to get there safely, not to send a defenseless infielder to a surgeon’s table. Simple.
Rule 7.13, which effectively removed almost all collisions at home plate, was more ambiguous, but effective. It’s been more than two years without any catcher getting blown up. The game has done just fine. Does any fan walk away from a game disappointed about not seeing a collision at the plate?
Rule 6.01(j) is even more clear cut, and it won’t require as long for players and managers to adjust. In a matter of weeks, not months, players will have retrained themselves on how to slide into second base. Yes, a colorful, if dangerous part of the game will be lost. Pete Rose rolling into Bud Harrelson. Hal McRae hurling his body into Willie Randolph. Matt Holliday knocking Marco Scutaro into leftfield. And Chase Utley breaking the leg of Ruben Tejada.
You can argue, as Maddon does, that baseball went too far in reigning in reckless slides. Sure, it could have allowed more room for contact. But when the next middle infielder who had his knee or leg mangled happened to be a big-time star, we would have moved on to this very point.