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Fixing Utley's Slide

There should not be room in baseball for a "slide" like this:


That's not a slide. Utley performed a hybrid between a flop and a roundhouse kick after he passed second base. The "slide" served no strategic advantage for Utley. It did not help him avoid a tag or get to the bag faster. The move had one purpose, and one purpose only. Break up the double play. Utley was successful, to say the least, and broke Ruben Tejada's leg in the process.

Incredibly, Chase Utley was awarded second base in this play - even after he trotted off the field assuming he was out. Sanity was restored to some degree by Joe Torre when he suspended Utley for games three and four, though of course the suspension is being appealed. Torre's decision might not have any ground to stand on, but I admire the effort. Something had to happen here.

With all that said, a juicy question remains: did the umpires screw up, or did they follow the rules? If they followed the rules, then how can the rules be fixed?

Unsurprisingly, Major League Baseball - the same group that created things like designations for assignment, super-two status, qualifying offers, and the balk rule - has a lengthy set of rules governing how runners are allowed to run. I have pulled the rules potentially relevant to Chase Utley as he barreled down on Ruben Tejada straight from section 7 of the the MLB rulebook. You can scour the section for other applicable rules if you want. Here we go:

Part 1 - Why was Chase Utley safe? Or, stated negatively, why was Chase Utley not out?

Here is what the rulebook has to say about when runners are out:

7.08 Any runner is out when --
(a) (1) He runs more than three feet away from his baseline to avoid being tagged unless his action is to avoid interference with a fielder fielding a batted ball. A runner’s baseline is established when the tag attempt occurs and is a straight line from the runner to the base he is attempting to reach safely;
Utley clearly broke towards Tejada to take him out. However, Utley's arm could have touched second base at any point. If his arm could touch, then he we was within three feet of the base. He was within the baseline according to this rule, so the slide itself was legal, or at least did not violate rule 7.08(a)(1).

There are more rules that could apply though. On to the next one, which still comes from 7.08, the situations that define when a runner is out:
(b) He intentionally interferes with a thrown ball; or hinders a fielder attempting to make a play on a batted ball;
Rule 7.08(b) Comment: A runner who is adjudged to have hindered a fielder who is attempting to make a play on a batted ball is out whether it was intentional or not. If, however, the runner has contact with a legally occupied base when he hinders the fielder, he shall not be called out unless, in the umpire’s judgment, such hindrance, whether it occurs on fair or foul territory, is intentional. If the umpire declares the hindrance intentional, the following penalty shall apply: With less than two out, the umpire shall declare both the runner and batter out.
This rule is more problematic, and it is hard to tell exactly how the umpires interpreted Utley's slam into Tejada. A very literal reading of 7.08(b) would suggest that it does not apply, because it only talks about batted and thrown balls. Tejada, very technically, was hit by Utley with the ball in his hand. Tejada clearly intended to throw, but the throw had not happened yet. Additionally, Tejada had been thrown the ball by another fielder, so the ball was no longer a batted ball either.

Theoretically, if the umpires judged that 7.08(b) was not relevant for Utley's play, then the comment also does not apply. However, the comment has something interesting worth noting. Chase Utley was ultimately awarded second base, which suggests that the umpires interpreted Utley as on the bag when contact happened with Tejada. The comment to 7.08(b) clearly gives the runner a base if the runner hits a fielder while they are on a bag unless the contact is judged intentional. The rulebook does not define intentional contact, so intentionality is entirely up to the umpire's discretion.

The comment in 7.08(b) looks like the most solid and reasonable explanation for giving Utley second base, even though it may or may not apply in Utley's situation. At the very least, the wording is vague enough to leave questions about what is and is not legal as a fielder transfers a ball from their mitt to their throwing arm. It would seem to make sense that the rules on batted balls and throws would extend to transfers, but 7.08(b) leaves wiggle room.

Also, perhaps more importantly, what constitutes intentional hindrance if Utley's slide into Tejada was not an intentional hindrance?

Part 2 - Chase Utley did not get called for interference. What is interference then?

The MLB rulebook dedicates an entire rule, 7.09, to interference, and a couple parts of it seem almost relevant with the Utley slide, such as 7.09(e):
(e) 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. In no event may bases be run or runs scored because of such action by a runner.
In plain English, this rule says that a runner can't kick or swat the ball so that a fielder misses it. It says nothing about a thrown ball or a fielder trying to turn the double play around a base. So, Utley is fine according to this rule. However, 7.09(i) continues with the double play scenarios:
(i) He fails to avoid a fielder who is attempting to field a batted ball, or intentionally interferes with a thrown ball, provided that if two or more fielders attempt to field a batted ball, and the runner comes in contact with one or more of them, the umpire shall determine which fielder is entitled to the benefit of this rule, and shall not declare the runner out for coming in contact with a fielder other than the one the umpire determines to be entitled to field such a ball;
This rule, in other words, says that a runner cannot run into a fielder as they try to make a play...with one small piece missing. It is the same piece missing in 7.08(b). This rule clearly covers fielders making a play on the original batted ball, as well as any fielder in the middle of throwing the ball. A very literal reading of this rule would not cover the Utley-Tejada situation because Tejada, as stated earlier, had the ball in his hand. He was neither fielding a batted ball nor throwing it.

Rule 7.09 finishes by saying the penalty for interference is being called out, hence why Chase Utley clearly was not called for interference.

There are only two justifications for the non-call on Utley. The first possibility is that the umpires read the rules on interference extremely literally and decided the rules on interference did not apply because Ruben Tejada was neither fielding a batted ball nor throwing the ball. This is defensible within the current rules, but hardly within the spirit of the rules.

The transfer that Tejada was in the middle of completing before Utley broke his leg is a transitional stage between actions that are covered by interference rules. It makes no sense at all to have an entirely different set of rules for transfers than for fielding a batted ball and throwing the ball. Fixing this loophole would be simple enough: just add language in the existing rules that extends the rules to defenders in the middle of a transfer.

However, if the umpires looked past this small technicality in the rules, then they did not believe Utley's contact was willful or intentional. If this is the case, then the problem is harder to fix. It would require a culture shift in baseball with retraining of umpires and additional accountability until the new definition takes hold.

I see a third fix that could work nicely. Major League Baseball could take a page out of the NBA's rulebook and create a definition for a flagrant foul. In basketball, flagrant fouls are called when a player commits a foul in such a way that it clearly goes after a player instead of the ball. Flagrants are meant to deter from dangerous fouls and also cover up a potential loophole in basketball. Without flagrants, a team could tackle shooters before they can get a shot up and the foul would not result in free throws. However, flagrants always result in free throws, plus the shooting team keeps possession.

Major League Baseball obviously does not need free throw rules, but a flagrant could be defined as any play in which a batter, batter-runner, or runner makes contact with a defender in a way which does not improve their chances at evading a tag. This definition is still a bit ambiguous, but clearer than "intentional hindrance," the current standard umpires must use. In the event of a flagrant foul, the player would automatically be out and also automatically ejected. The flagrant foul definition would also cover collisions at home plate without the need for a special rule like there is now.

I am not opposed to crafty slides at second base that make double plays harder to turn, and I would hate to see this small art form neutered out of the game altogether. Runners have rights to bases and there is room for a slide to both improve their chances of being safe and make life more difficult to turn a double play. However, when someone uses their body as a two-by-four after they get past the bag, and subsequently gets awarded the bag, something needs to change.