About That Utley Suspension Being Lifted

The following is a contributed post by Ben M., who some of you may know from the comments section as "TexasBBTown". He can be found on Twitter at @TexasBBTown. Definitely give him a follow!

MLB has reportedly overturned Utley's suspension for a late slide that broke Ruben Tejeda's leg last year.

For those who don't remember, Chase Utley broke Ruben Tejeda's leg on a takeout slide into Second Base during Game 2 of the 2015 NLDS.  Utley was the recipient of extensive criticism for deviating significantly from the basepath on the slide, in an obvious effort to try to physically hinder Tejeda, who was trying to turn a double-play.  While Chase Utley is well-known for pushing the boundaries on this particular play, his play was also defended by many players.  To sum up, even those critical of Utley specifically defended the use of "takeout" slides on double-plays as an integral part of the game.

Chase Utley received a two game suspension from MLB for the play, citing his deviance from the basepath as being excessive, and therefore judging his slide as an attempt to harm another player.  Utley appealed the decision, allowing him to complete the series at least before a judgement was made.  When the Mets defeated the Dodgers, the appeal was put off until the off-season, with the suspension intended to be carried out during the first two games of the 2016 season.

Once the season was over, MLB was encouraged from all corners of Major League Baseball to review the rule governing Second Base slides before the 2016 season began.  This was done, and changes to the rule clarified that intentional takeout slides would no longer be allowed, but efforts to hinder the fielder during the course of a normal slide would generally be allowed, although there is room for Umpire discretion as well.

As an addendum, Chase Utley's suspension will, according to some sources, be dismissed.

There's a lot of consternation about this move, if true.  However, considering the adoption of the new "clarifying" rule about second base slides, this almost had to happen.  The new rule is a tacit admission that the old rule wasn't clear enough.  And considering you can't redo the playoffs, it's also largely meaningless.

Of course, you can argue that Utley was obviously engaging in a dangerous slide that violated the intention and the spirit of the rule by too large a margin.  However, players argued that the rule wasn't 100% clear, and many players interpreted the rule differently. Changing the rule at this point functions as MLB agreeing the rule wasn't clear enough...if the rule wasn't clear enough, then you can't "prove" Utley violated it. 

There is a certain amount of legalism in this argument, I admit.  A large percentage of fans, and even baseball professionals, criticized Utley's slide as being well beyond what they considered accepted norms.  But once again, we turn to the wide disagreement by fans and players on this issue that was prevalent at the time, showing that there really was no consensus on the rule.  Beyond that, even if there had been wide agreement, the only opinions that would actually matter are the Umpires' consensus understanding of the rule, MLB's official interpretation, and the Player Union's collaborating opinion.

Put simply, the act of changing the rule to make it clearly reflect what Utley was suspended for is itself an indicator that the rule *did not* already describe the criteria for breaking the rule.  If the rule could not clearly be demonstrated to be broken by Utley, he can't be suspended. 

Those changes likely don't affect the Rangers, much; only Rougned Odor has any kind of reputation for that level of "hard play", but I haven't seen him make the kind of move that Utley was known for.  The rule doesn't address going into a legitimate slide "spikes up", as some people call it.  It remains to be seen if the Umpires will apply the "intention" of the slide change to other areas of aggressive baserunning.  Something that *will* affect Texas is the practical elimination of "the neighborhood play".

The Neighborhood Play is an overly-elaborate description for the act of the fielder manning Second Base turning a double play while not actually being in contact with the base or even having tagged up.  Umpires and players have worked under the assumptions that A)  Any clean catch and throw at second would beat the runner from First whether the Second Baseman or Shortstop were tagging up or not, and B)  Because of takeout slides, the fielder at Second was safer standing away from the base.

In order to show how strictly they intend takeout slides to be governed, MLB has also empowered Umpires to use strict guidelines to judge Second Base tagging by the fielder.  "Neighborhood Plays" have also been made reviewable.  This is saying as much via intentions as with actual wording...something that has admittedly been the bane of baseball as often as it has been a boon.

The intention is for runners to slide *before* reaching base and the runner *must* make contact with the ground *before* reaching base.  The runner must target the base with their slide, and cannot attempt to alter the slide away from the base after starting the slide.  As a compensatory move to support the runner, the fielder at Second must now cleanly tag the base while in possession of the ball before throwing it on in an attempt to get another out.

I haven't seen enough of Odor to judge whether this will be a problem for him, but I do worry about Andrus.  Elvis is widely reported to have issues maintaining focus and intensity, but acts instinctively when he's on his game.  I will not be surprised to see Elvis miss double-plays this year because he never tagged up.