Umpires are supposed to call the game according to the rule book, but we all know there are areas where they are lenient. When it comes to player safety, however, corners cannot be cut. Damian Dydyn explains why he is writing about Chase Utley and the illegal slide. Again.
Back in October, we ran a piece about Chase Utley’s slide and why it was illegal, even before MLB changed the rule language to remove any ambiguity on the field for umpires. The rule had been mostly ignored throughout baseball history in favor of “good, hard, clean baseball”, which led to Chase Utley’s decision to go hard into second base during game 2 of the NLCS, resulting in Ruben Tejada breaking his right fibula.* At the time, some argued that it wasn’t a dirty slide, even if it was technically illegal. Looking back on it now, it seems pretty obvious that it was, in fact, dirty.
In the third inning of Monday’s game between the Dodgers and the Padres, Chase Utley rounded third on a ball driven to left field. He came around wide, as runners usually do, and then this happened:
In the span of eight steps, Utley moves from the grass in foul territory, across the baseline, to the grass in fair territory. If you aren’t paying close attention you might even miss it, but when we cut out the transition, the jump is quite large.
Here he is in foul territory, right up until he starts breaking in toward the pitcher’s mound:
He’s still looping a bit from rounding the bag, so at this moment it’s arguable that his momentum is still just carrying him in that direction. However, when we look at where he ends up and what he does from that position, his intent becomes clear:
Utley is lined up perfectly with the catcher, and worse, slides in a way that maximizes his contact with him. His legs swing out toward the pitcher’s mound as he reaches back toward the plate, since his path has pulled him so far from the plate that he is no longer even moving towards it. He is moving directly into the catcher.
The rule that was cited in October’s piece doesn’t actually apply here, as there was no attempt to catch or throw the ball on the part of the catcher by the time Utley reached him. Thankfully, there is another rule that does apply; 6.01 (i) (7.13)[editor’s note:this link was changed to the official MLB Rule Book to provide clarity and the language updated from the 2014 version]:
A runner attempting to score may not deviate from his direct pathway to the plate in order to initiate contact with the catcher (or other player covering home plate), or otherwise initiate an avoidable collision. If, in the judgment of the umpire, a runner attempting to score initiates contact with the catcher (or other player covering home plate) in such a manner, the umpire shall declare the runner out (regardless of whether the player covering home plate maintains possession of the ball).
Any deviation from the most direct path to the plate in order to initiate contact with the catcher makes a slide illegal. The catcher, as per the rule, has left a lane for Utley to reach the plate, but Utley moves out of that lane and realigns himself in a way that not only makes contact inevitable, but maximizes it, much in the same way that he maximized the amount of his body that collided with Ruben Tejada.
The umpire appeared not to notice Utley’s misbehavior, and he was ruled out anyway, but the slide was still illegal. While a ruling on the field was made unnecessary by Utley being tagged, the commissioner’s office should be reviewing this play and levying a suspension in its wake. At this point, in addition to illegal, these slides should be described as dirty, and Utley’s reputation for good, hard baseball should give way to the reality that he is willing to endanger the safety of other players to avoid an out.
Follow Damian on Twitter @ddydyn.
*Thanks to a reddit member for catching a spelling error.