Sunday, October 11, 2015

It's time for MLB to protect the pivot man

There are times when playing a game requires you to put your body in harm's way. Standing a few inches from a hard round object coming in at 90+ mph. Clearing a puck, then taking a check into the boards. Going up for a header against an onrushing opponent. Carrying a football right up the middle where those 300-lb guys are waiting.

For a long time now, being the pivot man at second base has been one of those times, when a runner comes in with a hard slide to keep you from turning the double play. Last night, Ruben Tejada paid the price, getting his leg broken when Chase Utley slid into him. Utley's slide was very late (didn't even start until he was practically even with the bag), and while he could reach the bag with his arm, his body wasn't near it. Earlier this season, something similar happened to Jung Ho Kang of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and you hear about similar injuries almost every year.

The umpires decided that what Utley did was legal. The rules say you can't go outside the baseline to interfere with a fielder. I can see how the umpires made their decision, but I don't agree with it. When a player's slide is taking him away from the base, and starts that late, it's pretty clear that he's interfering. And the baseline shouldn't extend well past second base, where Utley's slide ended. On top of that, Utley was actually called safe on the play since Tejada missed second base by a few inches. There is a rule for that, known as the "neighborhood play", meant to protect fielders. But the umpires chose not to use it. (One explanation for that being that the rule is narrowly defined for specifically protecting fielders in the process of turning double plays, and Tejada was never able to actually throw the ball).

But whether this particular play was within the rules isn't really the point. The larger issue is that MLB needs to change the rules to protect their players, much like they've already done with collisions at home plate. Clearly the "neighborhood play" rule isn't enough. At the very least, runners need to be required to slide over the bag, and not just have an arm or foot barely able to reach it. It won't stop every collision, but it would keep fielders safe if they are moving away from the base. And failure to comply needs to include not only being called out on the field, but fines and suspensions as well.

For this particular play, Joe Torre is going to review what happened, in his capacity as baseball's chief baseball officer. I hope he thinks long and hard about not only this particular play, but what can be done to avoid this situation in the future.

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