Sports

Recovering Ballplayer Vol. 6: The New Slide Rules

Baseball's new rules on sliding may seem to take away some of the sport's edge. But they are also the best thing for its players and the game moving forward.

by Fernando Perez
Apr 15 2016, 3:40pm

Adam Villacin

Last week, the Tampa Bay Rays beat the Toronto Blue Jays in the first ever major league game to end with a walk-off instant replay review of the league's new sliding rule. This was not a very manly way for a game to end. Afterwards, Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said, "Maybe we'll come out and wear dresses tomorrow, maybe that's what everybody's looking for.''

John Gibbons wants the league to "have some balls", but I'd argue that in the enforcement of its ongoing sissification policy, Major League Baseball has had plenty of balls. The league is looking after the safety of its players. Gibbons' comments have been criticized for their obvious sexism, and they should also be criticized for being wrong.

In discussing the league's lack of balls, people like Gibbons cite MLB's tendency toward reactionary rule changes. Just as the rule that prevents catchers from blocking the plate rule came on the the heels of Buster Posey's injury in 2011, this year's new slide rule was a response to Chase Utley's flying knee slide which resulted in Ruben Tejada's broken leg in last year's National League Division Series. But as is the case with airline safety regulations, rules developed in response to calamity aren't bad because they're reactionary. In fact, while there have been bumps in the road, and it will take time for players to adjust to the new rules, it is in everybody's best interest to keep players healthy.

Read More: Trevor Story and the Year of the Unheralded Prospect

Utley's play was not unlike many plays that are defended as aggressive by the team that makes them, and derided as dirty by the team that suffers the consequences. In order to accommodate Daniel Murphy's poor feed, Tejada was forced to do a spin move over second base with his back to Utley—thus presenting Utley with a moving and particularly defenseless target. Tejada's cleat stuck in the ground like Posey's did on his fateful day. Most times this play looks like this, in which the infielder is able to start to jump.

What's rarely discussed about the Posey incident is how particularly clean Scott Cousin's collision was, at least within the context of baseball as it had been played until that point. Though baseball etiquette is unwritten, it was a textbook collision: Cousins led with his shoulder, not an elbow or a knee, and he didn't go for Posey's head. Posey, however, didn't use the proper footwork to safeguard himself from injury when absorbing the blow. Had Posey's ankle not been left in that vulnerable position before impact, he wouldn't have been injured, Cousins wouldn't have received death threats, and maybe he wouldn't have disappeared so abruptly from the game.

And so two of the most exciting plays in baseball have been replaced with awkward, unmanly reviews that are themselves somewhat subjective—like judging an offensive foul in basketball or assessing holding in football. But this is actually a sign of confidence by MLB. The league is convinced that even if you purge of two of baseball's most violent elements, the game will remain exciting.

Players and coaches are less convinced. Before the New York Mets' 2-1 loss to the Florida Marlins at Citi Field on Tuesday, I asked manager Terry Collins what he thought about the rule. "Why not some common sense?" he said. But he also acknowledged that the league is changing and the Mets will need to get on board. As unsatisfying as it is as a fan to see a game impacted by a replay ruling on double play that never would have been turned, it's certainly worse as a manager to lose a game on such a technicality. "We can't have what happened in Milwaukee. We can't have that," Collins said. He meant he couldn't have the Mets losing that way. Baseball is now officially not a contact sport.

Major league players are being extremely well compensated to adapt to new rules that are meant to protect them. But that doesn't make those rules any easier to obey. Athletes are creatures of habit. Change is hard when muscles have been trained over thousands of hours to do a certain thing a certain way. For example, the new "neighborhood rule" now disallows infielders from "taking liberties" in actually touching the bag to complete force plays. That play had been no different than a catcher framing a pitch to try to influence the umpire into calling it a strike, but now, it is reviewable.

I spoke to Mets shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera about the new rule. "It's a lot more difficult to turn a double play now," he said. "It has to be something sharply hit, or someone very slow running ... rarer." This should equate to less double plays and more runs scored, which could be a nice—probably unintended—consequence for the folks in the marketing department. What the players and coaches seem to want is a less steep transition to a safer game.

One example that might be too steep? The league could insert those double first base bags to prevent runners from stepping on the heels of fielders like this:

They're on sale for $34.12 at Amazon. They are certainly no more of an eyesore than three umpires wearing big headphones to communicate with an instant replay coordinator in New York during extended pauses in play. But for some reason, that would just be too much.

In Japan, players don't break up double plays at all. There, the field is also entirely surrounded with netting so so that fans are safe from projectiles—a policy which is making its way into MLB this year. If you can't stand for vegan chorizo, and you don't give a goddamn how they do it in Japan, you might feel that baseball is going to an air-conditioned hell in a pink handbasket, or losing its balls, in the words of Gibbons. But safety for players and for fans is a good thing.

After all, breaking up a double play never really had anything to do with baseball. Like the home plate collision, it is a logistical problem that was never definitively cleared up. The Japanese filled that grey area of the rule book with courtesy, and the Americans arbitrarily filled it with aggression. The rules of engagement are now more clear. Kyle Schwarber's unfortunate injury proves that players will still have ample opportunity to martyr their bodies in the line of duty for their cities. Implementing these rules may not be reactionary, but rather, tipping points seized by the league to make the game make more sense.

Meanwhile, Utley's legacy as one of the best second basemen of our generation has been almost entirely consumed by his takeout slide. In the space of a few months he has become sensationalized as a lite version of Ty Cobb, now muzzled by the new rule. Last year alone, there were several dirty slides, but only Utley's resulted in serious injury. Fans love to boo, and reporters love a story.

Utley's reputation should enjoy some relief once the Mets or Tejada's new team, the St. Louis Cardinals (or both) have their revenge. I wouldn't be surprised if Collins and Mike Matheny have a conversation—the possibility of which they'd vehemently deny—about how exactly that revenge will be taken. Utley will get hit when he faces one of these teams. And Utley doesn't mind getting hit. He is, after all, the active leader in HBP. But that only goes to show how far MLB is from fully protecting its players—to the extent that such protection is even possible. The rules may not allow takeout slides, but the unwritten rules will continue to allow beanballs.

The bottom line is that great players like Utley should have long careers, and should not lose those careers on plays like the one that took out Tejada, legal or otherwise. Everyone wants as much of Carlos Correa and Trevor Story as possible. The steps MLB has taken have been steep, and predictably unpopular with players and coaches. "You're talking to a guy who learned how to play the game one way," Collins told me at that press conference. The rules are taking some edge out of the game, but players are certainly up to the task of re-administering excitement and even edge, albeit in different ways. It's an awkward transition for now, but in the long run, it's the best thing for baseball.