Slide properly

Slide On Down: Baseball’s Newfound Sensitivity Problem When It Comes To The Basepaths

Sogard slides IIWho’d have guessed that the primary unwritten-rules-related topic of Major League Baseball 2018 wouldn’t be bat flips or even retaliatory pitches, but guys sliding into bases? In the modern world of fielder safety, we’ve reached the point that players are managing to get offended even on properly executed slides.

First case in point: Last Friday in Milwaukee, the slide of Brewers infielder Eric Sogard was cut off prematurely when Cardinals shortstop Yairo Munoz, shifting over to field the throw, impeded his progress. It was a clean play all around—these things sometimes happen—yet feelings nonetheless managed to get scuffed. Sogard got up talking (“The first words that came out of my mouth,” he told reporters after the game, “were ‘are you all right?’ “), Munoz got up angry, and within moments the benches had emptied.

Harrison slidesThen on Tuesday, Pittsburgh’s Josh Harrison slid forcefully into second base, upending Mets second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera. The slide was legit, and Cabrera didn’t seem to take offense—but New York pitcher Jeurys Familia did, starting a shouting match with Harrison that, like Sogard’s play in Milwaukee, drew both teams onto the field.

These follow a questionable slide already executed this season by Roughned Odor in Anaheim, tit-for-tat slides in Pittsburgh, a dustup over a slide in Wrigley Field, and a slide that left the Yankees and Red Sox brawling on the Fenway Park infield. Collectively, it’s served to illustrate the unintended consequence of Major League Baseball’s recent efforts to insure the safety of catchers and infielders via ever more restrictive regulations against impact. The tighter the rules, after all, the more likely it is that somebody will violate them … and the more likely that defenders will imagine violations where none exist.

Once, of course, it was legal to crash into any base in whatever way a runner saw fit, short of standing up to take a guy out. Hal McRae was the king of high barrel rolls into second base, knocking fielders backward with such viciousness that the play was eventually outlawed with an injunction that is now informally known as the Hal McRae rule. Even recently, however, low barrel rolls were seen as acceptable, none more exemplary than Alex Rodriguez’s slide into second that took out Jeff Kent’s knee in 1998. Kent was decidedly displeased, but on the whole, critics viewed the play as clean.

An example of barrel-rolling from the 1972 World Series, via SB Nation. Poor Dick Green.

After Don Baylor crashed into Cleveland second baseman Remy Hermoso in 1974 (a late feed from shortstop Frank Duffy had left Hermoso directly in Baylor’s path while awaiting the throw)—a blow that knocked the infielder out of action for nearly four months—Orioles manager Earl weaver had to convince Baylor that the play was clean, and that such collisions were simply part of the game. It was the only time in Baylor’s 19-year career, he said later, that he ever felt bad about taking out an infielder in such a manner.

Former Rangers manager (and career infielder) Ron Washington once explained to me that, as a coach, an appropriate response to such a play was not anger toward the opposition but better protection for one’s own infielders. “I told my guys to protect your ass at all times,” he said. “Don’t go across that bag on a double-play, lollygagging. You go across that bag with two things in mind: I’m gonna turn this sucker, and if anybody gets in my way I’m gonna blow him apart [low-bridging a throw, forcing the runner to hit the dirt to avoid it]. … I don’t care how simple the play is, you get yourself in a position of protection, because you never know.”

No longer. Dave Nelson talked about this very topic in an interview for The Baseball Codes in 2006, when he was a coach for Milwaukee.

“I’ll give you a good example,” he said. “Carlos Lee went into Todd Walker last year, hard, clean. Put Walker out of the game, hurt his knee. So one of my players, Russell Branyan says, ‘That’s a dirty play.’ And I said, ‘What? That’s not a dirty play. He went in there clean and hard.’ He said, ‘Yeah, but according to today’s standards, that’s dirty, because nobody does it.’ I said, ‘That’s the problem—nobody does it.’ He didn’t go out there to hurt him, he went out there to take him out of the double play. This is guys’ mentality today. This is how they think.”

That was before baseball implemented its current spate of rules.

I examined this evolution a couple years back, well before the current spate of basepath-related issues. What’s changed since that time is further restrictions on what players can legally do. Now, it seems, anything outside the proscribed guidelines—and sometimes well within them—is spurring players to anger. It goes a long way toward illustrating the effect of inherent competitiveness on a constrained landscape. The window for what is considered to be appropriate behavior in this regard is more diminutive than ever (even while the window for appropriate behavior as pertains to celebrations has been thrown wide open). Ballplayers have gained a new layer of entitlement, and damned if they’re not going to leverage it for all it’s worth.

After the Pirates-Mets game in which Josh Harrison was upbraided by Jeurys Familia for a perfectly acceptable slide, the Pittsburgh infielder took a reasoned approach to the situation.

“Apparently he said, ‘Play the game the right way,’ ” Harrison told reporters after his dustup with Familia. “If you go back and look at the footage, I think I played the game the right way. Didn’t touch the guy, broke up a double play without hurting the guy or touching the guy. At the end of the day, I think that’s playing the game the right way.”

It is. Here’s hoping that the rest of baseball can come to recognize as much before too much longer.

 

 

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Slide properly

Simmons Steams Over Odor’s Ardor For Impact

Odor slides

Another crappy slide, another pissed-off middle infielder, another dustup on a big league diamond. This is almost becoming routine.

On Saturday, Rangers second baseman Roughned Odor tried to take out Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons on the final play of of LA’s 6-0 shutout. On one hand, it’s up to Odor to do whatever he can to break up the double play and extend the inning. On the other, there’s this pesky document put out by Major League Baseball called “Official Baseball Rules,” by which Odor’s tactics should be judged a bit more harshly.

Odor swung well to the outside of second base in an effort to disrupt the play, but not wide enough. To reach Simmons, who’d cleared the base by some four feet, Odor had to jut out his right leg in the exact opposite direction of the bag. In so doing, his cleats tore into Simmons’ shin.

The effort was not enough to disrupt the throw, but it did manage to empty the dugouts. No punches were thrown.

Odor was clueless after the game. “He pushed me,” he told reporters about Simmons’ response. “I was surprised because I made a good slide. It was not a dirty slide. I tried to break up the double play with a good slide. That’s why I was surprised he pushed me like that. He was angry, but I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ I made a good slide. It was not dirty.”

Rangers Jeff Bannister stood up for his player, because that’s what managers do, calling the slide “appropriate.”

“I didn’t see anything I thought should warrant the reaction we got,” he said in an MLB.com report. “Situation where we are going to continue to play hard baseball. Situation where Rougned made contact with the bag. Not sure why the anxiety.”

Why the anxiety might be because, for Odor, this kind of slide is old hat.

Following Anthony Rizzo’s disputed slide in Pittsburgh a week ago today, and the Pirates’ revenge slide two days later, the Rangers should be up on what constitutes “not dirty.” In the modern, safety-first era, what Odor did—even if, as seems likely, he did not intend to spike Simmons—was unequivocally dirty.

The rule he broke, 6.01—which we’ve referenced an awful lot over the previous seven days—specifically mandates that a runner can’t change his pathway for the purpose of initiating contact with a fielder. The rule’s current iteration was devised following Chase Utley’s slide in the 2015 National League Division Series that broke Ruben Tejada’s leg. (Utley also did something similar to Tejada, with less-disastrous results, in 2010.)

The rule is there for a reason. Simmons ended up with a gash on his leg, but did not miss any time. Also, he didn’t want to talk about it. “Nothing,” he told reporters in response to a question about what he said to Odor following the slide. “I was trying to tell him, ‘You forgot to say hello to your family for me.’ He’s like, ‘No, I didn’t forget, I told them.’ I was like, ‘No, they told me you didn’t tell them.’ He wasn’t very happy about it, so it’s OK. … I’m gonna eat my gelato and sleep well at night.”

Simmons was eating gelato at the time.

On Sunday, Angels pitchers opted against retaliation, but Simmons had a chance to seize his own pound of flesh with a wide slide into Odor to break up a double play in the fourth. He did it—Odor’s relay to first baseman Ronald Guzman was not in time to catch Shohei Ohtani—but umpires ruled that Simmons had deviated from his path, and called Ohtani out.

(To be fair, regarding the commentary in the above tweet, Simmons completed his double play on Saturday, so there was no need to review the slide.)

Questionable slides have led to all sorts of confrontations over recent seasons. Recently, of course, they’re supposed to be regulated out of existence, something that has yet to happen. Given Odor’s track record with this kind of thing, unless the league office intervenes, expect it to continue.

Collisions, Evolution of the Unwritten Rules, Slide properly

Collision Course: The State Of Baseball, 2018

Dietrich dustup

This is a story about baseball’s rulebook, and also about baseball’s unwritten rulebook. One, it turns out, feeds the other.

Yesterday, Marlins left fielder Derek Dietrich, racing home on a single, was easily beaten by the throw from Cubs right fielder Ben Zobrist. With his only hope at scoring being to dislodge the ball from the catcher, Dietrich plowed into Victor Caratini, just as generations before him have done.

Actually, it was a fair step milder than in previous generations, the collision being mostly arms, not even forceful enough to knock Caratini from his feet. Still, this is the no-contact era of major league baseball, a place where, following Scott Cousins’ takeout of Buster Posey back in 2011, the target on catchers’ backs was institutionally removed. This is a time in which a late slide from Tyler Austin—a slide that once wouldn’t have so much as raised an eyebrow in the opposing dugout—led to fisticuffs in New York.

So, when Dietrich took liberties with Caratini, Caratini responded in kind. The dugouts quickly emptied, and though the most significant moment of the resulting skirmish involved Kris Bryant tickling former teammate Starlin Castro, the event is worthy of exploration.

MLB rule 6.01(i)(1) instructs that any catcher ceding the baseline—standing in front of the plate and relying on a swipe tag to make the putout—is in safe waters: “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.”

Dietrich did not deviate from his pathway because he did not have to: Caratini was planted firmly atop the line while awaiting the throw—going firmly against Rule 6.01(i)(2), which clarifies that “unless the catcher is in possession of the ball, the catcher cannot block the pathway of the runner as he is attempting to score.”

In this case, it appeared to be unwitting: Upon receiving the ball, Caratini turned to make the requisite swipe tag before realizing that he had overshot his positioning and was reaching into foul territory, away from the plate. He quickly drew his glove back into the runner.

It left Dietrich little choice about contact. The runner’s ensuing shove was purely elective, of course, though it was a far cry from the devastation possible had he opted to lower his shoulder. Dietrich even tried to make nice by tipping his cap to the catcher before Caratini got into his face.

We’re left with this: Victor Caratini is 24 years old and was playing in his 51st big league game. Posey-era rules are all he’s ever known. With little basis from which to understand the rationality of Dietrich’s decision, the catcher reacted angrily at being shoved, and a play that should barely have registered soon bordered on fisticuffs.

The sport’s unwritten rules can be seen in similar light. Take the aforementioned Yankees-Red Sox brawl back in April. On one hand, the Red Sox were overly sensitive about a slide that a generation earlier wouldn’t have drawn much notice. On the other, the slide was clearly outside of baseball’s recently established parameters, and Austin should have been prepared for the response that he received.

Ultimately, neither side had much clue about how to handle what was, before now, a fairly standard baseball situation, and things ended badly. They ended badly because many players no longer understand the intentions behind much of the Code, and react instinctively rather than rationally. It’s what enables sensitivity about the personal nature of an action that is not at all personal.

These are the unintended consequences of the sanitation of the sport. There are clear benefits—fewer collision-based injuries and a decline in retaliatory beanballs—but there are also growing pains. Yesterday’s collision was only one of them, with more certain to follow.

 

 

Retaliation, Slide properly

Fists Fly in Boston After Austin Powers Toward The Mound

Kelly punchesTyler Austin should have known better.

He should have known the pitch was coming as soon as he took out Red Sox shortstop Brock Holt with a questionable slide in the third inning, especially after Holt called him on it when it happened.

He should have known that leading with his foot raised several inches off the ground and well inside the bag, leaping late so that he all but landed on the fielder, would draw the opposition’s ire, even if he intended no malice.

He should have known that wearing one in that situation, even a 97-mph fastball—especially a 97-mph fastball—was his duty as the guy at the wrong end of the previous confrontation. It was on Austin to understand that his play looked bad, independent of whether he thought it actually was bad. Wear it with dignity, and everyone can go about their day.

That’s not what happened.

Boston reliever Joe Kelly held up his end of the bargain, planting a fastball into Austin’s ribcage, at which point the hitter spiked his bat and raced toward the mound. Kelly beckoned him almost gleefully, and proceeded to land multiple blows after Austin’s momentum took him to the ground. The rest of the fight— Austin punching Red Sox coach Carlos Febles by mistake while swinging at Kelly; Aaron Judge seeming to hold off half of Boston’s roster by himself—was no less fraught.

Still, there’s plenty of grey area for quibbling from both sides of the Yankees-Red Sox divide. Austin’s first at-bat following his slide came leading off the fifth, with Boston leading, 8-1. Starter Heath Hembree opted against squaring the hitter’s debt at that point, instead striking the hitter out on four pitches. It’s not incumbent upon Hembree to respond, of course, but were the Red Sox to address Austin’s slide on the field, that seemed like the obvious spot to do so.

By the time Kelly took matters into his own hands two innings later, New York had trimmed its deficit to 10-6. There’s also the fact that Kelly missed on his first attempt, Austin backing out of the way of an inside fastball two pitches prior to the one that ended up drilling him. Austin was correct in his postgame assessment when he said, “I thought it was over after that. They missed with the first one. In baseball, once it happens, it’s over after that.”

It’s important to understand, though, why Kelly did what he did. When an opponent takes liberties with a player’s on-field safety—as Austin did with Holt, independent of severity or intent—pitchers can be compelled to respond. Former Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly elucidated the notion in The Baseball Codes, and though he was talking about it in reverse—using his baserunning to counter a HBP, not the other way around—the logic holds:

“I’ve gotten on first base when I’ve been hit by a pitch and told the first baseman, ‘If there’s a ground ball hit I’m going to fuck up one of your middle infielders, and [pointing to the mound] you can tell him that it was his fault.’ That’s a way you can get them to police themselves. A pitcher drills somebody just because he feels like it, and if one of the middle infielders gets flipped out there he’s going to tell the pitcher to knock it off. Ultimately, that’s all we want anyway—just play the game the right way.”

Tellingly, in Austin’s postgame comments, he seemed about to say, “I play the game the right way,” but caught himself. Instead the phrase he used was, “I play the game hard.”

No matter how one feels about his actions, there’s no denying that.

The Yankees and Red Sox conclude their series tonight.

Slide properly

Machado’s Spikes Spur Red Sox Rage

Machado slides

After Chase Utley broke the leg of Mets second baseman shortstop Ruben Tejada with a questionable slide in the 2015 playoffs, Major League Baseball implemented a rule to regulate that type of play, defining illegal slides—per the Baltimore Sun—as “those in which a runner doesn’t begin his slide before reaching the base, is unable to reach the base with his hand or foot, isn’t able to remain on the base after completion of the slide or changes the pathway of his slide to initiate contact with a fielder.”

On Friday in Baltimore, Manny Machado met at least three of the four criteria. He began his slide some five feet before second, and his path was aimed directly at the bag. As for remaining on the base, well, that’s up for interpretation.

Machado, clearly beaten by the throw, lifted his lead foot before reaching the base. Instead of popping up, he slid directly over, his spikes planting firmly into the left knee of Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia. (Watch it here.)

This wasn’t a matter of breaking up a double play, or at least it shouldn’t have been. It had been a slow ground ball, and the throw from shortstop Xander Bogaerts arrived at the center-field side of the bag, forcing Pedroia to stretch like a first baseman to corral it. There was scant danger of a pivot.

Details that matter:

  • Pedroia had offseason arthroscopic surgery on the knee in question and continues to rehab it.
  • Pedroia limped from the field after the slide. The play ended his day … and maybe more.
  • Regardless of Machado’s intent—at the very least, he can be accused of recklenssness—the Red Sox were decidedly unhappy.

As the game (a 2-0 Baltimore win) ended, a number of Red Sox personnel—including pitchers Rick Porcello and David Price, pitching coach Carl Willis and bench coach Gary DiSarcina—looked on angrily as the Orioles departed the field. (Porcello and Price will not pitch in the series’ final two games.)

Afterward, Pedroia—noteworthy for downplaying injuries over his career—stopped short of assigning blame to Machado, but his frustration was unmistakable. When asked about baseball’s injury-prevention rule, he told reporters this:

“I don’t even know what the rule is. I’ve turned the best double play in the major leagues for 11 years. I don’t need the fucking rule, let’s be honest. The rule is irrelevant. The rule is for people with bad footwork, and that’s it.”

On one hand, bad footwork can lead to awkward moments. On the other hand, sometimes even capable fielders like Pedroia must achieve compromising positions in order to complete a play. Boston manager John Farrell described the slide as “extremely late.” When asked if it was dirty, he responded again: “It was a late slide.”

Even more telling, perhaps, was the cluster of Red Sox players and coaches gathered around a clubhouse computer screen to dissect the play in slo-mo, again and again. The teams face each other 14 more times this season.

Machado said all the right things afterward about how he didn’t want to hurt his opponent, said he texted Pedroia his regrets, even. Then again, this is the same guy who kept hitting catchers with his bat, threw his bat in response when opponents took issue with it, blew up over an ordinary tag and charged Yordano Ventura, so who the hell knows.

How this plays out over the next two days—or the rest of the year—will go a long way toward explaining just how forgiving a group the Red Sox might be.

Slide properly

Sanity vs. Reality on the Basepaths: Time to Embrace the New School

Via Buzzfeed

The old-timers called it: On Saturday, Chase Utley played ball the old-fashioned way. Hard-nosed. Team-first. Selfless and aggressive and by the book.

What the old-timers fail to acknowledge is that the book has changed. Once, it was permissible to barrel roll into a fielder, back first, and knock him nearly into the outfield grass:

Via SB Nation

Once, a runner had to make no pretense about touching the base when hurling his body at a fielder.

Once, middle infielders were sitting ducks, with virtually no recourse against whatever liberties opponents unleashed upon their legs. Now, at the cost of Ruben Tejada’s continued participation in the postseason, recourse might finally be forthcoming.

Utley’s slide fits the litmus described above, and fell well within the rules. He was within arm’s reach of the bag. His goal was an important one: breaking up the double-play. He’s known not only for playing hard, but showing unyielding consistency when it comes to this type of takeout. Hell, this wasn’t even the first time he’s wiped out Tejada in such a manner. As a middle infielder himself, Utley knows whereof he slides.

What Utley’s slide also did was allow us to explore the ludicrousness of viewing such a play as acceptable. He went too far the moment he decided to aim not at the bag, but at Tejada’s plant foot. He certainly did not intend to injure the guy, but neither did he appear to care if that was a likely outcome. Which is entirely the problem.

Take a look at Hal McRae, taking out Willie Randolph in the 1977 ALCS:

Soon thereafter, baseball passed what became known as the “Hal McRae rule,” clarifying the need for a baserunner to be able to reasonably claim reaching base as within his purview. Utley satisfied that requirement by remaining somewhat close to the bag, but his goal was far different. That’s what has to change.

The curious part is that it hasn’t already. Matt Holliday took out Marco Scutaro in the 2012 NLCS with a slide that, while on top of the bag, had similarly little to do with preserving his presence on the basepaths. A Chris Coglan slide ended Jung Ho Kang’s season a few week’s back. Pablo Sandoval and Brett Lawrie stirred up similar controversy earlier this year. Once, when such slides were relatively commonplace, infielders’ reactions were far more instinctive. Today, they are focused strictly on completing the play, not on self-preservation. The Mets are left to deal with the most recent fallout.

MLB has already implemented rules to protect catchers from unnecessary collisions, which have drawn nary a complaint since they were implemented. It also has the “neighborhood play,” which allows middle infielders to drift across the bag without necessarily touching it while turning two, specifically to avoid such collisions. (Umps claimed that Tejada, having spun around, was exempted, and ruled Utley safe on the play.)

Something mandating that slides land in front of the base would take care of much of the issue. Even without such a change, of course, baseball already has enough rules in place to have not only called Utley out on the basepaths, but Howie Kendrick out at first for Utley’s interference. Never mind that they weren’t invoked on Saturday—the fact that they’re wildly underutilized in general speaks to the institutional apathy about the issue.

Hopefully, Joe Torre’s decision to hand down a two-game suspension to Utley (as much as anything, perhaps, to short-circuit potential retaliatory thoughts in the Mets’ clubhouse as the series returns to New York) portends a change in this line of thinking.

(What might not change is the Mets’ desire to respond. Tonight’s starter, Matt Harvey, alluded to it in the New York Post when he said, “Doing what’s right is exactly what I’m going to do.” If Utley does not play—he’s appealing his suspension—Harvey’s version of “what’s right” will likely wait until next season if the game is anything short of a blowout.)

Utley’s not ashamed of his actions, coming as they did within the acceptable definition of “playing the game the right way.” And maybe as an old-school player he shouldn’t be.

The rest of the sport, however, needs to embrace the new school on this one. It’s embarrassing that it hasn’t been done already.

Retaliation, Slide properly

Down and Dirty: The Different Responses to a Takeout Slide

You hit my guy so I’ll hit your guy. Retaliation is the oldest story in baseball. Friday saw two similar events—middle infielders being taken out by aggressive slides—handled in different ways.

In Boston, Pablo Sandoval went out of his way to wipe out Orioles second baseman Jonathan Schoop. In Kansas City, Brett Lawrie did similarly with Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar. Both were trying to break up double plays. The primary difference was the response.

The Orioles stayed cool, and two innings later—during Sandoval’s next at-bat—their pitcher, Ubaldo Jimenez, made it clear that such behavior would not be tolerated, planting a fastball into the third baseman’s shoulder blade. (Watch it here.) Jimenez took it upon himself to remind the aggressor that such actions have repercussions, and that taking liberties with an Oriole—any Oriole—carries repercussions. That kind of HBP may not deter Sandoval or the Red Sox from such actions in the future, but they will at the very least pause to consider it.

Lawrie’s takeout of Escobar with a late, awkward slide was a bit different in that Escobar was injured and had to be helped off the field. (It wasn’t even a good baseball play, as Lawrie would have been safe had he gone directly into the bag. Watch it here.) Rather than wait for a more formal response, benches cleared immediately, though no punches were thrown. That it was a tie game in the seventh inning precluded any notions a Royals pitcher may have had toward responding; similarly, Lawrie next batted in the ninth inning with the Royals protecting a two-run lead.

Headline fodder for the Jimenez incident was his immediate ejection by plate ump Jordan Baker, without warning and while having allowed no hits. The fact that it was only the fourth inning mitigates the latter item, but there is no way around the fact that Jimenez’s ejection was without merit. He handled a baseball play in a peer-vetted baseball way. A warning would have been more prudent, with Baker even holding the option to delay until Boston could itself respond. Regardless, the Orioles had their say, and both teams were able to move on.

In Missouri, things are far less clear. Escobar will likely miss several games, and while players and manager Ned Yost publicly agreed that there was likely nothing malicious in Lawrie’s slide, this will remain an item of potential contention until further notice.

[gifs, respectively, via Deadspin]