At the outset, let’s be clear about something: Chase Utley did not do anything dirty last night. The slide in question lasted a few brief seconds and had zero effect on a long, blowout of a game. No one was hit, there was no contact or any of that stuff. I have not looked thoroughly, but I am nonetheless close to positive that no player or coach who participated in the Dodgers-Padres game yesterday was asked about it or said anything about it.
I know that’s a weird disclaimer, but I say this simply because I’d prefer this not to immediately turn into a “Chase Utley is dirty!” vs. “you pansies don’t know what baseball is all about!” argument. I am 100% sure it will still turn into such an argument, but if it does, it’s not because I’m fanning the flames of it. Could I just ignore this altogether? Sure, but enough people are talking about it to where I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t at least mention it.
The play: early in the game Chase Utley headed for home and slid, more or less, into home plate. He took a somewhat less than straight route to the plate and, for a second, seemed indecisive between sliding and, well, sort of cross-body blocking Padres catcher Derek Norris, all while taking a rather notable inside track to the plate as opposed to staying directly on the baseline.
It was captured in GIF form by one of my Twitter followers, who sent it to me after I made a comment about the play and after a lot of other people on Twitter, including a respected baseball writer-type, agreed that it was an interesting play. For what it’s worth, my comment about Utley’s form was not super critical. I thought it was somewhat funny and I suspected that, somewhere in 37-years-worth of Utley’s baseball DNA, he was thinking “gonna take the catcher out if I have to,” but obviously nothing controversial came of the play.
Here’s the video. I do not endorse the “garbage person” comment by the guy who made the GIF — I really don’t like any of that kind of name calling of players — but putting his tweet in here is the simplest way to see the play, so whatever:
My thoughts: Norris left a lane for Utley as he was supposed to. Utley didn’t take it. I also wonder if maybe he would’ve had a better chance to score on the play if, instead of taking the path he took, he slid to the outside, rather than the inside of the bag, making Norris have to reach way over to tag him. However, that’s not the whole story.
One major leaguer who was on Twitter last night — though not an unbiased one, as it’s Utley’s teammate, Brandon McCarthy — observed to me that part of proper sliding form in such a situation includes trying to screen the throw to the catcher or obstruct his vision. I’ll totally grant that. I mean jeez, I’m not gonna question a major league baseball player when it comes to baseball playing technique. I think it’s just as good a read of that play to say that Utley was doing just that, even if it didn’t work out.
All of that said, Utley being out of the path — or, in the same path as the catcher — and going kind of perpendicular like that is the sort of thing that can lead to contact, intended or otherwise. If that play changes even slightly in a space of a milisecond, Norris isn’t that far from having his legs taken out from under him.
Which, hey: no harm no foul here. I’m not gonna lay down some Hot Take about the nature of this slide. But Major League Baseball has obviously made it its business to crack down on slides that create contact. Both with the “Utley Rule” at second base and the rules regarding collisions with the catcher. Maybe it’ll be easier for guys without so much experience and well-worn habit as Utley to adjust to new rules. But based on this play I feel like the chances of Utley running afoul of one of them are greater than that of the average player.