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Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2016 — #18: MLB adopts “The Chase Utley Rule”

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We’re a few short days away from 2017 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2016. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were creatures of social media, fan chatter and the like. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

In most cases, the difference between a runner being out and being safe is a simple matter of timing: if the ball or the tag beats you to the bag, you’re out. If you beat the ball or the tag, you’re safe.

At second base, however, runners have always had the option of resorting to physical force in order to make up for poor timing by slamming into, undercutting or otherwise interfering with the infielder. Indeed, physically taking out the shortstop or second baseman in such a situation is considered sound fundamental play in this otherwise violence-free sport.

Or at least it was until Game 2 of the 2015 NLDS. That’s when Chase Utley of the Los Angeles Dodgers slid into second base in an effort to break up a double play. In doing so he broke the leg of Mets infielder Ruben Tejada. It was a hard slide, to some a dirty slide, but one not unlike which players had been executing since the advent of the game.

As Buster Posey fans can tell you, however, when a high profile player is injured or, as with Tejada’s leg, an injury occurs in a high profile situation, the blowback is a lot bigger than it would be if the injury happened to Joe Schmo or in a nationally televised game during the playoffs. That gets people talking and when people get talking Major League Baseball, as it so often does, reacts. As a result of the Chase Utley/Ruben Tejada play, baseball reacted by changing the rules related to slides at second base.

The new rule, announced in February, is Rule 6.01, but was called “The Chase Utley Rule” by many. It requires that runners try to make a “bona fide slide” instead of a takeout slide. Specifically, runners are to slide prior to reaching the base, rather than slamming into an infielder in a manner that almost, but not entirely, fails to resemble a slide. Even when sliding, the runner is now required to slide so that he is able to reach or touch the base or at least be able to make a plausible attempt to do so, rather than sliding several feet to the left or right of the bag in the direction of the infielder. Finally the runner is not allowed to change his pathway to the base.

There was some grumbling about the rule at first, with many baserunners and baseball purists lamenting the end of a hard nosed tradition. Even some infielders, who were the ones being protected by the rule, lamented it a bit, talking wistfully about how learning which runners were likely to kill you and learning how to not be killed by them was a part of the infielder’s craft. In practice, the new rule made an ignominious debut when it was invoked twice in the season’s first week, once against Jose Bautista and once against Colby Rasmus, both of which resulted in game-ending plays as opposed to ongoing rallies.

As is the case with most things, however, the furor soon calmed down. Mostly because players learned to live with the new rule and stopped trying to kill infielders. Partially, I suspect, because umpires loosened their standards for what was and was not a “bona fide slide” as the season progressed. It happens with a lot of new rules.

Indeed, a lot of new rules eventually become a lot like a lot of old rules: on the books but unenforced. Sort of like Rule 6.05(m), which had long been on the books when the new slide rule was adopted. You may not know much about that one, though, as it prohibited base runners from interfering with fielders who were trying to make plays. It hadn’t been enforced for ages.

 

Attempting to complete cycle, Robinson Chirinos thrown out to end game

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With his Astros trailing the Tigers 2-1, catcher Robinson Chirinos began his at-bat in the bottom of the ninth a triple shy of the cycle. He doubled in the second inning, singled in the fourth, and hit a solo homer in the seventh. Yordan Álvarez and Yuli Gurriel both struck out, leaving the Astros’ fate in the hands of Chirinos against Joe Jiménez. After working the count to 2-1, Chirinos slapped an 85 MPH slider to the gap in right-center field. A diving Travis Demeritte could not come up with the ball, but center fielder Harold Castro fired the ball back in to Gordon Beckham, who then made a perfect throw to Dawel Lugo at third base. Chirinos was tagged out for the final out of the game. No triple, no cycle. The Astros lost 2-1.

Chirinos was attempting to become the first Astro to hit for the cycle since Brandon Barnes on July 19, 2013 against the Mariners.

The Astros entered Wednesday’s game as the largest favorite in 15 seasons, according to ESPN’s David Purdum. The Astros were -500 per Caesars Sportsbook. Other sportsbooks had them at -550. So the Tigers’ win was quite the upset.

Justin Verlander went the distance in the loss. The only blemishes on his line were solo homers to Ronny Rodríguez in the fifth and John Hicks in the ninth. They were the only hits he allowed while walking none and striking out 11.