Tale of two plays: Why the “Utley rule” needs tweaking

Tale of two plays: Why the “Utley rule” needs tweaking

New rule needs to be examined as controversy strikes in the first week of the season.

The weekend series between the Houston Astros and the Milwaukee Brewers provided a mini-clinic on the interpretation of the new statute in baseball’s rule book that came about because of Chase Utley’s hard slide into Ruben Tejada in the post season last year.

Utley, attempting to break up a double play, slid hard into Tejada, as runners have done since the days of flour-sack bases and fielders exchanging gloves when switching from defense to offense.  But this particular slide broke the leg of Tejada, eliminating him from the rest of the post season.

The baseball gods said this was enough and put in a new rule, basically saying that if a runner interferes with the turn at second or the throw to first to complete the double play, an automatic double play will be called and both runners will be out.

During the Astros-Brewers series, the play was called twice, once on Friday against the Astros, resulting in the end of the game in the ninth, and again on Sunday, against the Brewers, resulting in a rally-killing play on an attempted sacrifice bunt.

In both cases, the umps got the call right, and the call on the Astros was even upheld after a challenge.  But the plays could not have been more different.

With Colby Rasmus on first with one out in the ninth, Jose Altuve grounded weakly to Brewer second baseman Scooter Gennett.  Everyone in attendance knew the ball was hit too slowly to turn two, and as shortstop Johnathan Villar fielded the throw, he never looked at first because he knew he had no chance to get the speedy Altuve.

But Rasmus slid past the bag, on the opposite side of Villar, did not maintain contact with the bag, and subsequently the automatic double play was called, even though Villar made no attempt to throw to first.  The play ended the game and the Astros’ challenge was denied.

On Sunday, with runners on first and second, Brewer pitcher Jimmy Nelson attempted to sacrifice, but Astro catcher Jason Castro pounced on the ball and threw to third, forcing Martin Maldonado for one out, and third baseman Marwin Gonzalez fired to first to try to double up Nelson.  As Maldonado slid past Gonzalez and the bag, he reached out and grabbed the ankle of Gonzalez and the umps ruled that he interfered, and called the automatic double play.

This is the way the rule was intended to work.  In the first incident, Rasmus made no contact with Villar and did not impede an attempt to make an out, because no such attempt was made.  In the second, Maldonado made a conscious attempt to impede the throw.

Both calls were correct by the rule, but one was clearly not the common-sense interpretation.

Major League Baseball needs to adjust the wording of this rule immediately, as they did in 2014 with the home plate collision rule.  Intent to disrupt the play or to take out the fielder must be considered when making the call.  With the review process, it can always be overturned, and unless it is obvious, it should be reviewed anyway.

The implementation of the rule was well-intentioned, and the safety of the players should be at the top of the list.  It just needs to have some common sense applied.

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