The Cubs lost yesterday’s game by two runs, so the discussion that follows is not entirely academic.
In the fifth inning of a then 3-1 game, the Cubs had runners at first and third with one out. Anthony Rizzo grounded into a potential inning ending double play when Ian Happ slid hard into second base, ending any possibility of a double play, and ensuring that the runner at third could score.
… except upon review, the Cardinals were given a double play, despite no throw to first, because it was determined that, by sliding past second base, Happ had violated baseball’s new-ish slide rule, and interfered with the defender. Happ out, Rizzo out, run doesn’t score, inning over, threat over. Had the interference call not been made, the Cubs are down 3-2 and the inning is still going with a runner on first. Who knows where things go from there.
Here’s the slide in question:
As you can see, Happ clearly slid over the bag and out of its reach, while disrupting the fielder who *may* have otherwise attempted to throw to first to complete the double play.
When sliding into a base in an attempt to break up a double play, a runner has to make a “bona fide slide.” Such is defined as the runner making contact with the ground before reaching the base, being able to reach the base with a hand or foot, being able to remain on the base at the completion of the slide (except at home plate) and not changing his path for the purpose of initiating contact with a fielder. The slide rule prohibits runners from using a “roll block” or attempting to initiate contact with the fielder by elevating and kicking his leg above the fielder’s knee, throwing his arm or his upper body or grabbing the fielder. When a violation of the slide rule occurs, the offending runner and the batter-runner will be called out.
Accidental contact can occur in the course of a permissible slide, and a runner will not be called for interference if contact is caused by a fielder being in the runner’s legal pathway to the base.
Based on the definition, there can be no argument that Happ violated the rule. Specifically, he was not able to “remain on the base at the completion of the slide.” Thus, the umpires made the correct call in applying the rule.
The more apt question here, though, is whether the rule should be applied in this way. It’s clear that Happ’s slide was not dirty, there was no intent to injure a player, and I would say it doesn’t even look like Happ was trying to slam into the fielder. A few years ago, no one thinks a thing about that slide, or, if they do, they think “good job by Happ ensuring there could be no double play.”
After a couple high-profile injuries at second base on double play break-up slides, though, MLB instituted this rule to protect often defenseless defenders – it’s easy to say “just come across the bag,” but we’ve seen runners for years sliding way out to the side so they can get a leg out there; it’s easy to say “just use the base to shield yourself,” but we’ve seen runners for years sliding high, hard, and late over the bag.
MLB decided to draw the line, and it draft a rule that – in the pantheon of MLB rules – is actually reasonably clear and well-crafted. Whether it’s a good rule or not, again, is what merits debate.
And after yesterday’s game, Cubs manager Joe Maddon and starter Jon Lester sure did some debating.
Among Maddon’s comments (ESPN, Cubs.com, CSN): “I have no idea why these rules are part of our game …. I totally, absolutely disagree with that. It has nothing to do with safety and protecting the middle infielder …. There was no malicious intent there whatsoever. The rule does not belong in the game. There was nothing egregiously dangerous on the part of our runner. Don’t give me hyperbole and office-created rules because I’m not into those things, as you guys well know.”
Among Lester’s comments (ESPN, Cubs.com, CSN): “Baseball has been played for over 100 years the exact same way, and now we’re trying to change everything and make it soft. That’s baseball, man. We’re out there playing with a bunch of pansies right now. I’m over this [darn] slide rule and replaying if it’s too far and all this other B.S. We’re grown men out there.”
To their credit, I respect that Maddon and Lester didn’t hold anything back and said what they felt. In the era of media-trained players and managers, you rarely hear an unfiltered take on something controversial (about the game, itself, I mean). So I like that they opened this dialogue.
I just disagree with them.
I’m reminded of a Yadier Molina slide from late 2015 – before the rule was implemented – when he went hard and late over the top of the bag, into a defenseless Addison Russell:
— MBDChicago (@MBDChicago) September 21, 2015
That is the definition of the kind of slide the new rule is designed to outlaw. It was legal at the time, and it was also absurdly dangerous. There was nothing Russell could do to protect himself, and a 21-year-old player could have been seriously injured in service of “good, hard-nosed baseball.”
Does Happ’s slide look anything like that? No, it doesn’t. Was Happ being malicious or dirty or trying to injure someone, which is why the rule exists? No. He wasn’t. In that way, did the Cubs kinda get screwed on this one? Sure.
But here’s the thing: if you want to protect against slides like that Molina one, then the rule has to be structured in some way. And when you structure a rule – as best as you can – you’re going to catch some things in it that your gut says, “aw, man, that shouldn’t be illegal.” That doesn’t necessarily mean the entire rule needs to be thrown out, or even modified. If you believe in the spirit of the rule, realistically, you might just have to accept some collateral damage.
No one would ever argue that ground rule doubles shouldn’t exist simply because sometimes, the outcome of a given properly applied ground rule is absurd (“The ball is right there in the ivy! I can see it! He can see it!!!”).
Against that backdrop, do I support the slide rule? I do. I think it’s unwise to let a recent example that harmed a team you like to color the way you feel about a rule. Because for every Happ slide that burned you in the post-rule world, there’s a couple dozen Molina slides that imperiled your own players in the pre-rule world, and are now banned. The defender can use the base to protect himself, or he can come across the base to make a throw. So long as the runner is genuinely trying to reach and stay on the base, he can still offer himself – discretely – as a kind of obstruction to completing the double play, by angling out just a bit in the approach to the base, or staying higher a little later into the slide (but staying on the base).
With all due to respect to Maddon and Lester, it’s a good rule. Nothing in this beautiful, historic game requires a shortstop to stand there and allow a runner to plow into his planted leg. The game is not somehow worse for not having those plays in it, and the game is almost certainly better for ensuring that talented middle infielders can keep making plays with their limbs in tact.
I’m not happy about what happened yesterday, and I don’t blame Maddon and Lester for vociferously expressing their displeasure. That particularly play was about as aggressively as the new slide rule can be applied in an otherwise safe situation. And it hurt the Cubs. That sucks.
But every time I see a Cubs middle infielder safely turn a double play, I’m going to remember that they, too, are protected by this rule. And, hey, when an opposing runner gets too wild in changing his approach to the base or sliding past the bag, you better believe I’ll be hollering about this rule so that the Cubs get the benefit of a call like yesterday’s.