Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Utley suspension

Chase Utley watches GameThree of the Dodgers-Mets
division series from the dugout.
Chase Utley was suspended Sunday for Saturday's excessive and injurious takeout of Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada. He appealed the suspension and was, as is typical of baseball suspensions, eligible to play in Monday's game.

I wrote about the Saturday play here and expanded upon that post in the Monday print column. But while I think Utley's play was dangerous and, by the rulebook description, illegal, I can't see that the suspension is warranted.

The governing rule on this is 5.09 (a)(13):

[A batter is out when ... ] A preceding runner shall, in the umpire’s judgment, intentionally interfere with a fielder who is attempting to catch a thrown ball or to throw a ball in an attempt to complete any play;  
(Comment): The objective of this rule is to penalize the offensive team for deliberate, unwarranted, unsportsmanlike action by the runner in leaving the baseline for the obvious purpose of crashing the pivot man on a double play, rather than trying to reach the base. Obviously this is an umpire’s judgment play

Both in the itself and the rulebook commentary emphasize the umpire's judgment. In practice, umpires have chosen not to exercise that judgment. In practice, umps will only make that call if the baserunner assaults the infielder with a tire iron. The umpire, Chris Guccione, followed the tradition, which is why Utley's defenders can legitimately say it was a legal play.

I may be taking an overly lawyerly approach to this, but I can't see how the suspension can stand up. I also don't think making Utley actually miss games is necessarily the point.

Whether Utley takes the field again or not, Joe Torre has now put the umpires on notice: Enforce Rule 5.09 (a)(13). The issuance of the suspension effectively tells Guccione and the his brethren that his judgment on the the play was wrong. And it warns baserunners not to repeat what Utley did.

I fully expect that Rule 5.09(a)(13) will be revised this winter, with expanded commentary and less emphasis on the judgment of the umpire. Whether it is or not, stricter enforcement of 5.09(a)(13) is overdue and perhaps sufficient to cool off the aggressive basecrashers.

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