In one of the craziest, weirdest, most bizarre baseball games anyone has ever seen, the Cubs beat the Nationals 9-8 tonight, advancing to the NLCS. The game had everything you could think of and then some; catcher’s interference, RBI strikeouts that maybe shouldn’t have counted, Max Scherzer hitting a batter to force in a run, and Michael Taylor hitting a bomb on a pitch at his eyes. But, unfortunately, the lasting memory of this game might just be that MLB’s replay rule on slides into a base still sucks.
I wish I didn’t have to write this post again. I wrote a very similar piece 367 days ago, when Javier Baez was called out because a slow-motion replay showed his arm disconnected from second base for a fraction of a second. And now, I have to write this post again because tonight, Jose Lobaton‘s leg lifted off first base for the briefest of moments, and replay got the Cubs out an 8th-inning, tying-run-at-second situation in a game they won by 1 run.
First, let’s just agree on this point; by the letter of the law, Lobaton probably was out.
After his foot hit the base, it momentarily goes parallel with the bag while Rizzo is applying the tag. The glove appears to be touching Lobaton at the same time he’s not in contact with the base. According to the rules of baseball, he is out.
And yes, Willson Contreras made a great back-pick throw to first base. Lobaton shouldn’t have been that far off the base to begin with. The Cubs catcher made a great play and the Nationals catcher made a poor one. All the credit in the world to Contreras for getting his pitcher out of a bad situation with a great defensive play.
But this strict adherence to the rule has changed baseball for the worse. For the entirety of baseball history, Lobaton would have been called safe, as he initially was tonight, because he beat the throw back to the bag. While defenders of this rule can lean on the fact that this is how the rule has always been written, this is not at all how the rule has been applied. Only since the admission of super-slo-mo, multi-camera-angle replay has allowed us to freeze time and evaluate whether a player touched base continually through his slide has the safe or out determination on this play been a question.
And this play is the exact opposite of what baseball’s product should be. There’s absolutely nothing exciting or entertaining about having shadowy figures in a studio in New York decide whether the physics of a large human being hitting a stationary object caused him to momentarily disconnect the tiniest part of his appendage from the base for the shortest period of time imaginable. The game is about whether guys can hit curveballs, about how athletically they can chase down balls in the gap, about great throws, and yes, exciting dives and slides to try and avoid tags to reach the base before the fielder can apply a tag.
This play isn’t baseball. It’s giant human beings trying to play stupid some form of Twister. Sliding into a base and maintaining perfect contact isn’t some kind of skill players get selected for, and deciding games based on the outcome of these replays takes away from the elite skills competition that these players are actually competing in.
So, here’s the same suggestion I made last year when Baez was called out after nearly getting concussed by Joe Panik. On slides or dives into a base, a player who makes contact with the bag before the tag is applied should be granted a vertical safe zone above the base so that he is still safe even if he is tagged while not physically touching the base so long as it is clear that he is still directly above the bag. If you slide in, your foot hits the base, and the laws of physics force your foot to bounce up an inch off the ground, but your foot is still over the base, then you’re still safe.
Here’s what I wrote last year about how the implementation would work.
Yes, it’s still going to require a judgment call from officials, and we’ll still see plenty of replays on tag plays at second and third base, but instead of looking to see whether the runner kept his hand on the base for every millisecond of the tag, we can now simply look at the position of the players body in relation to the space above the base, a much easier thing to judge. We should get fewer challenges and fewer replays in general, and players who beat the throw to second or third base will be called safe more often.
This rule change would fall entirely within the spirit of the exception at first base as well. Runners there are allowed to overrun the base so long as they turn into foul territory, making it clear they are not trying to advance to the next base. If a player’s body is still completely over second or third base, it remains clear that they are not attempting to advance to third or home. The only reason we don’t allow overruns at second or third is because of the possibility for advancement to the next base, but if it’s clear that advancement isn’t being attempted, the runner should be able to still be called safe regardless of whether he’s touching the base during the entirety of his slide.
Obviously, tonight’s play wasn’t at second or third, so my suggestion from last year would have to be amended to include first base, or else Lobaton would still have been called out. And I stand behind the idea that the entire point of forced contact with the base is to prevent a runner from advancing; when there’s no attempted advancement, all we really care about is whether the runner got to the base before the tag was applied.
These maintain-contact replays aren’t in the spirit of what baseball has always been, how it’s been called, or how the rules have been enforced. For all of baseball history, Jose Lobaton was safe. There’s a reason these calls always have to get overturned on replay; every umpire in the league has been trained to call the runner safe when he gets to the bag before the tag is applied. The only way to call the runner out is to misuse the technology that was put in place to make baseball better.
This isn’t better baseball. This is a technological technicality, and the sooner baseball gets rid of this play, the better the sport will be.
13 October 2017 | 5:32 am