Rizzo’s Slide Exposes Need for One More Slide Rule

I really like Anthony Rizzo. His personal story as a cancer survivor is inspiring, and he does good charitable works in Chicago and his native Florida. He’s charming and funny and really good at baseball most of the time.

That said, Rizzo’s slide in yesterday’s game between the Chicago Cubs and the Pittsburgh Pirates was bad. Here, have a look:

I took a few screenshots as I watched the video. First, let’s start near the end. This is the exact moment when Pirates catcher Elias Diaz caught the ball with his foot on home plate (which will become important to my point in a few minutes):

Now let’s look at Rizzo’s path to home plate. Then we’ll dig into the rules:

Rizzo did what every big league base runner does on third base — he took his lead and secondary lead well into foul territory, so that if a batted ball hits him it will be a foul ball instead of an out. Once the ball is in play, though, he pulls back in and runs parallel to the base line, about a foot into foul territory. You can see in the above image that by the time he is 10-12 feet from third base, he is already running parallel to the line.

And there he is 20 feet later, still running parallel to the line. In fact, if you go to about the 0:35 mark of the video above, you can see a replay angle that shows Rizzo’s entire run, and he takes a full 10 steps running exactly parallel to the base line.

And then, suddenly, he is no longer running parallel to the line. Why? What could possibly have changed?

Here, let me annotate that for you:

One last screenshot before we dig in:

So, here’s what we’ve established so far:

  1. Anthony Rizzo was running straight towards home plate.
  2. Rizzo was retired at the plate.
  3. Rizzo saw that Diaz was going to try to turn a double play.
  4. Rizzo stopped running towards home plate and instead ran towards Diaz.
  5. Rizzo slid directly into Diaz, letting his upper body flop across the plate after his lower body had taken out Diaz at the legs.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle asked the umpires to review the play for a possible violation, and they did. In the end, they found no violation on Rizzo’s part, and the Cubs got a couple gift runs. Diaz remained in the game and avoided serious injury, although he was charged with a throwing error.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon yelled at the umpires for a while, too — after the game, he explained that he was mad that the umpires had the audacity to even consider that Rizzo’s slide might have been dirty or illegal.

“My baseball sensibilities are absolutely impacted in that,” said Maddon. “It’s a perfect play by Rizzo.”

Rizzo had this to say:

“You gotta go in and break the double play up, so, uh, I mean, obviously I’m not trying to hurt anyone, and I’m happy that Diaz is alright. … It’s 100 percent in the rules, it’s not like I went in with my legs up, trying to crush his knee. I just went low, and I don’t really ever want to hit a guy in that scenario, it’s just, he didn’t really give me a choice.”

So we have a “perfect play” that is “100 percent in the rules” in which the catcher “didn’t really give me a choice.” Okay, let’s quote a couple other things:

“A runner attempting to score may not deviate from his direct pathway to the plate in order to initiate contact with the catcher (or other player covering home plate), or otherwise initiate an avoidable collision.”

A slide shall be deemed appropriate, in the case of a feet first slide, if the runner’s buttocks and legs should hit the ground before contact with the catcher.

And this:

If a runner does not engage in a bona fide slide, and initiates (or attempts to make) contact with the fielder for the purpose of breaking up a double play, he should be called for interference under this Rule 6.01. A “bona fide slide” for purposes of Rule 6.01 occurs when the runner:

(4) slides within reach of the base without changing his pathway for the purpose of initiating contact with a fielder.

Those quotes come from the official MLB rulebook. The way I see it, there are three issues at play here, and two of them are explicitly addressed in the rules:

  1. Rizzo went out of his way to break up the double play. We can see from the video that he changed his path. We can hear from his own mouth that his goal was to break up the double play. Considering that initiating contact with the fielder for the purpose of breaking up a double play is expressly forbidden by the rules, this casts shadows on the claims that it was a “perfect play” and “100 percent in the rules.”
  2. Rizzo initiated an avoidable collision with the catcher. Diaz was three feet up the first base line from home plate when Rizzo connected with him. Rizzo’s slide was not “appropriate” according to the rules, because, as you can see in the last screenshot above, his butt was still a foot off the ground when his legs too out Diaz’s legs. Rizzo probably sincerely believes that Diaz “didn’t really give me a choice,” but what he means by that is, “I had to break up the double play, and he jumped way out of the way, so I didn’t have any choice but to slide was out of my way to take him out.”
  3. And the third point, which is (unfortunately) not covered by the rules: Rizzo was already out! He had no more business taking out the catcher than the on-deck hitter did!

Let’s talk more about this third point, because I think that if MLB were to explicitly address it in the rules, it might help things. When there’s a possible double play being turned at second base, the runner from first has to slide into second to avoid interfering with the play and/or being nailed in the kisser by the throw to first. As such, MLB finally came up with some solid rules about what that slide should look like.

But on a play at the plate, a slide is completely unnecessary. If we remove the idea of deliberately taking out the catcher, when there’s a force at the plate, sliding can be described much the way Depeche Mode described words: “very unnecessary, they can only do harm.” A slide slows you down. Your best chance of being safe at home plate when a force play is in effect is to run through the plate, because that will get you there the fastest.

But alas, we can’t remove the idea of deliberately taking out the catcher, because that’s what Rizzo told us with his own mouth that he was doing! The rules should say something along the lines of:

Once a runner is forced out at home plate, he needs to get the heck out of the way and accept the fact that his participation in the current action is over. If he attempts to take out the catcher’s legs, he should be treated the same way any other person uninvolved in the play would be. An on-deck hitter would be ejected and suspended for taking out the catcher; a fan from the stands would be arrested and charged with assault. Let the same punishment apply, so it is written, so let it be done.

I might not totally have the language nailed, but you get the point.

Simply put: Rizzo’s slide violated at least two different sections of the MLB rules, but the replay officials still missed it and called it a clean play. A third rule would eliminate all doubt on similar plays in the future.

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