Monday, October 19, 2015

Chase Utley, the "Area Rule," and Baseball Standards of Review

by Michael Dorf

My latest Verdict column discusses the Chase Utley suspension for his hard slide that broke Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada's leg in Game 2 of the National League Division Series. I use the controversy over the play--and the ensuing suspension and appeal-- to make a number of points about the law. The larger context for the column is the idea that games and sports can provide interesting insights into law in other contexts. In this post I want to make some further points that I couldn't fit into the column and that mostly involve a discussion of baseball rules for their own sake. (Hey, the DoL banner says this blog covers "Law, Politics, Economics, and More." File this post under "More.") I won't rehash the details of the Utley/Tejada play here, however, so I urge readers who are not baseball fans or haven't otherwise been following this story to read the column first.

Let's begin with the relevant rule that Joe Torre, on behalf of Major League Baseball, says that Utley violated when he slid into Tejada and broke Tejada's leg. It is Rule 5.09(a)(13) of the Rules of Major League Baseball. It provides:
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 . . . .
The Rule comes with its own official Comment, which states:
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.
That last sentence (about "umpire's judgment") is important, and I'll return to it below, but for now I want to dwell on a different point: The interaction between Rule 5.09(a)(13) and the so-called "area play" rule, under which a second baseman or shortstop need only step in the area of second base to complete a double play if he's trying to get out of the way of a lead runner.

Fans will recall that after the replay review, the initial ruling that Utley was out on the force play at second was reversed on the ground that Tejada never stepped on second base. That reversal appeared to violate Baseball's Replay Review Regulations. Provision V.D generally makes the question whether a fielder stepped on the base reviewable but includes an express exception making area-play calls non-reviewable. The exception disallows review of
The Umpire's judgment that a runner is clearly out on a force play at second base under circumstances in which the defensive player may or may not have touched second base in his attempt to complete a double play and avoid a collision with the runner.
So why did the umpires change the call from out to safe? The answer given at the time was that Tejada's failure to touch second base was not occasioned by his attempt to avoid being run down by Utley but instead resulted from the fact that the toss of the ball from Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy was high, and that was what drew Tejada away from the bag. Thus, the reasoning goes, this was not an area play.

My view, for what it is worth, is that this reading of the regulation and the play is wrong. It's true that the ball's trajectory factored into Tejada's just barely missing the bag with his toe and that Tejada had his back to Utley as Utley was heading towards him. It's also true that part of the reason Tejada was in such a hurry was that he was trying to get his throw to first base to beat batter Howie Kendrick. However, Tejada undoubtedly knew that Utley was coming and--especially given their history--that he would need to get out of the way quickly to avoid being upended by Utley. Moreover, any time a shortstop or second baseman makes an area play, he has the dual motive of completing the double play and preserving his safety. Given that, and given that Murphy's toss was in the area (so to speak), I think the call should have been denominated an unreviewable area play.

Accordingly, in my view both Utley should have been out--because the area play is unreviewable--and Kendrick should have been out as the penalty for Utley's having attempted to interfere with Tejada's completion of the double play. That second conclusion holds even though Tejada would not have been able to complete the double play in time had Utley not interfered. Rule 5.09(a)(13) imposes the penalty of calling the batter out if the lead runner interferes, even if, in the umpire's judgment, the batter would have been safe without interference. So the umpires on the field and in the replay booth doubly blew it. The result of the replay should have been to confirm that Utley was out on an area play. Meanwhile, Kendrick should have been ruled out initially as the penalty for Utley's violation of Rule 5.09(a)(13). Note, however, that because the Comment makes clear that the application of 5.09(a)(13) is a "judgment" call, once there was no initial call to apply the penalty to Kendrick, perhaps the replay should not have reversed that. But if not, then why did Joe Torre effectively reverse the 5.09(a)(13) determination the next day?

Torre did not have occasion to review the determination that the area play was not in effect. As I note in the column, however, he did review the on-field and instant-replay determinations that Utley's slide was permissible. Torre concluded that that judgment was wrong.

But here's a largely unremarked seeming oddity of Torre's suspension of Utley for violating Rule 5.09(a)(13): So far as I am aware, Torre made no reference to the fact that the Comment commits determinations of violations of that rule to the discretion of the umpire. In law, when a matter is committed to the discretion of an official--such as a trial court judge--exercises of that discretion can only be reversed if the official abused his or her discretion. Put differently, a reviewing body will apply a deferential standard of review in considering whether to reverse a discretionary determination.

Lest readers think I am exporting general principles of appellate review into baseball, where they do not belong, I would emphasize that MLB itself recognizes that review should be conducted under a deferential standard. The Replay Regs state:
To change a reviewable call, the Replay Official must determine that there is clear and convincing evidence to change the original call that was made on the field of play. In other words, the original decision of the Umpire shall stand unchanged unless the evidence obtained by the Replay Official leads him to definitively conclude that the call on the field was incorrect.
Accordingly, one might think that Torre ought to have accorded double deference to the determination that Utley's slide was permissible: once because the initial decision is denominated a judgment call by the MLB official comment; and a second time because of the deferential standard of review in the Replay Regs. Yet Torre apparently made a de novo decision based on the video. What gives?

One possibility is that Torre thought that the umpires on the field and in the replay booth applied the wrong interpretation of the rule. In law, an otherwise discretionary determination does not receive deference on review if the first-instance official applies the wrong legal standard. Maybe Torre thinks that nearly all instances of breaking up the double play when the runner is almost certain to be out are violations of 5.09(a)(13), meriting discipline when injury occurs.

That's a plausible view of the Rule, as I argue in the column, but I don't believe that's what Torre meant. I think Torre believed that Utley's slide was particularly egregious but that a clean slide to break up the double play would not have merited discipline even if a serious injury happened to result. So what did Torre mean?

Under Article XII.A of the MLB Collective Bargaining Agreement, Torre may discipline a player for "just cause," a standard the CBA does not define--although it does provide for the grievance procedure that players may use (and that Utley is in fact using) to contest particular disciplinary rulings. But where the relevant MLB official cites a violation of a rule of baseball as the basis for discipline, shouldn't he be bound by the review procedure that would apply to the umpires and the review officials?

The short answer is no. Torre was right to consider the permissibility of the slide de novo because the standard for overturning a call during a game is appropriately higher than the standard for assessing discipline in the interests of long-term player safety and the integrity of baseball. The deferential standard for in-game changes balances the need to get the call right against the need to keep the game moving. Allowing de novo review of close calls would unduly slow the game, so the rules provide that only a limited category of clear errors can lead to reversal.

But when Torre reviewed the film after the game, the concern about keeping the game moving was absent. The vast majority of disputed calls in a game--Did a tag beat a slide? Was a ball fair or foul? Etc.--will not involve conduct that potentially warrants disciplinary action by the league. On those rare occasions when discipline may be warranted, it makes sense for the officials meting it out to do their best simply to get it right, without applying a deferential standard intended for very different circumstances.

The hearing on Utley's appeal is today. Perhaps some of the foregoing considerations will prove relevant.


Joe said...

The column made reference to the fact Utley didn't intend injury and the take out slide is common. But, I think the commentary very important:

"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"

I think "unsportmanlike" here should take into consideration current norms regarding take-out slides as well as a totality of the circumstances (the use of legal jargon is fitting since fans during and after the game sounded like lawyers talking about it) of the situation. All take out sides aren't created equal there. Many players' reactions, including Hal McRae who the rule dealing with slide was named after, after the game suggested as much.

His actions was more blatant including not trying to reach the base -- most of these things are actual slides into the base at least. Utley being safe really rankled for Mets fans since it is very likely he didn't expect to be safe there. His purpose was to help the tying run score. His slide, however, should have by rule led to a double play if it was illegal. 2-1 Mets, out of inning.

It should have at least ala the neighborhood play led to an out and this mattered since the Mets got one more out before the 2-2 tie was broken. The other matter is the "judgment of the umpire." This apparently was not absolute, nor should it be. Torre serves as a safeguard here to the players (the injury here not only a reason to apply the rule but a factor in determining how bad the slide was -- most slides aren't so blatant as to result into injury, even those that result in collisions) and the sanctity of the game. Finally, Utley has a history of bad slides.

There was a "just cause" as a whole to grant the suspension. Even if there was some reasonable doubt, as a whole, Torre acted fairly. One other thing -- Flores is a good player, but Tejeda was put in there for defense. Flores might have been a factor in the Game 4 loss and the back-up SS now is a minor league call-up.


The appeal, btw, has been postponed.

Shag from Brookline said...

As a Yankee fan (despite my locus), I'm "Mets-a-Mets" on this issue. Things happen in sports. I don't believe Utley had sharpened his spikes, nor was bearing arms other than his own. It's a shame the injury occurred. But it was a split second decision by Utley to benefit his team. As JEB! said (but in a political vein regarding 2nd A arms), "Stuff happens." And the game continued. Play ball! And let's mull the appeal process during the long post baseball season in the manner of Deflategate to heat up the hot stove league with the many cries of "Wait till next year!"

Joe said...

Broken leg. Shrugs.

It was a blatant slide. I'm biased myself but lots of non-Mets players said so. Even as these things go, it was blatant. BTW, support an appeal, but this wasn't rocket science. There was a way to have the appeal before the first round was over.

Paul Scott said...

Dodger fan. I mostly agree with Mike (though for different reasons). I think the umpires got the neighborhood play ruling wrong, though not unreasonably wrong (though either way - reasonable or unreasonable -that decision, once made, is not reviewable). I think they got Rule 5.09(a)(13) unreasonably wrong by its letter, though right by common practice (again, not reviewable). Had I been an umpire, I would have ended the inning on a double play. Then again, if I were an Umpire I would call middle of the plate about the belt, below the armpits a strike too.

I think Torre is right on a punishment (whether it should be 2 games - or as I think, more, I'll leave alone), but then I think it is OK - no it is good - to punish people who do bad things even if I don't have a rule to point to. I think Torre is going to have a difficult time justifying under the rules that the play on the field was correct, but that Utley still needs to be punished.

More importantly, though, I hope this leads to real changes in the game, much as the rules have evolved to protect catchers. Baseball is rarely a contact sport and should not strive to be one. The neighborhood play has always bothered me and I still think it is a bad one. I feel that, however, only because it makes getting the outs easier not because you can avoid collisions but merely because you don't have to go as far, don't have to worry about being in a very precise place and can start your throw earlier. Fractions of a second, to be sure, but that is usually what matters. I think if they want a fair neighborhood play they need to designate, say, 8 inches off the bag towards third base at bag's width as the place the defender must step with control of the ball to record an out. Likewise, they need to allow the runner to be record as safe if his hand or foot reaches the section of the field 8 inches towards first base at base's width prior to the before defender reaching his designated out area. You would paint these on the field just as is done with, for example, the batter's box.

I am sure other rules are possible, but that one is an example of one that would remain fair to all players, remove most of the undesirable judgement call aspects and keep the runner and defender sufficiently separated to avoid most contact situations but not so far apart as to make the game look and feel very different from what it is today.

Shag from Brookline said...

It seems the meaning, interpretation and application of the "rule of law" in baseball is as clear as with the traditional rule of law - NOT. I have great respect for Joe Torre as a player and manager with his great successes and even more so as a family man. But I want to hear from Chase Utley. As a long time second baseman he is well aware of the dangers faced by middle infielders in situations involving doubleplays. (It could be argued that second basemen face more dangers than shortstops in such situations.) As a runner, he knows of these dangers and potential injuries, including to the runner. Utley is highly paid and as he ages surely he wants to avoid serious injury in such situations to himself - and to opponents - both as a fielder and as a runner. I've been following baseball since 1939 and quickly became familiar with breaking up doubleplays. A first base coach will review various scenarios with a teammate on first base, including avoiding a doubleplay. It is well recognized in baseball that middle infielders can face danger with attempts to break up doubleplays. Mickey Mantle started off his promising career at shortstop but was moved to the outfield including to protect him from the wear and tear faced by a shortstop. (Similar steps were taken with other shortstops. There was talk of moving Derek Jeter to the outfield a few years ago to perhaps extend his career.)

So I would like to hear from Utley about the circumstances. He had an obligation to his team as did all his teammates. The hard slide has been around a long time. Many middle infielders perform like a ballet dancer to touch second base, avoid contact and make the throw to first. Sometimes the middle infielder missteps, perhaps as a result of being distracted by the runner and anticipating contact or the misstep might be attributable to the toss from the other infielder.

Maybe the rules should be changed. But let's await what Utley has to say. And perhaps there can be offered expert testimony from experienced shortstops, active and retired, whether favorable or unfavorable to Utley. (It is possible that Utley could "man-up.)

Mike's Verdict column near its end discusses intent in the context of tort liability. But Mike does not seem to be suggesting potential tort liability on the part of Utley (or the Dodgers) to Tejeda (or the Mets). But that leaves unanswered whether there is such tort liability.

And in his column Mike references CJ Roberts' Senate confirmation hearing and his reference to an umpire calling balls and strikes. What if a follow up question was asked about a situation such as here? How might Roberts have responded? (In any event, baseball seems to continue to be protected from the commerce clause.)