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.