On Saturday night, Javier Baez crushed a fastball from Santiago Casilla, hitting it to almost exactly the same spot he hit his game-winning home run on Friday night. Having hit the ball 102 mph at a 26 degree launch angle — balls with those characteristics were home runs 65% of the time this year — Baez dropped his head and started to jog towards first base. He didn’t really put it in top gear until he rounded first base and saw that the ball had hit the wall, and that there was going to be a play at second base. Once at full speed, he covered enough ground to beat the throw pretty easily, and dove in to second base before Joe Panik could apply the tag. He was easily called safe, and attention turned to his health, as he appeared to dive into Panik’s knee, and was suffering the consequences of the collision.
Two minutes and 49 seconds after the play had ended, however, Baez was called out. The Giants had challenged the call, as has become a custom for nearly every close tag play at second base, because it was possible that Baez not maintained contact with the bag during every millisecond of his slide into the base. So, the review umpires in New York re-evaluated the play, and saw this.
As Baez dives into second base, his hand comes off the bag as his body catches up to it, and during the exchange of having his arm touching the bag and his body laying entirely on it, there is a brief period where neither is in contact with the base. Panik’s tag happens to occur during this exact moment.
According to the way the rules are written, Baez is clearly out. He was off the base when he was tagged while Panik had the ball, and that’s the rulebook definition of one of the ways the runner can be called out. From rule 5.09(b)4:
(4) He is tagged, when the ball is alive, while off his base.
Baez was tagged, when the ball was alive, while off his base. This ended up being a pretty easy call for the replay booth, so an often-homer off the bat ended up turning into a single with a 7-4 putout. And yet, despite the rule being correctly applied, I think MLB needs to have a serious conversation this winter about whether this makes baseball better or worse. I vote worse.
When there’s a close tag play at a base, the essence of the question being asked is “did the runner reach the base before was tagged by a fielder in possession of the baseball?” That’s really what we care about; who got there first? But because replay has given teams the ability to ask umpires to review tag plays to determine maintenance of contact, we’ve now rephrased the question, and we’re no longer asking if the runner beat the tag, but if the runner beat the tag and slid in such a way that he managed to never stop touching the base during his slide.
Many people don’t have a problem with this. After all, it’s how the rule is written, and if you don’t want to be called out, just slide better, right?
I might be the only person who doesn't hate the replay rule. If you are not touching the bag and get tagged, you are out. This isn't hard.
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) October 9, 2016
Rather than bitching about replay, why don't we expect players to do a better job at sliding so they maintain contact with the base?
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) October 9, 2016
What we frequently hear on plays like the Baez dive is that he should have gone feet-first, not head-first, both because of this possibility but also because it’s safer. But sliding in feet-first actually makes it more difficult to maintain contact with the bag all the way through the tag. Last postseason, we wrote about a couple of examples of this kind of replay with feet-first slides.
Here’s Terrence Gore, sliding into third base.
Here’s Rougned Odor, sliding back into second base.
The “just slide better” mantra is easy enough to defend, but in practicality, it’s pretty clear that many of the best baserunners in the world can’t really do this every time, or even close to every time. There are so many instances of runners momentarily coming off the bag due to the momentum of their body as they slide (or dive) that this replay challenge has become routine on almost every close play at second base. It isn’t like this is simply a matter of correct technique; what we’re now asking players to do is very difficult.
And we’re only asking them to do it at second and third base. At first base and home plate, there are exceptions written into the rule that allow a runner to touch the base and continue on past it, acknowledging that running all out in order to beat a throw will often require momentum to carry the runner past those two bases. At second and third, however, we’re now pretending that it should just be that easy. Slide better, as Passan says.
Personally, I’m not all that interested in forcing runners to learn how to slide in such a way that they can touch second or third base continuously through their slide. That has never been the standard to which runners have been held, and I don’t see the value in holding current runners to that standard at just those two bases now. Baseball already has two on-the-books rules that allow runners to beat a tag at a base and continue to be called safe even if they stop making contact with that base, and I think it’s time to bring that kind of reasonable logic to second and third bases as well.
My suggestion? Let’s have second and third base represent the base of a vertical safe area, in which a player is safe once he touches the base and remains safe so long as a part of his body is in the area immediately above the base he’s sliding into. In other words, you initiate the safe zone by touching the base first, and then once you’ve touched it, the area of the base becomes an extension of the base itself, so if your body is momentarily over but not perfectly on the base, you’re still safe.
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.
The maintain-contact part of the rule just isn’t something that makes baseball any better. It has added replay slowdowns to a play that wasn’t ever previously thought to have been called wrong, and it turns exciting close plays at second and third into boring dissections of frame-by-frame video, at no real benefit to the sport.
I’m glad the sport didn’t force Josh Donaldson to maintain contact with home plate yesterday as he raced home for the series-ending run against the Rangers. The game is better if runners can simply show that they beat the tag at the base without forcing them to learn how to “slide better”, whatever that means. The game is about getting to base safely before the ball gets there. Javier Baez did that, and hopefully in 2016, MLB will figure out how to re-write the rule so that on a similar play, the runner can be called safe, as they have been throughout baseball’s history.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.