The most pivotal play in Sunday’s Cubs-Pirates game was also its most controversial, even though it ended up not being nearly as blatant as a blown call in a later game. Down 3-1 in the top of the 3rd inning, the Cubs had men on first and second with just one out following a single by Ian Happ and, as has too often been the case, Willson Contreras wearing an inside fastball. They had established a rare bit of momentum, but a double play would snuff it immediately
So when Anthony Rizzo grounded to first baseman Colin Moran, Contreras knew he had to go hard at the bag to prevent shortstop Kevin Newman from making a clean turn. Contreras did just that, forcing Newman to make a leaping throw that sailed wide and allowed Rizzo to reach safely while Happ cruised home. With the score 3-2 and two men still on, the Cubs were in business.
Until they weren’t.
The Pirates asked for a review of the play, during which it was ruled that Contreras failed to engage in a “bona fide slide” as defined by Rule 6.01J (page 73). You can see the full text of the rule in that link or the tweet below, but here are the basics: the runner has to slide before the base; has to be able/attempt to reach the base; has to be able/attempt to stay on the base; has to slide within reach of the base without changing his path for the purpose of initiating contact with the fielder.
“I don’t think I did anything wrong there,” Contreras told the media after the game. “I just slid within reach of the base. They probably called me out because I didn’t touch the base, but for me, I didn’t touch the guy.”
Based on a careful examination of the exact letter of the law, the replay review booth in New York probably made the right call in this case. Contreras did slide to the right of the bag and, even though he never contacted the fielder, he only made what looked like a half-hearted attempt to touch the bag. Had he been more aggressive with his left hand, maybe he’d have been safe.
But therein lies the problem with both the rule and its application, particularly when review is concerned. Take a look at this slide from the Blue Jays-Angels game the other day and tell me it doesn’t look far more egregious. This was was ruled to be perfectly legal, by the way.
How is this not an illegal slide???
He’s going right for José Iglesias’s legs???
— Athletics Rants #VierlingASG (@AthleticsRants) April 11, 2021
The whole point of the rule is to eliminate take-out slides that could lead to injuries, which is a noble goal and should absolutely be the case. However, the way it’s written allows for the kind of subjectivity that could actually see a more malicious slide being ruled as legal simply because the runner went directly at the bag and was able to hold it.
It’s more than just the interpretation of this particular rule, though, as MLB’s entire review system is inherently flawed. Not only do the umpires on the field not have to explain the calls that come down from on high, but it’s long been assumed that the replay crew at league HQ isn’t actually prioritizing the right call over avoiding making their brethren look worse when they can avoid it.
One of the big questions within the game about this MLB replay system has always been how willing umpires in the replay room are to overrule a call by one of their fellow umps.
Hard for the replay crew to look at Lance Barrett standing right on top of this play and say, “Wrong!”
— Jayson Stark (@jaysonst) April 12, 2021
That tweet from Stark and the online outrage Sunday night over bad calls and/or reviews had nothing to do with Contreras and the Cubs. Instead, it stemmed from what has to be one of the most transparently awful results of a replay review this side of the missed pass interference at the end of the 2019 NFC Championship. The Phillies’ Alec Bohm slid into home and was tagged without ever touching the plate, but he was ruled safe on the field.
A review of the play upheld that call, on which the Phillies took a 7-6 lead over the Braves that ended up being the final score. The angles below show how truly pathetic the effort was from the replay crew. Yikes.
Another look at Alec Bohm’s play at the plate that was ruled safe and upheld pic.twitter.com/FiTQ9Vhexy
— Bad Sports Refs (@BadSportsRefs) April 12, 2021
Speaking of pathetic, let’s circle back to the Cubs here before wrapping this thing up. While the big play in question may have stemmed momentum and turned the tide in the Pirates’ favor, the Cubs could do nothing to prevent another offensive tsunami as they continued to paddle around in their rickety (Rickettsy?) rowboat. They scored only seven runs in the series, four of which came in their lone win back on Thursday. By contrast, the Pirates scored at least seven in each of the last two games.
That’s got nothing to do with the interpretation of a slide rule or any work being done by the coaching staff, though perhaps tallying their stats with an abacus would produce better results. Outside of a few individual performances, the Cubs simply don’t look like a team that knows what it’s doing right now. Only two regulars are batting above .200 and those same two — Javy Báez, Kris Bryant — are the only ones with an OPS over .700 through nine games.
“As a group, we’re not having the right approach,” Contreras said. “We have to take care of that.”
Hey, maybe we can challenge this early performance and see if someone can overturn it. I mean, if a runner can score without touching the plate and if a call can be made based on a player’s failed attempt to make contact, we can make an argument that a few of the Cubs’ 89 strikeouts were actually hits and they’ve in fact scored more runs than the scores indicate.
Or maybe the Cubs could see to it that we don’t have to create an alternate reality in order for them to be competitive with the worst team in the National League.