Saturday, May 29, 2021

Tennessee's Force Play vs MLB's Bona Fide Slide Rule

Although Tennessee looked to walk off Alabama during NCAA Baseball's SEC Tournament, umpires ruled a force play slide rule violation and interference call when Vols base runner R1 Max Ferguson made illegal contact with Alabama second baseman Peyton Wilson during Bama's inning-ending double play attempt in the bottom of the 9th inning of a then-tied ballgame.

With the bases loaded and one out of a game tied 2-2 in the last of the 9th, Tennessee batter Jake Rucker hit a ground ball on the infield, with Wilson tagging second base to retire Ferguson before attempting a throw to first base to complete the double play as Ferguson slid, 2B Umpire Scott Cline ultimately ruling that Ferguson illegally slid into the base, resulting in an inning-ending double play, instead of a walk-off 3-2 win.

Alabama later went on to win the game, 3-2, but Tennessee still came back to eventually win the double-elimination stage of the tournament.

Rules Difference, FPSR
: College baseball/NCAA (as well as high school ball/NFHS) makes use of a force play slide rule (FPSR) in which a runner must slide in a direct line between two bases. NCAA Rule 8-4 states, "The intent of the force-play-slide rule is to ensure the safety of all players. This is a safety and an interference rule. Whether the defense could have completed the double play has no bearing on the applicability of this rule. This rule pertains to a force-play situation at any base, regardless of the number of outs, except it does not apply to the batter-runner at first base."

[high school deems a slide illegal if "he runner, on a force play, does not slide on the ground and in a direct line between the two bases" in NFHS 2-32-2].

Because of its safety-first emphasis, the rule leaves little room for umpire judgment: if the runner violates its terms, a force play slide rule violation shall be called. The NCAA book includes a diagram which leaves little to the imagination: if the runner makes contact with a fielder in the defense's protected gray area, it shall be deemed a double play. On a force play, the runner "must slide on the ground before the base and in a direct line between the two bases" unless avoiding contact with a fielder (NCAA 8-4-a).

Accordingly, the Tennessee play was properly officiated as an FPSR violation and double play.

Pro Rule, Bona Fide Slide Rule: The Official Baseball Rules employed by MLB and MiLB, however, use a different and more lenient standard: the bona fide slide rule. As previously covered on our site, the runner must meet four criteria (begins slide before reaching base, able and attempts to reach base with hand or foot, able and attempts to remain on base, slides within reach of base without changing pathway to initiate contact with fielder).

Unlike NCAA, however, there is no hard-and-fast protected gray area. OBR 6.01(j) states, "a runner who engages in a “bona fide slide” shall not be called for interference under this Rule 6.01, even in cases where the runner makes contact with the fielder as a consequence of a permissible slide." Therefore, a runner whose slide is bona fide can, all else equal, make legal contact with a fielder that, under NCAA rules, would be illegal under the FPSR language.

Caveat: This does not, however, give the runner carte blanche to contact a fielder during a bona fide slide. OBR 6.01(a)(5) states that, "Any batter or runner who has just been put out, or any runner who has just scored, hinders or impedes any following play being made on a runner. Such runner shall be declared out for the interference of his teammate" (this is different than the willful and deliberate interference standard for non-retired runners interfering with batted balls with the obvious intent to break up a double play, as in OBR 6.01(a)(6)).

Thus, under OBR, an umpire could use judgment to deem whether or not the act of retired baserunner Ferguson's left arm making contact with fielder Wilson's body as Wilson threw to first base met this hinder-or-impede standard that, under NCAA, would be unavailable to the umpire (due to the strict standard requiring the FPSR violation). For this precise situation, OBR is more flexible than NCAA.

Accordingly, if an OBR umpire deemed the hinder-or-impede standard was met, the outcome under OBR could very well match the outcome under NCAA (dead ball, inning-ending double play), but for different reasons.

Video as follows:

Alternate Link: Tennessee Baseball loses to Alabama after earlier FPSR play (CCS)


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