NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Sunday, March 13, 2016, 10:22 PM
Ruben Tejada is upended by Chase Utley in the 2015 NLDS which causes MLB to change its double play rule around second base – and subject it to instant replay.
JUPITER, Fla. — A few days ago, shortstop Gavin Cecchini came across second base to turn what looked like a routine double play against the Nationals, except umpire Joe West ruled the runner safe at second, declaring that Cecchini had come off the bag early.
The Mets couldn’t believe it.
“It looked like a typical double play,” infield coach Tim Teufel was saying Sunday. “I’m not even sure he was off the bag early. But they’re going to call it now. And it’s going to be a huge deal.”
Such is life around second base now that Major League Baseball has essentially declared the time-honored neighborhood play obsolete by making it reviewable, therefore subject to a replay challenge. Shortstops and second baseman have always been given latitude, in the interest of safety, to come across the bag, or behind the bag, without actually being on the bag while taking a throw and completing a double play.
But because MLB has instituted a new slide rule in the aftermath of the Chase Utley-Ruben Tejada play, requiring runners to hit the ground before reaching second base, it decided to take away the neighborhood play.
MLB’s position is that the change shouldn’t be terribly significant because it had become something of a myth in recent years anyway. Though it wasn’t subject to replay, MLB officials make the case that umpires were calling it tighter anyway, to the point where infielders weren’t taking the same old liberties.
“Infielders have felt they had to touch the base anyway,’’ Chris Marinak, MLB’s VP of economics and strategy, told me a few weeks ago.
The Mets aren’t buying that explanation. They say their old second baseman, Daniel Murphy, in particular, pushed the envelope at times in how early he came off the bag while turning two, and was never called for it.
“Murph was good at it,’’ Terry Collins said. “Sometimes we were worried it would get called, but umpires were giving him the neighborhood play. I didn’t see where anything had changed.”
Now MLB has made sure teams are aware the play is reviewable, and thus umpires have been instructed to make sure players are on the bag. West’s call against the Mets was proof of sorts.
“We’re telling our guys to make sure they’re on the bag when they take the throw,” Teufel said. “But when you need to turn a big double play, you might do it the way you always have.
“So it’s going to happen to some teams this season. In the eighth inning of a tie game, an umpire is going to overturn a double play and it’s going to cost a team a game.”
New Mets 2B Neil Walker is accustomed to staying on the bag, the Mets coaching staff says.
Teufel and Collins say they aren’t as concerned about it for the Mets, largely because newcomer Neil Walker isn’t so much a glider around the bag as a player who takes throws in a stationary position at the bag. “He stays on the bag, anyway,” Teufel said. “He’s very good at turning the double play while staying on the bag.”
Teufel, in fact, said Walker and fellow newcomer Asdrubal Cabrera were looking like a smooth double-play combination before Cabrera injured his knee on Thursday. Cabrera is sidelined for at least a couple of weeks.
“Assuming he comes back healthy, we’re going to turn more double plays this year,” Teufel said. “Cabrera has great hands and that ability to get rid of the ball quickly with just a flick of the wrist. Not everybody can do it, and it saves that little bit of time that can make the difference.
“And Walker gets rid of the ball quickly. They’re both veteran guys who just know how to play the game.”
That savvy could mean a smooth transition to the new era around the bag, with the demise of the neighborhood play. However, Collins remains concerned about the potential for injury. His first reaction, remember, upon hearing the news a few weeks ago was to say, “Somebody’s going to get their clock cleaned.”
A fter getting a full explanation from MLB, the manager remains skeptical.
“In one of the videos they showed us (in conjunction with the new slide rule), Jose Altuve got the heck knocked out of him,” Collins said. “The bottom line is the neighborhood play was there for a reason.
“The infielder needs that momentum coming across the bag to help him avoid the slide. Just because a player has to start his slide in front of the bag doesn’t mean he can’t still get to the guy making the pivot.”
In other words, Collins still doesn’t agree with the elimination of the neighborhood play, and understandably so, since it does seem to conflict with MLB’s desire to make the game safer around second base.
But the Mets need to prepare for it — and not just because Joe West enforced the new rule on them. Challenges are coming. Better have that foot on the bag.