MLB rule changes have some Cardinal infielders feeling at risk -

MLB rule changes have some Cardinal infielders feeling at risk

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Kolten Wong Kolten Wong

JUPITER, FL. ( -- Major League Baseball announced its rule changes for the 2016 season Thursday, the two most significant of which are aimed at improving pace of play and reducing the element of danger on plays in which a fielder encounters a runner on a double play.

As far as the pace of play changes go, the rule is pretty simple. Coaches and managers will now have 30 seconds to conduct their mound visits, and the timer will begin counting down once they leave the dugout. When it hits zero, they have to head back.

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The rule removes the ability to buy time for a warming reliever by a manager slowly ambling out to the mound, something the league apparently views as an unnecessary delay. But questions remain as to how to handle unique circumstances such as a language barrier. For example, the Cardinals signed Korean reliever Seung-hwan Oh this offseason, and every conversation has to go through his translator, Eugene Koo. That means every chat between the pitcher and a coach or manager is essentially twice as long. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny has already brought that concern to the league, confirming Friday he spoke with executive director of the MLBPA Tony Clark on the issue.

“It was duly noted, but I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen with it,” he said.

There will likely be a provision for such circumstances by the time the regular season begins, but the rules around second base are much murkier at this point. The first part, aimed at regulating takeout slides, deems a slide acceptable if the runner:

1. begins his slide (i.e., makes contact with the ground) before reaching the base;

2. is able and attempts to reach the base with his hand or foot;

3. is able and attempts to remain on the base (except home plate) after completion of the slide; and

4. slides within reach of the base without changing his pathway for the purpose of initiating contact with a fielder.

If a lot of that seems familiar to you, you’re not alone. Speaking Friday, second baseman Kolten Wong said he didn’t see much difference in the new rule compared to the way things were before.

“The slide rule really hasn’t changed that much. Obviously they’re going to take away the obvious takeout slides. They’re taking that out of the picture,” he said. “They should have just done that and left it at that I think.”

What he’s reacting to in the second half of that quote was the additional announcement that this season the “neighborhood play,” an agreed-upon unwritten rule that allows an infielder to record a force out at second on a double play without actually touching the bag with his foot, will be reviewable.

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The play been acceptable because it allowed infielders to protect themselves from injury. So long as the fielder was “in the neighborhood” of the bag, it was understood the runner was out.

Now that it seems fielders could be penalized for not physically contacting the base, Wong is worried middle infielders will be put at risk.

“We need to know the clarification of how much we can push this envelope. It’s not really us trying to turn a double play by not using the bag, it’s us trying to get out of the way from the guy taking us out,” he said. “If they’re going to say we need to be on the bag at all times while we’re catching the ball, you’re going to see a lot of guys turning double plays a lot differently this year.”

That clarification could come as soon as Saturday, when league officials (including Clark) will be at Cardinals camp to meet with the team. For now, Matheny says they haven’t changed their double play instruction in response to the new rules.

In combination, the slide rules and neighborhood play regulation are designed to be a give and take. Runners can’t blatantly target fielders, and fielders- now protected- can’t exploit the neighborhood play for a cheap out. But listening to Wong, it’s clear some infielders don’t feel any safer.

“When you turn a double play there’s three different ways you can go, basically. You can go forward, backward, or you can use the bag,” he said. “It’s going to take away the forward and backward and you’re going to have to use the bag every single time. You need some kind of protection. These guys are coming in full speed and you need something to kind of keep these guys off you. Obviously you’re still going to get hit because you’re on the bag the whole time, but hopefully the bag can slow them down enough to where it’s not too big of a hit."

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Last year, the Pirates’ Jung-ho Kang and the Mets’ Ruben Tejada were both badly hurt by takeout slides on a double play. The latter, executed by Chase Utley in the playoffs, was pretty gruesome and likely the driving force behind the rule being implemented this season. But Wong sees that as a flawed example to base such a change on.

“Chase was coming in, ready to slide regular if [Tejada] was just going to take the out, but he saw him turn and try and do that throw. As a runner, you’re not going to let them get that throw easily,” he said. “It was one of those plays where it looked bad, but if you really think about it, Chase didn’t really do anything that bad. Obviously he broke his leg, but the whole mindset behind it wasn’t that bad, just the way it went down was the worst part.”

Matheny anticipates the rule will have a transitional interpretation period, much like the rules governing catcher positioning during plays at the plate last year. If every double play is reviewable, however, one of two things will happen: Double plays will go down, or injuries will go up. In the worst case scenario, it could be both.

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