Yesterday, the Pirates suffered a crushing blow when Chris Coghlan went out of his way to take out shortstop Jung Ho Kang on a double play. Coghlan hard slide wound up breaking Kang's leg and tearing his MCL, and will keep him out for the rest of the regular and postseason. Given that Kang provided a clear upgrade over Jordy Mercer, his absence figures to hit Pittsburgh hard the rest of the way.
What's particularly problematic about the Coghlan slide is that it came not only against the team his Cubs are chasing in the Wild Card race, but also the team they figure to play in the Wild Card play-in game. While the step down from Kang to Mercer at this point is not likely to be the deciding factor in that contest, or even in the race to see who will host the game, it does ever so marginally hurt the Pirates' chances, and so it's important that we examine it closely.
Let's look at the video below:
There are some important questions we need to ask about Coghlan's slide. First,
Was it legal?
Rule 7.09(e) is not terribly clear on the subject, saying,
"If, in the judgment of the umpire, a base runner willfully and deliberately interferes with a batted ball or a fielder in the act of fielding a batted ball with the obvious intent to break up a double play, the ball is dead. The umpire shall call the runner out for interference and also call out the batter-runner because of the action of his teammate. In no event may bases be run or runs scored because of such action by a runner."
So it's a judgment call. In practice, almost every runner is trying to make the fielder's job more difficult, and to complicate his ability to complete the double play. Generally, an umpire won't call interference unless the runner is unable to touch the base he's ostensibly trying to reach. Clearly, Coghlan could have reached second base, even though he's sliding well to the right of it.
But is it dirty?
Again we're talking about a judgment call here. But it's pretty clear from the video that Coghlan was sliding at Kang, and slid incredibly late. I mean, he pretty much jumped spikes-first into Kang's ankle. I doubt he was trying to intentionally injure Kang, but I think he didn't care nearly as much about the consequences of what looks pretty questionable so long as he broke up the double play. Whether or not that was dirty...I guess your mileage can vary on that. I'd say it's very close, but probably not.
That said, last year, Major League Baseball specifically made the so-called "neighborhood play" unreviewable, giving tacit approval to middle infielders who left second base before receiving the throw, so as to avoid injury. Kang, conversely, stayed on second until he received the throw, leaving himself more vulnerable than he otherwise would have been if he had taken advantage of the leeway the league has given him.
So what should we do now?
Well, we don't hobble people as a punishment anymore, so that's out. Nor do I think it's right to seek retribution on the Cubs. Baseball has already lost one of its impressive new talents, and I don't see how the game is served if another player is taken out for a long period. Nobody should go after Coghlan or the Cubs.
I would, however, really like to see fewer injuries in the game, especially devastating ones like this. Baseball is a game of skill, not a contact sport, and it should be played accordingly. Guys shouldn't be slide-tackled on the field when they're vulnerable.
I'd be very much in favor of a rule that penalized a runner for not making a straight line to the base on a force play, which would allow the fielder to sidestep them. It will lead to more double plays, but it will also keep the best players on the field, presumably helping offset any decrease in scoring around the league. Let's not condemn Coghlan for what happened, but let's try and make sure that it doesn't happen again, especially when it has the power to change the nature of a pennant race.