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Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Josh Hamilton and Bryce Harper injuries should deter players from sliding head-first

By on 5/07/2014 10:00:00 AM

Sliding head-first into a base vs. sliding feet-first into a base.

Even though studies exist showing there is no speed advantage with either, players continue using the more dangerous option on a nightly basis. 

Josh Hamilton and Bryce Harper are more willing to slide head-first, and that decision will cost them significant playing time this season. 

After a not-so-smooth first season of a five-year, $125 million deal he signed with the Los Angeles Angles, Hamilton was off to a hot start in 2014. He posted a .444/.545/.741 line with two home runs and six RBI through 27 at-bats.

Instead of running through first base in the seventh inning of an April 8 game against the Seattle Mariners, he decided to dive head-first in an effort to reach safely.

He didn’t, and ended up tearing a ligament in his thumb, needing surgery and a recovery time of approximately two months.

Harper wasn’t off to a start like Hamilton, but was an asset to the Washington Nationals’ lineup, hitting .289/.352/.422 through 83 at-bats. He decided to slide head-first into second base on April 25 against the San Diego Padres.

He didn’t think his injury was a big issue, but further investigating showed a torn UCL in his hand, also requiring surgery and two months on the sidelines.

Finding out whether or not there is an advantage to sliding head-first against sliding feet-first is a debate that will probably go on until the end of time. It’s been proven there is no advantage, but in the heat of the moment, ballplayers feel like it will help.

And if they feel a better chance toward getting a base hit or gaining an extra base, they’ll take that risk.

However, it’s tough for me to see how sliding head-first is faster in the overall scheme of things.

We see this scenario at least a couple times a week: a player steals second base and the catcher’s throw goes into the outfield. The baserunner (more often than not, sliding head-first), immediately gets up, trying to advance to third. They usually get there, but sometimes they take too long getting to their feet, and have to stay put.

Speaking from experience, it took me a long time to get off the ground and start moving again after sliding head-first, compared to the times I went feet-first. Eventually, I decided to abandon the head-first option altogether because I could pop up quickly and hardly miss a beat with the second option.

The bigger issue is how dangerous it is. There are times when sliding head-first is unavoidable, such as diving back toward a base on an attempted pickoff play. However, in all other instances, players should be avoiding it.

The injuries to Hamilton and Harper should be the best examples why to not use it.
Getting hurt is a part of being a professional athlete. Some can avoid major injuries and long stints on the DL, but not everyone is so lucky.

Sliding head-first can cause injuries to some of a player’s most important assets, such as their hands. Even once Hamilton and Harper are deemed healthy enough to play, it will undoubtedly take some time before they recover the strength in their hands and wrists lost from not being using them while on the DL.

Harper’s teammate, Ryan Zimmerman, is currently experiencing a setback in his recovery process because his hand hasn’t healed enough to start hand-strengthening exercises.

Hitters, especially those with power, need strong hands and wrists to generate the bat speed necessary to be successful. All the work they’ve done over the winter to strengthen that part of their body has been erased, and solely because they’d rather slide head-first and risk greater injury, instead of going feet-first.

Injuring a foot or leg is also not preferred, but players are at least able to keep their hands and wrists strong throughout the recovery process. Will Carroll of Bleacher Report spoke to Dr. Steven Shin about Harper’s injury and the importance of paying attention to the whole hand during rehab:
It is important to also make sure one rehabs the wrist and fingers, as well as the rest of the upper extremity, which might have become deconditioned during the immobilization period. If the thumb is on the bottom hand when swinging, I am more cautious about starting swinging, usually around four weeks post-op. If the thumb is on the top hand, I'm less concerned and will allow swinging shortly after the cast is removed.
Will these injuries change how Hamilton and Harper play the game?

Probably not.

Hamilton will hopefully avoid sliding into first base in the future, at the very least.

All the research in the world can be shown, but it’s hard to change their style of play. Using instincts and reacting on the field is what got them to the big leagues in the first place. If they're told to ignore what comes naturally, they run the risk of getting injured anyway.

It seems like a no-win situation for players and teams. For those who play the game like Hamilton and Harper, the risk of injury is worth the reward of production. The only hope is long trips to the DL can be avoided more often than not.

Teams get away unscathed a lot, but aren't always so lucky.

You can follow Matt on Twitter: @mmusico8.

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  1. will wipperdinkMay 9, 2014 at 4:50 PM

    one would think that in an industry with so many specialists and experts that doing something as stupid as head first slides would be taught not to do that

  2. Thanks for reading, Will. I agree. It's confusing to me that so many still do so.