Need to get to first? Don't use your head
Diving slides to that base come with too much risk, too little reward
Let's allow the fastest man in baseball to succinctly explain why the headfirst slide into first base is -- how do we put this delicately? -- dumb.
"It slows you down," Billy Hamilton said.
Anything capable of slowing down a player who can routinely get from home to first in about 3.8 seconds is probably not worthy of recommendation. And yes, there have been multiple scientific studies over the years (a recent one by ESPN's Sport Science found a 10-millisecond difference between running through the bag and diving into it) that do a decent job of proving Hamilton's point.
But even if we could call it a tie in the timing between the two options, the dive inherently poses more injury risk than the sprint.
"The problem," said Blue Jays coach Luis Rivera, "is guys slide too late, so they jam their fingers against the bag or get hurt going over the bag."
Alas, scientific scrutiny and the injury issue tends to get trumped by instinct in the heat of the moment. You see something, you want it, you reach for it. This is what we do. From the time we're little kids reaching for the cookie jar to the time we're old-timers plopped on the couch and reaching for the remote control. We reach for that which we must have.
In Major League Baseball, it has been proven time and time again that players won't let the physical risk prevent them from following their instincts.
That's why Josh Hamilton is on the disabled list with a torn ligament in his left thumb, the most notable victim of the instinct injury in 2014 -- but almost certainly not the last.
"You tell them, 'Don't do it,'" said Royals manager Ned Yost. "But with the competitive spirit they have, they just react."
So if we're going to operate on the premise that some players are going to slide headfirst into first base, is there a "proper" method of doing so? A means to mitigate the risk of injury?
Or is it just plain dumb all around?
A's veteran Nick Punto is adamant that while going headfirst into first is never recommended, there is a discernible difference between a "slide" and a "dive." The dive, he explained to the San Francisco Chronicle, is the way to go, because the friction of body against dirt is what slows a player down on a slide. And in explaining his methodology of avoiding injury, Punto said, "Your fingers have to be up when you hit the bag and your thumbs have to be tucked."
Punto is 100 percent entitled to his opinion, and Lord knows he loves the headfirst dive into first. Last September, he did it (while playing for the Dodgers) on a single to center field, not realizing the ball had skirted through the infield.
But when I ran the notion of a "proper" means of diving into first by some other folks in the game, I got precisely what I expected:
And then disapproval.
"The only reason to slide into first is to avoid a tag," Pirates baserunning coach Rick Sofield said. "If the throw is high and wide and you want to avoid the tag, I get it. But sliding is not the fastest way to the bag. For me, there is no sliding into first base unless you feel you can avoid the tag."
And even then, the threat of injury is real. Last year, in a game against the White Sox, the Indians' Michael Bourn hit a groundball down the first-base line that Adam Dunn fielded and flipped to left-handed reliever Matt Thornton. Because Thornton's glove hand was in line with Bourn's route to the bag, Bourn opted to hit the dirt and take his chances.
"I've had that happen before where I would have been safe but got tagged," Bourn said. "So I said, 'I'm not going to let that happen anymore. I'll slide.'"
So Bourn slid. And what happened?
"My hand got stepped on," he said, shaking his head. "That didn't work out like I wanted it to."
Bourn missed nearly a month with a laceration on his right index finger.
"I'm not doing that no more," he said. "Unless we're in the playoffs."
Did you catch that? Bourn got five stitches in his finger and missed 23 games, but he'd still dive headfirst into first again in an October scenario. While the injury was a reminder of the regular-season risk the injury poses, the outcome of the play reinforced the goal of the tactic in the first place.
Bourn, after all, was called safe on that infield single.
"It goes back to the competitive fire," Sofield said. "These guys are like horses who want to stick their noses out. Headfirst sliding gives them a more competitive mode in their mind."
In theory, going headfirst does allow a player to adjust his trajectory based on where the throw arrives and the position of the defender, so that's one slight positive. In the past, some players have said that the headfirst slide diverts the attention of the umpire at first base and potentially gives the advantage to the runner, but that would seem to be a less-reliable notion now in the age of instant replay review.
There is one other indefensible-yet-discernible advantage to the headfirst dive into first:
It looks cool.
"At times, it's perception," the Blue Jays' Jose Bautista said. "I do know some guys do the false hustle slide into first base, because it looks like they're trying harder. But that's not the majority."
While the headfirst slide into other bases does have some scientific studies on its side, the option of speeding through the bag simply creates a different equation at first. And the inability to grip the batting gloves, as some basestealers do, as a means to protecting the thumb is not available to a guy sprinting out of the batter's box.
That's why the idea is drilled into the minds of amateurs and Minor Leaguers alike: On close plays at first base, before you go headfirst, use your head first.
"The proper way to do it," said Yost, "is don't do it."