Sliding, a display of hustle and desire, is to be celebrated in baseball. But it can be detrimental if done incorrectly.
Bryce Harper, the Washington Nationals' All-Star left fielder, was recently put on the disabled list due to a sprained left thumb, becoming the latest major league player to injure himself via a headfirst slide. And in Casper on Saturday, when the Oilers found themselves with numerous sliding opportunities over the course of their 9-2 and 15-2 doubleheader victories over the visiting Laramie Rangers, the dynamic between which part of the body to lead with when sliding was on full display.
The Oilers, despite first-year head coach Andrew Kaiser's adamant opposition to ever sliding headfirst, opted to lead with their arms on multiple slide attempts, succeeding with mixed results. Outweighing the varying chances of success -- which many in baseball have disputed as providing any additional speed -- is how sliding headfirst leaves runners more susceptible to injury.
For many, including Kaiser, it's an action simply not worth the risk.
"I don’t believe it’s ever the right play to go headfirst into a bag," Kaiser said. "I’ve seen too many jammed hands, broken fingers, whatever it is on headfirst. Unfortunately, in the midst of a game, when you’re going hard, it’s not always possible to be thinking about what you’re going to do."
So where's the disconnect? If feet first is always the right play, why do anything but that?
The answer, as Kaiser suggests, appears to lie in a player's psychological conditioning. It's difficult to break habits that have yielded success in the past. And even when possessing an intellectual understanding of what is right and wrong, playing at full speed leaves little time to deliberate over which part of the body to lead with. If the main goal is to ensure safety, getting low to the ground any way possible becomes the primary objective.
"You pretty much just hope for the best," Oilers second baseman John Fanto said. "You can get hurt either way, headfirst or sliding on your butt."
Indeed, sliding feet-first isn't always enough. Kirk Durtsche, the Oilers' right fielder last season, tore his meniscus sliding feet-first. Poor technique and overaggressive defenders also contribute to the risk inherent in sliding.
Fanto believes headfirst is the correct play when sliding into third base because of where the third baseman positions himself; base runners have an opening to dive around and slap the bag with their hands. Kaiser counters with hook slide technique: Instead of sliding into the base feet-first, he's attempted to teach his players to slide to the side of the base and grab it with their hands as they go by.
Teaching his players to slide how Kaiser sees fit will require constant reinforcement in practice. Right now, too many of his players find headfirst sliding easier -- and, most likely, cooler. Safety will look to overcome flash.
"You tell them over and over again. you force them to do it, you force them to force them to do it, and you hope eventually it becomes habit," Kaiser said. "As it is now, it’s been a habit to do it the other way. So it’s trying to break old habits and make new ones."