A headfirst mistake
April, 13, 2011
By Buster Olney | ESPN Insider
Roberto Alomar had the greatest half-season of any player I've ever seen in 1996, after signing with the Baltimore Orioles as a free agent. He seemed to catch every grounder hit within two time zones, make every throw, collect big hits and steal bases when it was important in the game situation. On June 24, Alomar was hitting .377, with a .448 on-base percentage and a .569 slugging average.
But in the middle of that season Alomar dove into first base trying to get a hit and mashed his fingers -- an injury that would bother him for the rest of the summer. Davey Johnson, the Orioles' manager at the time, was never one to mince words, and he said flatly that he thought that going into a base headfirst was a bad idea.
Getty ImagesHamilton can share the blame, but he also made a common mistake.
Alomar -- who had a brilliant baseball mind -- rejected Johnson's admonition outright, saying this was the way he had always played and this was going to be the way he would continue to play going forward.
I have never quite understood the perspective of Alomar and others who feel this is something they must always do, because clearly, a player going into a base with his hands and arms extended is at much greater risk for injury from outside forces that he does not control: a leaping infielder; or a catcher who is wearing shin guards dropping a knee; or a sliding surface that is thickened by rain, making it more likely that he will stop abruptly -- like a car hitting a guardrail.
Most outfielders learn to avoid head-on pursuit of the fences on deep flies and foul balls, taking a big-picture view that it's better to stay healthy over the long-term than dive into an immovable object while trying to register one out. Adrian Gonzalez, a spectacular first baseman, has stopped diving headlong for ground balls to his right after injuring his shoulder last year (he had shoulder surgery last fall) because his managers -- Bud Black in San Diego and now Terry Francona in Boston -- would prefer that he stay in the lineup. Pitching coaches and managers strongly discourage pitchers from reaching with a bare hand for a line drive, because while it might help a pitcher get one out, in one inning, the risk for a busted finger is enormous.
But for some reason, baserunners who grow up diving into bases for hits or runs struggle to change this habit, and time after time after time, the result is injury -- and Josh Hamilton is only the latest example, breaking his arm on a headlong dive into home plate. Last night, a lot of folks on Twitter sent along many other recent examples of players who have gotten hurt while going into a base headfirst, from Rafael Furcal to Chase Utley to Derek Jeter.
Competitiveness and habit come into play in a situation when a runner is trying to get a hit or score a run; I remember a couple of instances when Cal Ripken, who was the living definition of old-school in the way he played, dove into first base in a desperate effort to reach safely. But somehow, some way, teams and managers must help players learn to stop doing this kind of thing -- just as pitchers learn, through repetition, to fight the instinct to intercept a line drive or punch a wall with their pitching hand.
Somewhere along the way, the art of hook-sliding -- an alternative way for a runner to go into a base low and fast, feet first -- has been lost for a lot of players; maybe there should be a greater effort in spring training to hone this skill, to reinforce this until it becomes habit. Perhaps the managers should make sliding headfirst a fineable offense, not so much to penalize the player as to remind them. There's too much at stake, as the Rangers can testify while going without the presence of the AL Most Valuable Player in their lineup for the next couple of months.
The decision of Rangers third-base coach Dave Anderson to send Hamilton home in an attempt to score is debatable, as are a lot of the choices of third-base coaches; it's Hamilton's right to disagree. The instinct of Hamilton, however, to go into the base headfirst -- which is really what put him at risk -- is his and his alone. If Hamilton had gone into home plate with a hook slide, the result of the play may have been the same, but he almost certainly would have been able to get up and walk away without a broken arm.
Hamilton will miss a couple of months. He was the most valuable player in baseball last year, according to WAR (source: fangraphs.com):
Josh Hamilton: 8.0
Joey Votto: 7.4
Albert Pujols: 7.3
Ryan Zimmerman: 7.2
Adrian Beltre: 7.1
• With the likelihood that David Murphy will get the bulk of the playing time in the absence of Josh Hamilton, what aspects of Hamilton's performance will the Rangers miss most? One is performance versus lefties. Hamilton has been really good throughout his career versus right-handed pitching, and Murphy is no slouch, with a .490 career slugging percentage them. But Murphy doesn't have a great history against lefties. He had one homer in 114 at-bats against lefties last season. Hamilton had eight in 166.
• Weighted On-Base Average is a metric that has a very basic reasoning behind it: Not all ways of reaching base have the same value. It is similar to on-base percentage, but it factors in the fact that a double is better than a single, a triple is better than a double, etc. Hamilton's was the highest in baseball last season:
Josh Hamilton: .447
Joey Votto: .439
Albert Pujols: .420
Ryan Zimmerman: .389
• Not only did Hamilton win the overall batting title last year, but he also led qualified players in the other categories of hitting against fastballs (.402) and hitting against off-speed pitches (.317). Among a lot of other next-level categories.
• Aubrey Huff has struggled in right field, so the Giants may flip-flop Huff and first baseman Brandon Belt this weekend.
• On a scale of one to 10, I'd put the Panic Meter at a 4.5 for the Red Sox; the hole they are digging is getting deeper. Boston is seven games under .500, after losing to Tampa Bay; the Red Sox have the worst record in baseball. The Red Sox are just not good enough, writes Michael Silverman.
• Fausto Carmona was good but the other guy was just a little better, and the Indians' winning streak came to an end. So far, the Cleveland rotation has performed better than that of the Phillies, writes Paul Hoynes.
• Michael Pineda was dazzling again, as Geoff Baker writes.
Dings and dents1. Brandon Webb had a good bullpen session.
2. Mariners catcher Adam Moore could be out for the season.
3. The Cardinals have lost a couple of pitchers to injuries, writes Derrick Goold.
4. Cliff Pennington is dealing with an infection.
5. The Nationals are not going to rush back Ryan Zimmerman.
6. Corey Hart will be back within a couple of weeks, as Tom Haudricourt writes.
7. Pedro Feliciano has suffered a setback, as Brian Costello writes.
8. Jason Bay will be out until the end of April.
Moves, deals and decisions1. The Rangers signed assistant GM Thad Levine to an extension.
2. Mitchell Boggs may be the best internal option if the Cardinals make a change at closer.
3. The Jays moved to cut ties with David Purcey.
4. Kirk Gibson has installed Stephen Drew in the cleanup spot in his lineup.
5. Brad Mills was unhappy about being suspended.
6. The White Sox will replace Jerry Krause from within.
7. Bobby Parnell may lose his job.
Tuesday's games1. David Price was The Man, and the Tampa Bay bullpen got the job done at the end, as Marc Topkin writes.
2. You can't stop the Reds, you can only hope to contain them, writes John Fay.
3. Dan Haren has been spectacular this season, and he dominated the Indians. From Daniel Braunstein of ESPN Stats & Information, how Haren won:
A. Haren threw many more curveballs and sliders than usual against an Indians team that struggles to hit those pitches. In 2010, the Indians ranked 29th in batting average against curveballs and sliders, worse than their overall batting average rank of 23rd. Haren threw 66 curveballs and sliders out of 125 total pitches (52.8 percent), above his 2010 season average of 39.5 percent. The Indians' one hit did not come on one of these pitches (it was against a splitter).
B. When Haren fell behind in the count, he turned almost exclusively to his off-speed pitches. Twenty-one of his 25 pitches when behind in the count were off-speed (84.0 percent), well above his 2010 season average of 52.3 percent. Eighteen of his 21 off-speed pitches when behind in the count went for strikes, helping him to get back in the count.
From Elias: Dan Haren is the first pitcher to throw a one-hit shutout against a team on a win streak of eight-plus games since the Dodgers' Don Sutton did it in 1969. Sutton accomplished the feat on May 1, 1969, against the San Francisco Giants, who were riding a nine-game win streak.
4. Watched some of the Braves' win over the Marlins, and Tommy Hanson had tremendous command of his fastball in picking up his first victory. The crowd at Turner Field, however, was the smallest in the history of the park. How Hanson won:
A. He recorded 13 ground balls to only five fly balls, his best ground-ball percentage in any game since being called up in June 2009.
B. Good off-speed offerings: The Marlins were 0-for-10 when at-bats ended on an off-speed pitch, and 0-for-9 on pitches down in the zone.
C. He limited damage: Florida was 0-for-10 with runners on base, including 0-for-6 with RISP.
5. Chris Carpenter was blistered.
6. The Phillies got pounded by an old teammate. From Bob Brookover's story:
- When the news broke that Jayson Werth had signed a seven-year, $126 million contract with the Washington Nationals, Ruben Amaro Jr. had a cocksure response.
"We'll get him out -- a lot," the Phillies general manager said that evening from the winter meetings in Florida. "Oh, I believe that we will."
It was a surprising answer that elicited an obvious follow-up question: Do you know the secret to getting Werth out?
"I believe that we do," Amaro said.
He would not reveal the secret that December night, and apparently it is still locked away in a hermetically sealed envelope.
Or perhaps Joe Blanton was left out of the team meeting when Amaro's secret was revealed, because Werth had the best game of his brief Nationals career in his first meeting with the Phillies on Tuesday night at Nationals Park.