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May 9, 2014

Pebble Hunting

Starling Marte and the Upside of Headfirst Slides

by Sam Miller

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Someday, when you’re telling your grandkids about baseball in your day, you might have to explain what headfirst sliding was. Whether a player will continue to slide head-first now qualifies as a low-grade controversy (at least if the player is good enough). The Astros reportedly outlawed it for their minor leaguers for a time, pulling players from the game if they led with their fingers instead of their toes. The Braves teach their prospects not to slide headfirst, and the Indians lecture theirs. “I don't like headfirst slides,” said Houston manager Bo Porter last week, perhaps unintentionally putting a spotlight on headfirsting prospect George Springer. “I really don’t like headfirst slides.”

Or, someday, when you’re telling your grandkids about baseball in your day, you might have to explain what feet-first sliding was. There are two ways this sort of thing can go. Everybody can caution up and decide that the three-month injury is practically never worth the extra out. Or, as the game gets faster, stronger, even more lucrative, even more competitive, it can go the other way: Feet-firsters could be seen as less gritty, less fiery, less interested in winning. “Headfirst slides are much more prevalent than they ever have been,” Mike Scioscia said last week. “Maybe now it's because of swimming pools,” suggests Davey Lopes, confusingly. Runners slide headfirst more and, it’s this writer’s sense, those slides are faster, cheaper, and out of controllier than ever. While teams want to protect their investments, it's hard to think of an example of players ever choosing the cautious, healthy option, especially when the alternative might help them win. In 50 years, I’d expect, the headfirst slide will be eradicated. Or the headfirst slide will be the only slide we see, and it will be at least 35 percent more physically stressful than the headfirst slides of today.

Whether they’re actually faster is debatable—physicists say yes, research papers say ehhhhhh—but they do offer one advantage that feet-first sliding can’t: subterfuge. And finally we’re to the point of this piece, which is that we should probably all drop whatever we’re doing and just watch Starling Marte all the time. He’s got one of the game’s elite throwing arms, he’s one of the game’s fastest runners, he boosts his OBP in the most selfless way possible, and he would probably be one of the league’s better defensive center fielders, but for his jersey; instead, he’s (by some measures) its best defensive left fielder. He can hit the ball a long way. He’s also one of our nation’s greatest sliders.

In a series against San Francisco this week, his sliding twice flipped calls in his favor, one of those times turning a game in the Pirates’ favor.

In the first instance, Marte attempted a steal of second in the third inning. The throw was accurate and strong and beat him by plenty:

Marte identified his doom and adjusted, eluding the tag in a way that is pretty obviously tied to his going in headfirst:


(Whether he actually beat the tag is… well, it’s debatable, to put it kindly. But the call was safe on the field and replays upheld it.)

Later in the series, Marte raced home representing the winning run in extra innings. Again the throw beat him:

But this time his evasive maneuver was subtler. He went in with both arms extended and, as Buster Posey went to put the tag on his chest/shoulder/face, he lifted his chest/shoulders/face up off the ground; his arms kept progressing forward while his torso, in a way, didn’t.

By the time his chest did reach Posey’s glove, his hands had clearly touched home plate. In this case, the call on the field was out, and it’s a call we’re used to: When the ball beats the runner by this margin, the call has traditionally gone against him. Seen from the umpire’s place on the field, you can understand why. But Marte did avoid the tag long enough, and the game’s new technology for making these calls helped get the call right.

***

This isn’t the first time Marte has used headfirst slides to try to evade tags, and it’s (probably) not the first time he has been safe because of it. Each Marte slide is a bit different than the others, adjusting (when possible) to the threat he faces. Here he is using the raised-chest maneuver to sneak into second against Baltimore earlier this month:

Simply, it’s easier to tag a torso than one skinny little hand—especially when that skinny hand is liable to dodge or disappear. But Marte is able to take advantage of this fact:

He doesn’t do it every time. Sometimes he’ll squirm out of the way, or attempt to:


Sometimes he’ll use a more traditional feet-first slide,


Or the most aesthetically pleasing slide, the pat-the-plate slide:


or, if the tag is off the bag, he’ll go in headfirst but shift his body ever so slightly away from where it is likely to be—in this case, avoiding it by a practically unseeable margin:


And sometimes there’s just nothing to be done. Here, for instance, he goes in headfirst, but the tag is there early enough to get Marte—but not early enough for him to identify it and evade it:


In which case, Marte might have been just as well off going in feet first, saving his pass by the injury gods for another day.

When Omar Vizquel used to defend his frequent dives into first base, he’d claim that diving was disorienting for the umpire, and that all the dust and disruption made it harder for the ump to judge a bang-bang play. This wouldn’t be a very good strategy for Vizquel to pursue if he thought he was going to beat the throw, of course, or if he thought he was even likely to beat the throw—in those cases, he’d want the umpire to get the best look possible. So the dive into first is a desperation strategy for players likely to be called out already. (Whether umpires would eventually catch on to Vizquel’s strategy and realize that the slide itself was a giveaway is a secondary concern. (And, while we’re on the topic, replay would seem to close that advantage. Which means that somebody should look at whether slides into first are down this year, or whether Vizquel (and others) were merely rationalizing a move that, basically, just feels cool.))

Headfirst sliding might carry a similar justification. It’s not the slide to make when the runner is likely to be safe. But when he’s likely to be out, it becomes the only way to turn a certainly bad outcome into a possibly good outcome. It’s hard to imagine athletes ever resisting the urge to try to avoid a tag when they feel they have a chance to do so. What we see with Marte is that baserunners, sensibly, realize that the route to a base needn’t be a straight line, and they maintain an interest in being fast for all 90 feet. Marte approaches the bag each time with the goal of adjusting as needed, making something up at times, but conceding nothing. It’s part of his toolbag, as they say. It might be the best thing for Marte to take that freedom to improvise away from him, but it’s hard to imagine that not avoiding a tag will ever become instinctual to him.

Ideally, these athletes would be able to distinguish these situations and save their headfirst slides for the moments when the potential injury is (possibly) worth the potential gain. What we out here don’t know is whether it’s realistic, or wise, to ask players to do this math in the final quarter second of a mad dash. Their quotes generally suggest it isn’t. In which case, it’ll take a lot more than Bo Porter worrying about it to slow the spread of headfirst slides.

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

Related Content:  Starling Marte,  Sliding,  Headfirst Slides

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