If you consider yourself a baseball fan, there's a better than average chance you've seen a video clip or picture of Pete Rose sliding headfirst into second or third base. Rose's headfirst slides have become iconic, denoting a player putting forward maximum effort, a great quality to have as a professional athlete. While Rose's headfirst slides provided him more notoriety, for many current and former players, headfirst slides have caused serious injuries that have threatened their team's success and the player's own career.
In a piece for CBS Sports, blogger Dayn Perry reported that Pittsburgh Pirates super-star center fielder Andrew McCutchen has made the conscious decision to return to sliding headfirst. McCutchen defines the epitome of a five-tool player, displaying the ability to hit for average, power to all fields, and well above-average speed on the base paths. It seems that Cutch, who notes he cannot remember his reason for refraining from sliding headfirst, understands the risks involved, but thinks that the potential benefits outweigh the greater risk of injury.
"As [Tom] Singer notes, McCutchen is aware of risks of sliding headfirst, and in the service of minimizing those risks he's wearing a "protective guard" on his wrists."
While refraining from sliding headfirst does not eliminate the possibility of injury due to sliding into bases, it severely limits the chances. When sliding feet first, a player risks injuring his toes, maybe an ankle, and to a lesser extent his knees. When sliding headfirst, players increase the likelihood of injuring a finger, their hands, shoulders, neck, and sometimes their heads. As a young baseball player, I was taught to slide feet first and not headfirst because injuries like broken fingers, jammed shoulders, and concussions were known to accompany this style of sliding.
In an article written on this topic in 2011 on MLB.com, Spencer Fordin points out that sliding headfirst most likely does not significantly or even reasonably adds to speed on the bases, but Fordin continued to remain a bit skeptical.
"The American Journal of Sports Medicine produced a 2002 study in which the authors concluded that there is no significant difference in speed when diving headfirst or sliding feet-first. Other studies -- including one conducted by Washington University physicist David Peters -- indicate that there is a slight advantage to sliding headfirst, perhaps making the increased injury risk worthwhile."
McCutchen wants to return to headfirst sliding because he feels that it enhances his speed when running, and more specifically stealing bases. Cutch stole a career low 20 bases last year, and was caught a career high 12 times. His numbers suggest a possible connection between his attrition in stolen bases and his decision on sliding, but numerous other factors could and probably are at play. Given the Pirates projected 2013 lineup, the team could use more stolen bases from their star player, so if he thinks sliding headfirst again will allow his stolen base numbers to return to the 30+ range, who are we to say it won't work.
The issue at hand isn't purely productivity, choice, and injury; it's all of them combined. Despite swiping only 20 bases last season, McCutchen put up a 158 wRC+, 4.8 UBR, and 7.4 fWAR, all numbers indicative of a future MVP. He bats third in the Pirates lineup, not a position known to lead to 30+ stolen base seasons, but being the 5-tool player he is, McCutchen has the potential to be a 30/30 player in the next few seasons.
McCutchen is a run producer for the Pirates, and more importantly, he is unequivocally the Buccos best all-around player and their leader. If the Pirates are to claim their first winning season since 1992, it will be with a healthy and productive Andrew McCutchen leading the way. Cutch's value to his team extends to the point that were he to go to the DL even once because of a stiff neck or broken finger due to sliding head first, every Pirate fan/pundit/coach would call for Andrew to immediately refrain from such activity.
Given that possibility, shouldn't McCutchen just stop the more dangerous behavior now? Does the 0.1 or 0.2 potential increase in WAR due to more stolen bases outweigh losing Cutch for even 10 games? Should other star 5-tool athletes see McCutchen as an example in this regard? What do you think? Should McCutchen and other similar players revert to or continue sliding headfirst, or should these players stop the more dangerous conduct now so as to not negatively affect their teams by landing on the DL?