Instincts vs. player safety: When a headfirst slide is a heads-up play
There were plenty of moments within the Red Sox’ series-opening win over the Yankees on Thursday night that could be tabbed as most responsible for a come-from-behind lopsided victory. Steve Pearce’s three home runs. Mookie Betts’s four hits. Ian Kinsler’s defensive wizardry. Brian Johnson’s 11 strikeouts. J.D. Martinez’ two doubles. Four stolen bases.
But a wholly unscientific poll leaves only candidate standing: Jackie Bradley Jr.’s slide into home base.
It was the headfirst slide heard ’round the baseball world, dissected throughout the postgame conversation, highlighted throughout the next-day recaps, a slide that would start a fourth-inning onslaught manager Alex Cora would later call his team’s “best offensive inning of the season,” an eight-run outburst that would erase a four-run lead for good and leave the Yankees in tatters.
It was a thing of baseball beauty, highlighting everything about Bradley’s baseball acumen and instinct, his physical gifts and mental focus, the perfectly executed recipe on how to turn one bad baseball decision (getting caught too far off third base) into one momentum-changing play.
“He looked like a BMW, the way he changed directions so quickly,” Kinsler was saying Friday, still marveling at the sequence in the hours before Game 2. “He made his mind up quickly. Zero hesitation, the slide was terrific. He was as far away from home plate as he could be and still reaching it. It was a great baserunning play.
“It was all instincts. He let his instincts take over and he has the ability with his feet and quickness to make it work.”
In that particular instance, Bradley had little choice but to go headfirst, given it was his only real chance to avoid a tag by catcher Austin Romine. And given baseball’s desire to cut down on the violent home plate collisions of days gone by, the type that left us with the gruesome images of injured Giants All-Star Buster Posey, going in headfirst makes even more sense.
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t without controversy. For every believer that the headfirst slide gains valuable fractions of a second in reaching a base, there is a skeptic pointing to the litany of jammed joints, stepped on hands, or jarring stops that have put players on the disabled list.
“Tore both ligaments,” Cora said, waving his thumbs in the air like prosecution Exhibit A in a courtroom. “You’re talking to the right guy. I don’t [like headfirst slides] but I did it.”
On Thursday night, Cora was appreciative of the result of Bradley’s slide, if not the way the need for it unfolded.
“Well he got caught in no-man’s land there and he made a decision,” Cora said. “They threw behind him and he took off. It went from a bad baserunning play to a great slide and it brought energy to the stadium, to the dugout. He’s such a good athlete that he made a decision, he reacted and it worked for us.”
As he reiterated Friday, “Yesterday was a good one, avoiding the tag. At first [base] is the one we don’t like, but I can’t say don’t do it because I did it my whole career. I can just show my thumbs and say this is what happened.”
Sliding into first base may cause some understandable debate, but for a veteran such as Kinsler, there’s no convincing him the headfirst slide everywhere else beats the feet.
“It’s faster,” he said. “One hundred percent. You run with a lean anyway, and so you’re leaning forward and to be able to get your feet under you slide feetfirst it’s slower than just continuing to lean forward and dive into it. It’s always faster to go headfirst, but there are some dangerous elements to it.”
Beyond injury, Kinsler said the addition of instant replay has changed his attitude toward slides, particularly on defense. A Gold Glove second baseman, Kinsler knows now that the replay challenge is always there to check on an umpire whose sight line has traditionally been focused on the bag itself, and thus the first part of the runner to reach that bag, often missing a tag that was aimed at the runner’s center mass.
“Now, with the replay, they have the swim move, all kinds of stuff, they’ll throw a hand out and try to deke you,” he said. “Definitely you have to be a little bit more aggressive with your tag and go straight for the chest if you can.”
“Now you don’t have to go to the hand, just go to the body,” the former major league infielder said. “There’s a lot of plays at second base on steals, you used to catch it and try to go back and tag him. Now you just go to the feet because it really doesn’t matter what he’s trying to do, but if you put the tag down, there’s a pretty good chance he’s going to be out. Even at first, if they throw right up here,” he said, while holding his hand next to his head, “instead of going down and tagging, just slap him right here, and boom. It’s a lot different.
“You always used to go to the hands because that’s what the umpire’s looking at. But now if the throw is offline you can go right there, boom, put it down. Just one step and put it down and you got a pretty good chance for him to be out.”
As baseball evolves, facets within the game change, and what used to be a signature of a relentless player such as Pete Rose has become the norm for most baserunners.
Bradley didn’t think twice about it.
“Just kind of let my instincts take over,” he said. “Made a couple of jab steps back to third and then just took off. Trusted my instincts.”
Once he was safe, the rest of the Red Sox were off and running too.