I know it’s in vogue in some baseball circles to bash concepts like grit. But as a little leaguer with no other appreciable skills, I like guys with grit and hustle. And while I wouldn’t trade a superior player for an inferior yet “grittier” one, there’s a certain appeal to players who play hard.
Though it certainly took its toll on Grady Sizemore and robbed him of what should have been a spectacular career, the way he ran out every grounder or dove for every baseball was admirable (though I was much less a fan of his propensity to slam into outfield walls, which I’ll get to in a second). But talent being equal, hustle and grit still has its limitations – the biggest being that you actually have to be on the field to use it. Those attributes do little good in the training room.
There’s a basic risk/reward factor to throwing your body around. Sizemore’s fearlessness around outfield fences is one example where the risk was not worth the reward. Another was Lou Marson blocking the plate and getting steamrolled in Tampa last weekend. And Sunday we saw yet another, Michael Bourn’s head first slide into first.
The head first slide into first base is seen as one of those gritty, give it your all, do anything to win plays, especially at that point in the game when the Indians really needed a base runner. On the other hand, it’s always dangerous to slide headfirst into any base, and downright stupid to do it at first base. I would gladly trade the hit for an out in that situation if it keeps Bourn in the lineup.
I’m not arguing that sliding into a base isn’t faster, though one of the biggest reasons for this is because players don’t have to give up so much momentum to slow down so they can bring themselves to stop at the base. Not a problem at first where you can fly down the line. But even if sliding head first into first was always a split second faster, in the course of 162 games is it worth the risk for any player, let alone one of your big free agent prizes? I don’t think so. (Not to mention increasing the chances for collisions with the first baseman or even the umpire if he’s out of position.)
Unlike home plate collisions, the head first slide into first seems like a more recent phenomenon and not one of those “how the game has always been played” things. Both plays, of course, are as likely to get players hurt as they are to get them a positive outcome in the game.
Luckily for the Tribe, Bourn suffered a cut and not a dislocated or broken finger that would have kept him out of action a lot longer – and in my inexpert medical opinion those always seem to be the kind of injuries that can derail an entire year because they never seem to heal quite right during the season. Still, with five stitches, who knows how long Bourn might have to sit out. And Marson is lucky he “only” had neck pain rather than the torn ACL Carlos Santa experienced a few years ago in his own home plate collision.
The point is, the Indians have had guys hurt already this season on two plays that MLB should simply outlaw for the players own good. I know it’s a player’s choice to block the plate or dive into first on a ground out, but if baseball is serious about making the game safer, sometimes players need to be protected from themselves. For example, even with the ugly affair in San Diego last week, MLB is doing much better at eliminating (or at least reducing) those on purpose beanings (see Carrasco, Carlos) and the brawls they often lead to. I wish they would take the same approach with action on the basepaths as well.
(Follow Matt on Twitter @mhutton722)