Last week, Nick Punto informed the Diamondbacks that he’d be taking the year off, deciding not to report to camp even though he had signed a minor league contract with the club earlier this winter. Though he claimed he wasn’t retiring, Punto is 37 and just put up a 73 wRC+ for Oakland, so it’s easy to imagine that his career is over. Despite his small stature and non-existent power, Punto managed to turn a solid glove, positional versatility, and a good eye (career 10.4% walk rate) into a career that spanned parts of 14 seasons.
He found himself as the tongue-in-cheek face of one of the most shocking transactions in baseball history — 2012’s “Nick Punto trade,” which you might remember more for including Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, and a quarter-billion dollars worth of contracts — and carved himself a niche as baseball’s foremost jersey-shredding expert. As far as careers go, you could do a lot worse than all that, not to mention the approximately $23 million he made during his playing days.
Wait! Don’t go anywhere. This isn’t going to be a full Nick Punto career retrospective. I swear. What this is going to be is a hope, a prayer, that Punto’s probable departure from the game takes along with it one of baseball’s most frustrating blights, the thing that he might be known for above all else: the head-first slide, particularly into first base.
Punto may have been the face of the head-first slide mostly because he was so ready and willing not only to talk about it, but because he was happy to admit that he knew what he was doing went against all common sense. In 2004, the Twins tried to fine him when he slid head-first. It didn’t work. Last year, Punto told the San Francisco Gate that “the key is: don’t do it,” and that he tells kids all the time not to slide head-first into first. Punto’s not a rebel or a contrarian; it’s just what he grew up doing, and he found it impossible to turn that instinct off in the heat of the moment. You might remember that he once even did it on a ball to the outfield.
You probably think I’m only talking about sliding into first base head-first, which is generally considered to be slower, and that’s infuriating as well, but that’s not really even the point. (On that topic: There’s some evidence that sliding can be as fast as running through, but only if done absolutely perfectly so that the body doesn’t collect friction on the way to the bag, and that happens extremely rarely.) The point, really, is the injuries that come along with the practice.
For example, just look at some prominent players who injured themselves sliding head-first over the last two years along with the number of games they then missed, and I don’t even make promises that this is a full and complete list:
- Ryan Ludwick, 116
- Bryce Harper, 57
- Josh Hamilton, 48
- Ryan Zimmerman, 44
- Nolan Arenado, 37
- David Wright, 25 (two stints)
- Ian Kinsler, 25
- Melky Cabrera, 22 (season-ender)
- Michael Bourn, 20
- Ben Zobrist, 13
- Billy Hamilton, 2
- Brandon Crawford, 2
- Yasiel Puig, 2
- Mike Napoli, 1 (included so I could share this)
- Dustin Pedroia, n/a (led to offseason surgery)
Those are some names. Those are some names. For Zimmerman and Josh Hamilton, it wasn’t the first time they’d injured themselves doing it, and there’s a good argument that the series of shoulder woes that have derailed Zimmerman’s career and pushed him off of third base started with a head-first slide back in 2012.
If we’d extended this back further, it would have included Dee Gordon, who missed more than two months and saw his career as the Dodgers shortstop end in 2012 when he badly injured his thumb sliding head-first. His predecessor, Rafael Furcal, had helped accelerate Gordon’s path to the majors when he missed much of 2011’s first half with a broken thumb of his own, suffered sliding head-first; years earlier, he’d separated a shoulder doing it. In previous years, you could add Jason Heyward, Martin Prado, Alex Gordon, Yunel Escobar, Andrelton Simmons, Derek Jeter, and Chase Utley to that list as well. Even The Onion has made fun of the practice.
What we don’t have, of course, is enough data to show the injury rate on head-first vs. foot-first slides, and obviously going in foot-first isn’t any guarantee of perfect health. (Yadier Molina, for example, was sliding feet-first when he was injured last year.) You can of course still injure yourself going in with the feet. But Molina aside, if a player hurts himself going in feet-first, it’s likely to be an injury to the foot or the leg. Head-first, it’s more likely to be an injury to the hand, finger, arm, or shoulder, which is much more difficult for a hitter to rebound from.
It’s not just about time missed, remember. It’s also about the performance hit a batter can take because of it. For example, here’s Wright just last week, claiming he’d be smarter — or at least try to be — about the idea this year, after a career-worst 2014:
“For me, it’s dumb to go headfirst,” Wright said. “Wrist, fingers, shoulders, it doesn’t make sense. But I say that every year and you get in the heat of the moment and you don’t think about it.”
For the sake of the Mets, he had better start thinking about it.
Wright, 32, averaged 156 games in his first six full seasons in the majors. In the last four years — with all but one featuring at least one major injury — that number dropped to 126. That includes the 68 games he played in a diminished capacity last season after June 12, thanks to the shoulder injury that marred the remainder of his season.
Wright had attempted to play through the injury for a few weeks without informing the team. He set career lows in every major offensive category; a year after slugging .514, his .374 was less than that of Alcides Escobar or Jordy Mercer.
Or, take Crawford, who sprained two fingers sliding into second on a steal attempt on June 18, 2013. In 272 plate appearances prior to the injury that year, he’d had something of a breakout, hitting .288/.351/.424 for a 118 wRC+. In 267 after, he hit .211/.273/.305, for just a 67 wRC+. As was noted regarding the matter in 2014:
After spraining his right index and middle fingers June 18, Crawford spent a few weeks swinging with the index finger in the air, rather than curled around the bat. Like Marco Scutaro, Crawford soon started having issues with the middle finger, which was overcompensating.
That’s just two cherry-picked examples, but then don’t forget how badly Pedroia was affected by his injury. Realize what’s happened to Zimmerman, or how Gordon nearly lost his career, or how long it took Harper to get going last year. Twelve years ago, Yankees GM Brian Cashman told the New York Times that “although baseball had not provided data to prove that headfirst slides caused more injuries, most team officials felt that they do,” and around the same time, the Astros outright banned it for their minor leaguers, which earned Zobrist a benching.
After all, how could anyone look at this slow motion train wreck, from Puig’s first week in the big leagues, and think that anything but disaster could come from it?
It’s an extreme example, because everything about Puig is an extreme example of everything. Look at this Kinsler disaster:
But maybe clips like that get us closer to the real issue. If you were going to slide in head-first, you wouldn’t do it like that. No one wants players to do this, so no one teaches it. Look at several of the linked articles here, and you’ll see mentions that teams don’t instruct players how to do it properly, lest it be seen as advocating for it. That 2003 NYT article indicated that “none of the 10 teams contacted practiced headfirst sliding,” and the Mets fined prospects for doing it. It’s hard to imagine that’s changed in the last decade in any way other than more teams not teaching it.
That’s what Punto thinks, anyway:
Cabrera and Schumaker have never hurt themselves on a head-first slide. Alomar did it once in his long career. If you can’t do it right, don’t do it at all, and no one is doing it right. Twelve years ago, Cashman said he didn’t have enough data, just a feeling. That might still be the case. But that feeling keeps on growing, and not in the right direction.