What Is the Baseball Equivalent of a Slam Dunk?

About a year and a half ago, Jeff Sullivan wrote an article here in which he imagined the baseball equivalent of LeBron James. It’s a fun piece. Check it out. I’m a sucker for cross-sport comparisons, and I’ve been watching more basketball recently, because basketball is fun. Jeff’s article has stuck with me, because it came out right around when I started reading FanGraphs, and it was such a novel concept. I assume the WAR calculations he makes in it are somewhat accurate, because I’ve found it’s good policy to always assume Jeff is right (or at least entertaining enough to always look like he’s right).

That article popped back into my head this past Thursday for reasons unknown. Then, later that night, DeMar DeRozan did this.

That’s a pretty dunk. As Kevin Harlan so eloquently states, DeRozan basically appeared out of thin air and slammed the ball down over poor Ricky Rubio, who just wanted to collect the rebound.

Now, why are we talking about slam dunks? There are no dunks in baseball, as unfortunate as that is. Everything is better with slam dunks. Dunking is one of the most surefire ways in all of sports to get a crowd to lose its collective mind. It doesn’t inspire the pure pandemonium of a Champions League goal or a walk-off home run, but it creates a damn good highlight.

There’s something awe-inspiring about watching one 6-foot-8 behemoth of athleticism jump over another behemoth and shove a basketball through a hoop. DeRozan’s dunk isn’t even the most conspicuous display of pure one-on-one physical dominance. (For that distinction, I nominate this LeBron highlight.) DeRozan’s is the product a bit more of finesse and court awareness. It’s hard to leap up, grab the ball off the backboard, and slam it down onto Ricky Rubio.

As a baseball writer, I got wondering about how the dunk might translate to my favorite sport. Because the Winter Meetings just ended and there’s been a dearth of blockbuster deals in the meantime (no offense to Dexter Fowler), I decided to write about it.

So, we begin with a question: is there an equivalent of a slam dunk in baseball? To find out, we’d need to boil down what makes a dunk awesome. I just spent a paragraph explaining why they’re cool, but what was I really saying?

Dunks are great because:

  1. They’re an awesome example of one-on-one dominance in a team sport.
  2. They represent extreme displays of athleticism.
  3. They cause both the crowd and the broadcaster to lose their minds when done exceptionally well.

Which plays in baseball fit those criteria?

The Straight Steal of Home

There’s an argument to be made that catcher assists (caught stealings, for example) ought to be included here, but those plays involve too many variables. How fast is the pitcher’s delivery to home? What pitch was thrown? Was the first baseman holding the runner on? Was Jon Lester on the mound?

The straight steal of home, though, is a much more singular event. It only happens once in a blue moon, but it’s about as good as base-running ever gets. Jacoby Ellsbury has done it twice, most recently this past year. He also pulled it off with the Red Sox.

The easiest way to make it happen to have a left-handed pitcher on the mound, to have that pitcher choose to throw out of the windup, and to be really freakin’ fast. If the pitcher hasn’t been checking on the runner, and that runner can get a good lead down the line, and if he’s more than a little crazy, he can go for it.

But is it a dunk? Dunks happen pretty often, and seeing a straight steal of home is like seeing a unicorn. And while steals of home are steals off the pitcher, it’s not as much a one-on-one play as a solitary act of madness. How about…

The Ridiculous Outfield Assist

I don’t mean the center fielder throwing out a guy foolishly trying to stretch a single into a double. I mean awe-inspiring feats of arm strength overcoming blistering speed. I mean plays that make you wonder why the league allowed Dr. Evil to attach a “laser” to man’s shoulder. There are two sub-categories of this play: the play at third and the play at home. The play at third is great because it’s usually more of a footrace. How cool is watching a runner dive head first into third, pop up, and pump his fist because he’s safe? How cool is watching a right fielder emphatically tell the runner to grab some pine?

Bo, as you may have heard, knows some things. For one thing, Bo knows that you don’t run on Bo. Just ask Harold Reynolds. He knows all too well that Bo Jackson had a hell of an arm. Here’s another person who knows: Mike Gallego.

Case in point:

That’s pretty close to a dunk. And if you want to talk about the play at home, there’s the above example with Bo and Harold, and there’s this more recent effort from Yoenis Cespedes, too:

But here’s the thing: throwing runners out is a defensive play. It doesn’t earn runs, it prevents them. It’s still a fabulous show of athleticism, but we need some offense. Which leads us to…

The Monster Home Run

You know the type I’m talking about. These are the towering blasts that look like they were shot out of a cannon or the result of a finely tuned trebuchet doing its thing. These are the balls that go flying into the next county and draw a dismayed reaction from the pitcher. Ideally, the batter gives it a long look, and maybe even flips his bat. Hmm, what does that sound like?

This works for a number of reasons. Jose Bautista is a bit of a boisterous man when he’s on the field, and I mean that in a good way. This was a playoff game, and it was a bitterly contested series. Bautista took Sam Dyson deep, threw his bat, and all of Canada simultaneously exploded in a puff of popcorn and confetti. It was the biggest highlight of the playoffs, and has become the defining moment of Bautista’s career. You can get that bat flip on a t-shirt. Kenny Albert called it perfectly, and it even coerced some good commentary from Harold Reynolds.

But did the ball fly far enough? I mean, was that just a regular, run-of-the-mill Rogers Centre Jose Bautista home run? Perhaps. Giancarlo Stanton hit a ball all the way out of Dodger Stadium, but that just doesn’t feel quite right. Let’s try this on for size instead.

Now there’s the stuff.

With that one swing of the bat, Albert Pujols may have broken Brad Lidge for two years. The Astros wound up winning that series, but it wasn’t before Pujols fired a mortar round composed of hide, string and cork at the train tracks on top of Minute Maid Park. The crowd didn’t go wild as much as it had the wind knocked out of it. Pujols walked away from the batter’s box looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger holding a club, and Lidge knew what he had just done. That’s the I-win-you-lose feat of incredible athleticism we’re looking for.

If one man ever dunked on another man while playing baseball, it was Albert Pujols on Brad Lidge. He may not have reached the levels of Shawn Kemp evaporating Alton Lister levels of ridiculousness, but it’s at least up there with DeRozan’s dunk.

When Albert Pujols took Brad Lidge deep, he dunked on him. When Alex Rodriguez took Ryan Dempster deep after Dempster threw at him, he dunked on him.

Yes, Virginia, there are dunks in baseball. You just have to know where to find them.

We hoped you liked reading What Is the Baseball Equivalent of a Slam Dunk? by Nicolas Stellini!

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Nick is a columnist at FanGraphs, and has written previously for Baseball Prospectus and Beyond the Box Score. Yes, he hates your favorite team, just like Joe Buck. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets, and can contact him at stellinin1 at gmail.

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Swinging strikeout for pitchers.


Yeah. It has to be something that happens several times a game but sometimes is more impressive than others. This fits much better than the above examples which don’t happen every week, much less every day.

Paul Sporer

Bingo, on a fastball particularly, and I was going to say for the same reason that MikeS said. Outfield assist is closest on this list, but I think it’s dominant swinging K.


I agree, it’s when a hitter knows what is coming (nasty curve, big fastball) and can’t do a thing about it, the pitch is just too good.


Yes this is perfect, especially on a fastball. Its something that almost all major leaguer pitchers can do, and without too much personal effort or difficulty, but almost none of us could do.