SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Chris Owings was standing at first base when a ball was hit to straightaway center at Chase Field. The center fielder couldn’t track it down and it bounced off the wall, so Owings took off running.
As Owings sprinted around third base, San Francisco Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford fired the relay throw to home plate. The ball beat Owings to home and he awkwardly dove headfirst to try and avoid the catcher’s tag.
Not only was he called out, but he tore the labrum in his shoulder, missed about two and a half months and eventually underwent surgery. After learning his lesson the hard way in 2014, Owings changed his approach when he returned the next year.
“I’ve been really cautious of not trying to slide head first,” Owings said, adding that some situations still call for it, such as trying to avoid a tag when stretching a hit into a double and arriving at second with a full head of steam.
“That’s the only reason where I feel like it’d be okay,” he said. “When I steal a bag, I’m mainly going in feet first.”
Owings isn’t the only one who was injured on a headfirst slide. In 2015, FanGraphs did a study on headfirst sliding and charted players who missed significant time over the previous two seasons because of injuries from headfirst slides.
Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper missed 51 games. Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado sat out 37. And then-Cincinnati outfielder Ryan Ludwick missed a whopping 116.
Others have been more fortunate. Infielder Kristopher Negron said he slid head first throughout high school and college. Luckily, an injury never occurred because of it.
It seems the most difficult part about headfirst sliding is that most players do it instinctively. Negron said he naturally slides head first when trying to leg out a triple or when trying to avoid a tag at home plate.
Situations like those made the transition to sliding primarily feet first a difficult one. Now, Negron has become comfortable doing it years after a coach in the Red Sox organization advised him against the headfirst slide.
“It took a little bit,” he said. “I actually had to think about it as I was going into bases. After a while, I actually prefer (feet first). It allows me to pop up and get to an extra base on an overthrow.”
Diamondbacks outfielder Jason Pridie said he used to slide headfirst when stealing bases before suffering a shoulder injury unrelated to baserunning. Now, he slides feet first when stealing bases.
He said sliding headfirst is more dangerous, but perhaps not at a high enough rate to warrant any unreasonable concern.
”I think if you go back and look at the amount of times that people get hurt while sliding headfirst, I don’t think it’s that much in comparison,” he said. “When it happens to someone, it’s kind of in the spotlight.”
Diamondbacks third baseman Jake Lamb jokingly called himself “the worst baserunner on the team.” But when he takes the helmet off and puts his glove on, he is regularly tagging players out.
He has noticed it has become more difficult, though.
“With replay now, guys are getting a lot better at avoiding tags,” Lamb said. “As a third baseman, I catch the ball and I’m waiting for the guy to slide in. It used to be, ‘I beat, you got me.’ Now it’s just they’re doing whatever I can to avoid that tag.”
Sliding feet first may be the best way for players to avoid injury, but sometimes it may not matter. Especially in the heat of the moment, a close game or a contest with unusually high stakes.
“When people are out there playing, they’re not thinking of getting hurt, they’re thinking of getting to the base,” Pridie said.
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