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Sliding Techniques in Baseball: Which is Safer? Which is Faster?

If you've been paying attention to the Major League Baseball season, and particularly if you're an Angels fan, you've probably heard about Mike Trout's injury that is going to result in surgery and DL stint for the first time in his career.  Trout injured the ulnar collateral ligament in his left thumb while sliding head first into second base.  This is a somewhat common injury in baseball due the prevalence of head first sliding, which is why you see many players now donning a protective hand and finger guard while running the bases.  Clearly, this indicates that there is an increased risk of injury to the hand and fingers for players who frequently slide head first.  This is mostly due the fact that the wrists, hands and fingers are more susceptible to injury than the ankle, foot, or toes and are not protected by anything.  The head, face and neck can also be injured in a head first slide far more easily than in a feet-first slide.  So strictly from a safety standpoint, sliding feet first is better.

               But sports are not always about being safe.  Taking risks to help your team succeed are part of the game, too.  This is why players dive for balls and crash into walls, or run over the catcher to score a run.  You can't play the game being afraid to get hurt.  But is sliding head first a faster way to reach the base?  There are some research studies that suggest there is no difference between the two sliding techniques.  A 2002 study by Kane, House, and Overgaard used 60 players ranging from Little League to college level and had them perform 3 sprints from first base to second base for each of the sliding techniques.  They were also tested in a 40m sprint to calculate overall speed.  The results yielded no difference in time to second base between the two sliding techniques.  A 2003 study by Hosey, Mattacola, and Shapiro used 20 collegiate baseball players to test this same question.  They used high speed cameras to film each player performing 3 trials of both the head first and feet first slides and found no differences in the time to reach the base between the two methods. 

               You often see a batter dive into first base in an attempt to beat out a ground ball, and is often rewarded for his "hustle."  To me, this is an illusion of hustle.  If a runner could recognize that a throw to first was off-target, then a dive may be necessary to avoid a tag, but this is a rare occurrence and is difficult to react to.  In fact, for most runners, if they are truly sprinting at maximum effort, they still have not reach peak speed by the time they reach the base.  Remember, first base is only 30 meters away.  That's less than 1/3 of the 100m sprint in the Olympics, for example.  So this means that each stride towards first is becoming longer and faster as you approach the base.  The act of sliding would interrupt this acceleration and potentially make you out on a close play. 

               For young players, it is probably suggested to slide feet first in an effort to provide a safe sports environment.  Older players who have more experience with head first slide techniques will be able to do so in a safer manner.  Thus the head first slide should be reserved for those special occasions where avoiding a tag is necessary or the runner has experience doing it.

Michael Metcalfe is a certicfied Athletic Trainer who recieved his Masters Degree from Cal State Fullerton. Prior to joining the staff at Compete Sports Performance and Rehab, Michael was an Athletic Trainer in the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim's minor league system.