Thursday, May 25, 2006

If He’s So Smart, Why’s He So Dumb?

Seldom does a sprinter dive toward the finish line. You know that. I know it. The Giants broadcasters know it. Why doesn’t the Giants shortstop?

I would estimate, very roughly, that Omar Vizquel loses about a hit a week due to a headfirst slide into first base, thus slowing him down. See, sliding causes friction; friction reduces speed. A fine example, besides Omar Vizquel, would be the brakes on your car or bike. If your brakes make you go faster, get help now; if they slow you down, they’re doing what they’re supposed to do. In other words, friction produces a braking action.

And that’s why ballplayers slide. It’s not to make them faster, it’s to keep their momentum from sending them past the base they want to stop at. Believe me, I know this one well.

When I was in high school, the planets apparently aligned perfectly one day, thus decreeing that I would actually get into a baseball game on my Frosh-Soph team. See, I rarely got to participate, even in practice. Sure, I carried the bats and shagged fly balls in BP—and often I didn’t even get BP—but mostly my job was to do things like be a baserunner for other people’s infield drills. (And don’t even get me started about my function as scorekeeper.) Despite my presence at all the practices and games (except for the one on Opening Day 1975, when I chose to stay home and score the Giants game instead), I was out of practice. Indeed, I played so little and was so discouraged by the situation—and by my coach, who apparently was trying to teach me a lesson of some sort—that when I did play, I sometimes panicked. God knows I did that in other sports, especially basketball—“chicken with its head cut off” was how my father once aptly described my approach to the game—but once I got out of Little League and started to perform poorly, and thus played less and less, I began to feel as though all eyes were on me, waiting for the next screwup. So when my high school coach actually put me into a game, I found myself wondering why—even after I reached the point where I was playing well again, thus enabling the return of a modicum of confidence.

And when Frosh-Soph practice started, I was playing about as well as I ever had, both on offense and defense. In fact, I was hitting like crazy. Also, I’d only started playing center field the previous spring, I loved it, and I felt like a center fielder—a pretty good one.

Naturally, that was the cue for the coach to keep me off the field almost entirely. But one day late in the season, I was instructed to go out to center field in about the fourth or fifth inning of a game. (I can’t remember, but I’ll assume we were losing big at the time.) By then the confidence I’d regained was gone, as was any hope that the coach hadn’t been lying when, just before the season started, he told me I’d be playing plenty.

My day began with a high fly ball. I took a step in, went “Uh-oh” as the ball flew merrily over my head, and wound up chasing it for what seemed like hours. I’m not even sure I held the batter to four bases.

Later—and here’s the part that relates to the stuff about Vizquel and friction—I stood on first base after walking. For no reason I can think of, I was given a steal sign. So I took off. I beat the throw by plenty, but the doubts kicked in, and I wasn’t even sure I could still slide right. I’m assuming, anyway, that this is why I didn’t slide. Or perhaps it had been too long since my last on-field screwup. In any case, I stole second standing up—until my momentum carried me off the bag, whereupon I was tagged a split second before I got back. The umpire called me out. I disputed his assertion that I’d come off the bag, of course, but to no avail. Of course. Perhaps because embarrassment was foremost on my mind, it didn’t even occur to me grief from the coach about not sliding. And when he did, and asked me why I failed to slide, I just said “I dunno.”

Ask me if I stayed in the game after that. Go ahead. Ask.

My point, though, is not to tell the sad story of my baseball career. My point is that I’m living proof that you slide to slow yourself down—and, certainly, to avoid being tagged, which rarely is an issue at first base, Omar. The only way sliding is gonna speed you up is perhaps if you’re playing baseball on ice. And the only reason to slide head first is to avoid a tag.

Jeff Kent used to dive into first when he was with the Giants. (Now that he’s a Dodger, who cares if he still does it?) That used to drive me bats, but I’d think, “Aw, Kent doesn’t seem like the sharpest bulb in the elevator, so maybe I should expect something like that from him.” But Omar Vizquel? Omar “4-6-5” Vizquel?

Maybe my estimate of a hit per week is too high, but in case it’s not, we’re talking about the difference between a season batting average of, say, .290 and .333 (or, if you prefer OBP, it’d be, say, .360 instead of .400).

What makes him do it? A league-mandated condition of his joining the Giants? No other reason makes sense.


  1. No, no, no... Don't you listen to Kruk and Kuip? They explained this once already. See, Vizquel knows that you don't get to first base faster by sliding in. The headlong dive is to distract the umpire and he theorizes that he actually gets some calls that way that he wouldn't otherwise.

    See he has a perfectly logical reason for sliding. Of course I've never actually seen him called safe on a headfirst slide - so it's a stupid reason. Logical, but stupid...

  2. Aha! Then why did Jeff Kent do it?

    Do I listen to Kruk and Kuip? Well, sometimes. Lots of times, though, I've got the game on in one ear while watching something else on TV... um... with the other ear. I've explained this elsewhere, probably on EEEEEE!, but I like to watch things like the Law & Order shows, because the victims of those horrible crimes don't suffer nearly as much as Giants fans.

  3. Every time I see someone go into the bag head first when Joe Morgan is doing the game, I cringe. Joe will inevitably do what Joe does, repeat himself again and again and again how it's a bad idea to ever dive headfirst into first base.

    Having said that, I can see it giving you a slight advantage if you time everything just right, but more often than not the timing is bad and it costs you time. So unless it's perfected, it's a bad idea. Right, Joe?

  4. First, I should say that after a thought or two, the only reason I can think of to slide head first is to avoid a swipe tag after a high throw.

    Second, there's a reason I try to avoid listening to Li'l Joe on ESPN. I intend to continue that practice; failure to do so might induce me to urge baserunners to slide head first into first base, just to make the point.

    Meanwhile, did you happen to catch Josh Lewin's comment—if it wasn't Lewin, I suppose I should apologize—about some A's infielder and how amazing it is that he performs so well in victories but so poorly in losses?

    To be fair, I should say that such a thing never occurred to me until a few years ago, when someone in the newsgroup provided numbers showing that universally, players hit better in wins than in losses. Since wins and losses relate so closely to runs scored and allowed, this should be obvious. And yet it wasn't obvious to me until I received my newsgroup education, and apparently it's still not obvious to Lewin (unless it wasn't Lewin, but I'd prefer to think it was.)

  5. Vizquel did it again last night on a bunt where no throw was even made. Why? No one knows, but the logical reason of distracting the umpire now goes out the window.

  6. Why does he do it? We now have an answer: it's just a part of his "level of game".

    When Omar came to spring training this year and spoke about his desire for a contract extension, he said, "I guess the experience has put me in the position where I am right now, where I know what I have to do to maintain my level of game, to maintain my flexibility to do the double plays and the crazy diving catches and all the dives into first base. It gives me the elasticity to play 160 games or whatever."

    So there you have it. When he gets thrown out at first not by a step but by a slide, while everyone else in the place may well express their chagrin you can chuckle to yourself and say, "That's our Omar maintaining his level of game." I guarantee that they will all be in awe of your insider knowledge.

  7. I thank you for this nugget, but, rather than chuckling to myself, I plan to chuckle knowingly to others so as to make them ask why I’m chuckling. Then I'll say the “level of game” thing.

    Which reminds me that this morning Brian Sabean described Fred Lewis as having “good field power,” or something like that. Not “off-field”; “field.” Does that mean he pulls a mean plow?