Josh Hamilton will go under the knife today. On Tuesday, the Angels outfielder and cleanup hitter injured his thumb diving into first base in an attempt to beat out a 7th-inning ground ball. A Wednesday MRI revealed that in so doing, Hamilton suffered a complete tear of the ulnar collateral ligament and a torn capsule in his left thumb, which will need to be surgically repaired. He is expected to miss six-to-eight weeks while on the mend.
The bad news leaves a huge void in the Angels lineup. Hamilton had shown signs of a complete rebound from a dismal 2013 inaugural campaign in Anaheim. Through eight games this season, he was batting .444 (12-for-27) with two home runs and six runs batted in.
It’s unfortunate for Hamilton and unfortunate for the Angles. But it should have never happened.
Absent an attempt to avoid a tag from the first baseman, players should never – and I mean NEVER – dive head first into first base.
Hamilton, his teammates and his manager have defended his Tuesday dive under the pretense that it’s just the way he plays the game.
“Any time you’re playing hard and having fun, the last thing you want is to do something that’s going to cause you to miss time and maybe hurts your team in the long term,” Hamilton said Wednesday after learning the extent of his injury. “If I could see the future, obviously, I wouldn’t do it. But in the moment, when my mind and body tells me to do something and react some way, I’ve always done it. You can’t change that.”
“Certainly, you wince when you see a guy going headfirst into home or first, because it’s not something that’s as natural as other plays around the field,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. “But he’s done it 100 times in his career. This is the one that caught his thumb.”
“I heard it slows you down,” Angels center fielder Mike Trout said. “I like to dive headfirst into second and third, but going into first, you lose your momentum and you can get hurt. But you know how Josh [Hamilton] is. He’s going to play the game hard. He thought he could beat it out. Things happen.”
That’s just the thing. Diving into first base DOES slow you down.
You don’t have to take my word for. Jon Brenkus of Sports Science debunked the myth back in 2010. He found that players running through the bag reach base one hundredth of a second faster than players diving head first. It seems insignificant, but not when you look at it in terms of distance. A fielder-thrown ball traveling at 90-mph will cover 16 inches in that span of time. A batter running at 20-mph will cover 3.5 inches in that time. Both of those distances are discernible by an umpire and critical in distinguishing an “out” from a “safe” call.
Diving head first into first base doesn’t give you any extra, last-second burst of speed. It actually makes it more likely you’ll be thrown out. Sure, it gets the uniform dirty, but diving into first is faux hustle; a false bravado that screams to the viewing audience “Hey! Look at me and how hard I play the game!”
Diving into second base or third base is different. You cannot run through those bases like you’re allowed to do with first base, so you are forced to slow down upon approach whether coming in standing or sliding. You lose less speed sliding into those bags than you lose trying to go from full sprint to complete stop standing up.
Moreover, by diving into head first players risk injuries to the hands, wrist and fingers – like the one suffered by Hamilton. With all of that being said, the move makes zero sense from a competitive standpoint. There is zero benefit to be gained from the added risk of injury that comes with diving into first.
So why do players do it? Hamilton claimed that he does what his body and mind tell him to do in the moment. He runs off of instinct. But where did that instinct develop?
Hamilton probably saw players like Pete Rose, glorified for the hard-nosed way they played the game, and wanted to emulate them (Rose often dove into first himself). At some point in time, at some level of play, Hamilton was probably patted on the backside for his “hustle” and “effort” after diving into first. That it was “good” and “the right way to play the game” became ingrained in his subconscious. At this point, it would be almost impossible to erase those head-first habits that have almost become instinctual.
Some folks around the league have taken up the cause anyway. Back in 2004, the Minnesota Twins organization began fining infielder Nick Punto every time he dove into first. Terry Pendleton, first base coach for the Atlanta Braves, has openly ripped into players who have tried beating out throws by diving.
I respect them for their efforts, but we will need to eradicate head-first diving (into first) from its source if we want to put an end to the pointless injuries like the ones suffered by Hamilton. We need to stop glorifying head-first, first-base divers for their perceived hustle and start criticizing them for making a play that increases their risk of being thrown out and of suffering an injury. And we need to coach our baseball youth that, while it may look cool, diving into first is actually bad for the player and bad for the team.