Could Brett Gardner be too gritty? When you consider his injury history, and the elbow surgery he’ll now undergo next week, the answer seems to be yes. The left fielder has always been solid, consistent, and produced one of the highest WARs in the game, with the downside of the occasional missed game. Perhaps I believed it was the life of a speedy and scrappy player to face injuries more often than your everyday power hitter. I spoke to one scout this week, who posed this question, would Gardner be injured if he were stealing bases feet-first? It was his belief, that the recent elbow problem was likely caused by his head-first sliding approach.
Baseball Prospectus’ player card on Gardner is littered with arm and upper body injuries. Since 2009, the left fielder has dealt with a right shoulder contusion, a headache from a collision, a fractured thumb, a sore thumb, and a forearm contusion. Add to this his elbow surgery next week, and wrist surgery he dealt during the 2010 offseason, and I’m starting to see a pattern with these injuries. This newest elbow problem will likely cost Gardner the 2012 season, and I find it hard to believe upper body injuries won’t continue if he keeps up the head-first slide technique. Why can’t he just slide feet-first?
One study done at the University of Kentucky measured the speed it took college players to advance to the next base, using both a head-first slide technique, and a feet-first slide technique. Although nearly 70% of all players felt the head-first slide was quicker, the results were insignificant. It took runners 3.67 seconds to advance using the feet-first slide, as opposed to 3.65 seconds using the head-first slide. However, 90% of participants in the study believed that sliding feet-first was the safer technique. The fact that coaches continue to teach this method, with these types results, astounds me.
“If somebody wants to argue with me about it,” Gardner said, “I’ll sit them down in front of a computer for two minutes and show them that I do get there faster.”
Gardner claims to have timed himself thoroughly, and genuinely believes there is a significant difference in his head-first slide. Although it conflicts with the experiment done with college players, I won’t argue with the research he’s done. The question remains, are the few milliseconds that Gardner presumably gains in sliding head-first worth the injury risk? While the majority of his injuries are likely caused by his head-first approach, the Yankees will have to reevaluate his approach when he returns from his ongoing elbow injury.