By Bruce Levine —
(CBS) News that Cubs infielder Javier Baez escaped the concussion protocol after running headfirst into a knee in Sunday’s game was music to the ears of team officials and fans everywhere. However, the fact that he also injured his left thumb was the other part of the story that didn’t have quite the same positive vibe.
Headfirst slides, which have occurred too often for Baez, can turn into a season-altering mistake. Baez was available off the bench for Chicago’s game at Pittsburgh on Monday afternoon, with the training staff suggesting one day of rest for the thumb injury.
Baez isn’t the only one who should reconsider the sliding technique. Reigning MVP Kris Bryant injured his right pinkie finger on an awkward headfirst slide into third base in July in Atlanta. A smart player and great competitor like Baez, Bryant admitted that because of his gangly legs and large frame, headfirst sliding comes more naturally to him.
Baez appears to have dodged a bullet this time, but he must learn the difference between reckless and meaningful baseball moves on the field. Headfirst slides are something that should be avoided by most base-runners so they can stay and be productive on the field.
The 24-year-old Baez lost part of his 2015 minor league season after breaking a finger on a headfirst slide. He also missed some time at the end of spring training in 2016 with a sprained thumb.
These examples of hustle and bad judgment are rarely worth it. Any injury risk that can be easily avoided with adjustment should be discussed and enacted. In the case of Baez, the Cubs simply can’t afford to lose him amid a division race. Starting shortstop Addison Russell has been out since the first week of August with a foot injury. Baez needs to understand his role is to stay on the field and fill this essential role at the team’s most important defensive position.
Numerous players displaying such bravado have seen seasons and careers cut short. The Nationals lost Adam Eaton for the season due to this reason. Eaton had been told by White Sox coaches for years to not jump at first base when running to the bag on a bang-bang play. That scenario played out in early April after Eaton blew out his MCL and ACL on such a jump for the bag. Baseball buffs love hustle but abhor what can take place.
The Cubs would like to see a smarter approach when their players run the bases. That said, changing the speed that a player like Baez thrives on is easy to criticize but more difficult to change. Baez is so naturally gifted that baseball coaches even hesitate to suggest a change.
“He is a tough guy,” Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “He plays the game hard. You never want to lose a guy. Injuries are a part of the game.”
Manager Joe Maddon actually had Baez penciled into the lineup initially Monday but scratched him due to the thumb injury.
“He is pretty important,” Maddon said. “He has been playing so well. You could feel the difference (when he was out of the game). Yes, he is very important to us. I can’t deny that.”
This is all the more reason for Baez to use a more cautious approach. No one suggests these players shouldn’t give max effort, but the idea is to also know your value to the team is on the field, not on the trainer’s table.
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.