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Head First

Spring training, as every manager will aver, is a time for drill after drill, emphasizing the little things that can make the difference between a win or loss once the long campaign commences. Winning teams rarely botch hitting the cutoff man, defending the bunt, pitchers covering first, and so many other nuances and details of the game.

But once the games count for real, predictably within the first week of play, a guy beats out an infield roller to the first baseman because the pitcher was late getting off the mound. For sure we'll see outfielders not only missing the cutoff man, but throwing to the wrong base as the runners advance into scoring position. Plays that should be backed up aren't.

Perhaps the most mundane drill - sliding - also is one that is least practiced. Social media the past two weeks have featured a few videos of the padded mat set up in the grass as players ran maybe three-quarters speed before plopping into the bent-leg slide. White Sox rookie Luis Robert, mentioned by MLB.com as one of the top 10 prospects for the coming season, took his regular turn, displaying proper form.

However, last Tuesday in a practice game versus the Giants, when Robert registered his first hit of the spring, a rousing triple to right centerfield, he capped it off by an electric slide into third base. But it wasn't of the bent-leg variety. You know, the one the fellas were practicing just a few days previously. No, he used the slide-of-choice these days, the head-first slide, a maneuver that apparently is primal, thus requiring no rehearsals.

Robert is blessed with outstanding athletic talent. At 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds, he exudes athleticism. He runs like a colt, possesses a strong throwing arm, and he hits baseballs for distance and with velocity, such as the laser shot on Saturday over the left centerfield fence for his first homer of the spring.

But he's also the guy in spring training two years ago, as a 20-year-old, who slid head first while successfully stealing second base, straining the ligaments in his left thumb. Although Robert later slugged a grand slam home run in the same game, the thumb eventually sidelined him until June.

Once Robert got on the field, he needed but one month to advance from Kannapolis to Winston-Salem, but once there, he re-injured the thumb, shelving him for another four weeks.

Of course, two years have passed, and maybe Robert has learned to take better care of himself. But the kid is going to run. It's his nature, and he's quite good at it. In parts of three professional seasons, Robert has attempted 81 stolen bases and has been successful 63 times.

As far as I can tell, the little time spent on sliding drills does not include the proper manner for the head first slide, if, in fact, there is an accepted technique. This would be a reasonable question for baseball's all-time steal leader, Rickey Henderson, whose 1,406 stolen bases are 468 more than runner-up Lou Brock.

Pete Rose, an individual noted more for base hits rather than intellect, is credited (or blamed?) for initiating the head first slide, and Henderson employed it throughout his 25-year career. Brock stuck to the bent-leg maneuver. It's interesting to note that Brock never went on the disabled list in his 19 seasons in the big leagues.

The White Sox' all-time leader in stolen bases for a season was Rudy Law in 1983 with 77. He's followed by Juan Pierre with 68 (2010), Scott Podsednik's 59 (2005), and Luis Aparicio who tied Wally Moses (1943) with 56 in 1959. Law and Aparicio didn't slide head first unlike Pierre and Podsednik.

The analytics folks indicate that anything less than a 70 percent success rate makes attempted steals a losing strategy. Last season, the MLB success percentage was 74. Henderson was safe on his steals approximately 81 percent of the time.

When the Sox have had a speed game, it has historically helped them if you consider that Law's team won 99 games and a division title, while Podsednik and Aparicio both played on pennant winners with Scotty Pods being an important member of the '05 World Series champions.

Aside from more power in this season's lineup with the addition of Edwin Encarnacion, Yasmani Grandal, and Nomar Mazara, Rick Renteria's ballclub also should swipe more bases than the 63 of a year ago. Prospect Nick Madrigal stole 35 bases in the minors last season while his primary competition at second base, Leury Garcia, has 27 steals in 33 attempts over the past two seasons.

Shortstop Tim Anderson adds another threat based on his 43 steals the last two years, and Yoan Moncada chipped in with 10 steals in 2019 while being nabbed just three times.

The White Sox ranked 20th in stolen bases among all teams last season. Look for them to move up this year, and they'll do it head first.

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Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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Posted on Oct 14, 2020