23 January 2014

Reviewing Mike Roberts' Baserunning

Baserunning is a richly textured handbook that describes precisely successful tactics and strategy on the basepaths while interweaving a few back stories from a long serving baseball man.  That man is Mike Roberts.  He has seen a lot of baseball.  He was an All-ACC catcher for the University of North Carolina back in the 60s and 70s.  He was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the 34th round and assigned to their rather progressive academy (under the direction of Syd Thrift and speed coach, the rather famous and controversial miler Wes Santee) whose goal was to turn excellent athletes into quality baseball players (that experimental academy ended in 1974 and was considered a relative failure, but it was an impressive idea).  After two years with the Royals where he showed very good performance at the plate, Roberts went back to UNC and coached the team for 23 years where he:
  • went to the College World Series twice;
  • won the ACC five times; and
  • developed many successful major league players including but not limited to Walt Weiss, B.J. Surhoff, and, his son, Brian Roberts.
He now continues to ply his trade with the Cotuit Kettleers in the Cape Cod Collegiate Baseball League.

I bring up Roberts' back story because this entire book depends on that.  As a reader, you likely picked this book up because you want to be able to: (1) teach your players/kids the finer points of base running, (2) are a player who wishes to hone their own skills, and/or (3) a spectator who wants to more deeply appreciate the skills displayed on the diamond.  Whatever groups you fall under, the message of this book depends on the weight of Mike Roberts.  It is a weight he easily carries as his career as a baseball mind and educator attests.  However, these men often work in the shadows of the professional game and your recognition of his name may be reserved only to sentences tucked away in issues of the Baltimore Sun whenever a writer chewed on his son's background.  In other words, feel comfortable absorbing the knowledge in this book as Roberts is a baseball man respected by baseball men which is as good a reference as you can get in this field.

If you have truly watched Brian Roberts in his career with the Orioles, you have seen the incarnation of Mike Roberts' basepath philosophy.  Brian runs with controlled aggression, a constant alertness.  His movements may seem smooth and elegant out on the diamond, but they feel that way because he is watching for reaction in the opposing players and implementing skills that he has long practiced.  As a statistical analyst, I often cringe when I see a headfirst slide as the concern about the chance of injury (e.g., broken finger, concussion -- it actually appears that outside of foul tips that sliding collisions away from home plate is the second leading event that results in concussions in baseball) seems to outweigh the value long term.  However, you do truly appreciate a well executed slide, which is something we have seen a great deal of over the past decade with Brian Roberts.  Not blessed with elite speed, Roberts had a knack for understanding when a pitcher committed and how to slide based on the positioning and changing stance of the player covering the bag.  It is that fully engrained philosophy and presence of mind that this book tries to convey.

The way Mike Roberts conveys these points is to provide a very brief background or statement of philosophy that he has developed over his years in baseball.  From there, he directly addresses certain points including but not limited to sliding (head and foot first), base running, taking leads, base stealing, and strength and conditioning (with help from Tim Bishop, the former strength and conditioning coach with the Orioles).  When he addresses a topic like running the bases, Roberts breaks it down into different scenarios.  For instance, how does a player run when breaking out of the box from the left or right side.  How does a player run on a grounder or a fly ball.  These points are then accompanied by suggested training exercises for players, which is potentially a major help for coaches enabling them to avoid reinventing wheels.

As guidance, I think Baserunning lives up to what it tries to be.  As a reader with a statistical analyst perspective, it reminds me of questions I still want answered.  For instance, the book mentions that a foot first slide is slower than a head first slide.  That makes intuitive sense to me from running the bases and makes sense to most people who have watched the Olympics as no runner ever drop kicks his way through the tape.  Additionally, we also know it to be true that sliding into a bag is faster than running to it as negative acceleration is much quicker that way.  Where conventional wisdom has made up its mind and where I think there is still wiggle room is to what extent it makes sense to slide into first base on plays.

The book states that head first slides come into play when a pitcher crowds the line on a throw from the first baseman in order to avoid a collision or when the first baseman shuffles his feet in expectation of a poor throw coming up the line.  I agree with those thoughts.  However, I wonder whether properly sliding into first base is faster than running through it.  The hypothesis is driven by the concept that the center of mass (i.e., the torso/thighs) is more in line with the lower body than with the hands.  By coming in high to reduce friction with the group, does an outreached hand touch the bag more quickly than a running foot?  Executed properly, I think it would get there more quickly.  That said, the benefit in speed probably is completely undone by the effects of sliding on every close play down the line and the outcome of a tired player trying to execute a slide.  Still, it would be nice to see a book like this dabble into the statistical play resulting from their solid foundation of knowledge.  This is not a knock on the book, but more of a general call for traditional baseball guidance to come hand in hand with empirical evidence.

That all said, what Mike Roberts writes here is not controversial and really does not need a body of empirical evidence.  With rounded corners, it fits into a perfectly acceptable narrative of play on the basepaths.  A narrative that should make coaches, players, and fans better appreciate the finer points of the game that will definitively improve play.

Baserunning by Mike Roberts with Tim Bishop and forward by Terry Francona
208 pages, Human Kinetics 2013


Unknown said...

I'm sorry, but I don't understand this sentence. Specifically, I'm not sure what "that way" refers to.

"Additionally, we also know it to be true that sliding into a bag is faster than running to it as negative acceleration is much quicker that way."

Jon Shepherd said...

That way = sliding.

Unknown said...

Then the sentence makes no sense. "We know that sliding into a bag is faster than running to it as negative acceleration -- i.e. deceleration -- is much quicker -- i.e. more rapid -- sliding." So more rapid deceleration equals faster? Please explain.

Jon Shepherd said...

If you slide into a bag, you have faster negative acceleration. Therefore, you can maintain a top speed for a longer period of time.

Jon Shepherd said...

Well, greater, not faster, negative acceleration.

Matt P said...

I don't know if I would say that negative accleration = deceleration.

Suppose I drop a coin from a building. The coin will drop due to gravity. The gravity coefficient is -9.8 m/s^2 or is negative accleration. But the higher the building, the faster the coin will drop and therefore this is a case where we have negative accleration that is actually acclerating.

At least until it hits the ground.

Unknown said...

MattP# - While you are technically correct in the strict physics definition of "acceleration", the terms "positive acceleration" and "negative acceleration" have no meaning without defining positive and negative directions of movement. The gravity coefficient is -9.8 M/s**2 only if you define "toward earth" as a negative direction. The common, non-technical understanding of the term - in which I'm almost certain Jon is using it here - is that an increase in velocity - "speed" in common usage - is a positive acceleration and a decrease in velocity is a negative acceleration.

Jon Shepherd said...

First of all, apologies to Dr. Chu to whom I have apparently not retained the proper physics terminology from those advanced intro physics classes 15 years ago.

To restate, I am saying that sliding enables a shorter time needed to decrease speed vs. running to second or third standing up. That is conventional wisdom in baseball. Second, I faintly remember some studies illustrating that, but those studies may simply be inventions in my memory. It would be interesting to see this concept more comprehensively laid out in a column.

That said, how bout that book review?

Unknown said...

Your book reviews are always worthwhile. They tell me not only what the book's about, but also the point of view and tone of the user. You have the knack of choosing highlights that tell me whether or not the book is too simple or too advanced; too informal or too stilted; too anecdotal or too technical.

AL FIGONE said...

To infer a head first is appropriate at any level is a total unethical and disservice to baseball at all levels. What occurred to Mike's son Brian that forced him to sit out once season as a he rehabilitated his brain at the University of Pittsburgh. His comment after the rehabiltation" "no more head first sliding."I see thousands of head first slides a year at all levels. When sliding a runner can't control where the ball will be. What if the ball is at the location where he launches his head and a defensive player's knee, firm leg, or any part of his body contact the forehead. How about a whiplash affect that may fracture a vertebrae. This happened to Cory Hahn at Arizona State. Yes, professionals do it until somebody incurs a life-altering injury from the head. Slide one way at all bases and home. Use and master a bent-leg popup and a fadeaway to each side of the base or home. Sliding correctly in this manner rarely causes any kind of injury if it's taught and practiced correctly. Disagree? E-mail me and rebut what I've said with solid evidence.

Al Figone