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The Meaning of Ryan Howard’s Toe

Something ridiculous happened. When ridiculous things happen, you’re often left wondering how much to worry about it, since, of course, it was ridiculous. It might be even more ridiculous to continue thinking about it.

Ryan Howard dropped a lead pipe that he swings in the on-deck circle on his toe and broke it. He won’t play again this season. So here’s your bizarre thing, and maybe it was just a freak occurrence, not worth thinking about any longer than it took to produce the mild expression of happiness or sadness that occurred when you first heard that this thing happened. Baseball! You might say. Crazy things happen.

photo of the offending pipe courtesy philly.com

But here’s the stupid part of it: there’s research that says that swinging a heavier item before you go to bat actually slows your bat speed. Here’s the money line from that Wall Street Journal piece by Craig Wolff:

Scientific research makes clear that the more weight you swing in the on-deck circle, the slower your swing in the batter’s box.

So here’s a ritual that baseball players perform that has been shown to be harmful on an everyday basis… and Ryan Howard breaks a toe doing it? The Phillies were a long shot, so it may not seem like such a big deal now, but it’s not hard to imagine this happening in a more crucial moment. And even the fact that this is the first time this has happened in recent memory doesn’t mean that much — every day that baseball is played, someone somewhere is swinging with one of these doughnuts, pipes, weighted bats or (yes) sledgehammers, and someone a second later is going to drop that instrument somewhere. That’s building up a lot of “n” — this injury could happen again, to a team that desperately needs their star slugger at that moment.

And then we’ll have had a completely avoidable situation.

Proponents would say that it makes the player feel like the bat is lighter in their hands. It makes the batter feel good. There are all sorts of things that a batter could do to make themselves feel better for an at-bat, and many of them are illegal. That player is a valuable paid-for asset belonging to an organization and he is worth protecting, even when the person he’s being protected from is himself.

There are other practices that are more dangerous. A broken bat in the field of play is a source of danger. A line drive back to the pitcher is a source of danger. This pipe/toe story seems trivial compared to those potential outcomes. It would take a strange, strange on-deck circle accident to create much more than a broken toe. The difference here, though, is that — to varying degrees — this accident is completely avoidable. Any team can eliminate the possibility that this happens to them.

Swinging with weights is more like long-toss: some pitchers swear by it, but if a team has research suggests that it hurts pitchers, it’s well within their rights to ban it from their organization. And many teams do have long toss policies. It’s a ritual that some pitchers do, and they think it helps them, and there looks to be research that says it’s bad for them, so it’s banned in some cases. Plug in ‘swinging with a doughnut on the bat,’ and you’ve got an analogous situation, really.

So Ryan Howard did a ridiculous thing, and maybe it was just a freak thing that we don’t have to worry about. But since the thing he was doing was probably already detrimental, maybe it was actually an important thing that Ryan Howard did. And if it was an important thing, we should thank Ryan Howard for breaking his toe so that maybe the next guy doesn’t have to. Seriously!