Baseball has an injury problem. It’s a big one. And an expensive one.
As but one recent example – albeit an extreme one – the New York Yankees had 13 players on the injured list by the end of April, just one month into the 2019 season!
Major League Baseball (MLB) franchises are filled with data analysis experts these days. They study the game’s numbers in an ongoing effort to find an edge – any edge – that will give their teams a performance advantage.
But there’s one part of the game that has escaped effective numerical analysis: injuries.
It can be persuasively argued that nothing impacts a team’s performance, during any given season, more than injuries.
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Yet nobody has developed an analytical tool, of any type, that can make sense of injuries, more specifically, their causes and prevention. Sure, many preventive measures have been employed through the years – e.g., proprietary exercise and stretching routines – but to little or no benefit.
“There are a lot of theories about why it (injury rate) has gone up, and a lot of them make sense, but I am not convinced it’s one thing,” said Stan Conte, senior director of medical services for the Los Angeles Dodgers and formerly the team’s trainer. “Anyone who thinks they have the one answer is lying or wrong.”
Other than a few blips along the way, MLB injuries have risen on a decade-by-decade basis. And it’s a very expensive trend.
During the 18 years spanning 1998 to 2015, the average annual cost of placing players on the disabled list (now called the injury list or IL) was $423,267,634, for a total of $7,618,817,407. So not only are injuries damaging from a win-loss perspective, they are very expensive from a bottom-line financial perspective.
Today’s baseball injury rate is significantly higher than it was during every decade of the last century. This despite significant advances in sports medicine and training methods over that period.
Why are more baseball players missing games today due to injury than in previous eras?
The modern baseball player has many health and safety advantages relative to ballplayers from previous eras.
Consider that today’s outfielders play with padded walls, not the rock-hard walls from the past. Today’s fields are immaculate and extremely safe, which certainly wasn’t always the case. As one notable example, Hall-of-Famer Mickey Mantle suffered a terrible injury when he ripped up his knee in a hole caused by a sprinkler head during the 1951 World Series. With the prime condition of today’s fields, that type of injury would be highly unlikely.
Hitters today wear batting helmets and arm pads in the batter’s box in order to lessen the potential of injury from being beaned by the pitcher.
Today’s MLB players work out year-round and often have personal trainers, nutritionists and chefs under their employ. As such, players show up at spring training already in very good shape, unlike players in past eras who used spring training to get back in shape.
Yet injuries continue to rise.
Theories for the rising injury rate are numerous. Here are a few of the more popular ones:
- Pitchers’ velocity is up, placing more stress on pitchers’ arms, leading to more Tommy John elbow surgeries and more trips to the IL.
- Kids are specializing in baseball at earlier and earlier ages, leading to overuse injuries at earlier ages. By the time they reach the Majors, they have a lot more miles on the odometer. Many also believe that players who specialize lack the holistic body development that multi-sport athletes enjoy.
- MLB games take longer to play today. With longer games the injury rate goes up.
- Today’s players are bigger and stronger. Advanced strength training and nutrition methodologies produce heavily-muscled bodies that are more susceptible to a variety of muscle, tendon and ligament injuries.
- Due to the huge salaries today, management is hesitant to have players play hurt and risk a minor injury turning into a major one. Similarly, players don’t want to risk future earning potential by playing hurt. Thus, more IL stints.
It’s clear that with all the player games lost to injury in Major League Baseball – and all the dollars spent on injured players – more research is needed to fully understand what’s going on and why.
“Injury research, medical research, I think is relatively at its stages of infancy, especially relative to all the things you normally talk about,” says Chris Marinak, executive vice-president of strategy, technology and innovation for Major League Baseball. “You may have seen quotes from Billy Beane, and others, that say injury research is the next frontier of analytics and baseball, and I think that’s really true.”
Along with getting a better handle on the causes of baseball injuries, more research is needed to test injury prevention programs.
“More research is needed to develop and validate appropriately targeted injury prevention programs. … There is again a limited amount of literature demonstrating proven injury preventing measures in professional baseball,” concludes a research study led by the Department of Orthopedic Surgery and Sports Medicine at the Mayo Clinic.
The most common strategy when it comes to injury prevention in baseball is hope. And hope hasn’t been very effective.
“What’s happening in baseball, basically, is that we’re hoping we get lucky (with injuries),” Conte says. “And that, to me is a bad way to go.”
Injury research should be priority one. MLB owners spent $745,769,319 on injured list players in 2018 alone. Effectively researching and analyzing injuries in baseball needs to be the focus, above and beyond performance-based, on-the-field analytics.
The best teams don’t always win championships. Champions are the teams that combine good talent with good strategy and good health.
MLB organizations, thanks to analytics, have arguably never had a better handle on good talent and good strategy. However, when it comes to good health, more specifically, the cause and prevention of injuries, they’re still struggling mightily.
Baseball has long been called a game of inches.
But it has become more a game of injuries.
Ken Reed is sports policy director for League of Fans (leagueoffans.org), a sports reform project. He is the author of The Sports Reformers, Ego vs. Soul in Sports, and How We Can Save Sports.
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