A general manager called this week to discuss injuries or, really, the volume of injuries besieging MLB. My knee-jerk response was to repeat common wisdom about going from a 60-game pandemic schedule back to 162 games and the impact that has on the body.
“Yeah,” the GM said. “But we haven’t even played 60 games yet. What is this going to look like when we get beyond 60? What does this look like in July, August and September?”
Those who study injury caution that one-quarter of a season is still too small a sample size to make overriding determinations about what is happening. At this point we don’t even know if playing 100 fewer games last year actually helped with reducing wear and tear on the body and, thus, is an injury preventive as opposed to a root cause of problems.
One NL executive said, “I look and Aaron Hicks is hurt and Giancarlo Stanton is hurt. Those guys are hurt every year. To me, the durable guys are still durable.”
Yet, most conversations with team officials these days center on their concerns of too little offense and too many injuries. The initial data at least backs up their concerns.
Through corresponding periods from 2017-19 (the last 162-game seasons), injury list stints were up significantly for both pitchers and position players — and this does not count COVID-19-related absences. Through Tuesday and 48 days of the schedule, there had been 351 uses of the injured list in 2021 compared to 281-291 from 2017-19, according to tracking done by MLB.
There were 203 pitching IL stints. It was between 162-168 from 2017-19. There were 148 position-player IL stints through 48 days compared to 115-123 from 2017-19 and those usages have included stars such as Ronald Acuna, Cody Bellinger, Anthony Rendon, Corey Seager, Juan Soto, George Springer, Fernando Tatis Jr., Mike Trout and Christian Yelich.
Many teams playing have endured playing short-handed or with far less than optimum lineups. The Padres, for example, have 13 players on the injured list, including 11 pitchers. Taijuan Walker became the MLB-high 14th Met on the IL, a plague impacting every phase of the game — the Mets have six players on the active roster who were not on their 40-man roster to begin the year, including three in Wednesday’s starting lineup. To date, both teams are succeeding, but how long can that last?
An NL official said, “We already are running out guys who were not even at the alternate sites last year.” This official added, “And most of our minor leaguers didn’t play at all last season and so what are they going to look like [physically] when we reach down [in August and September].”
Lance Lynn threw the most regular-season innings last year at 84. So what happens when pitchers start pushing to 120, 140, 160 … ? Another executive mentioned a concentration on starters and position players and what is being missed is “what we are asking relievers to do” because rotations throw so few innings and starters are being protected with an eye on surviving the long season.
Even a comparatively optimistic NL official wondered, “What does this do to the trade deadline? Are we just all going to be trying to find upright bodies? Are teams going to be cautious of acquiring players worried they are just about to endure massive second-half fades?”
Why are there more injuries so far? Maybe happenstance. But don’t ignore that teams more aggressively use the IL to protect players and keep their rosters flexible. The start/stop/start nature of spring training last year has thrown off a lot of routines. Hit by pitches have been historically high the past two years and pitchers are throwing up and in with greater velocity than ever. One executive wondered if players who had COVID had their usual offseason regimens impacted. Players are training for greater explosiveness to throw and swing hard and the body is under greater stress and, perhaps, not doing more frequent baseball drills that might help prevent soft-tissue injuries like pulled hamstring.
“Swings are bigger, efforts are bigger, deliveries are more explosive,” an AL executive said “Not a lot of guys play the game easy any more. You better be monitoring every swing, for example, your guys take because they are taking so many at full force even in batting practice. We have to protect guys from themselves. That is why you see load management and keeping guys out of the lineup to try to prevent the injury that has not yet happened.”
To date, though, more than ever are happening anyway.