By Mike Ivcic
I had the opportunity to watch a decent portion of the Yankees-Angels game on Saturday evening, part of FOX’s “Baseball Night in America.” This was either a blessing or a curse, depending upon your opinions of the Joe Buck and Time McCarver broadcasting crew. Typically, I think Buck is significantly better doing baseball than he is doing football, and the fact that McCarver is finally physically retiring at the end of the season is wonderful, since he mentally retired about a decade ago. Still, they discussed an interesting point during the middle innings of the telecast and I found myself with my jaw on the floor, because as it turns out I actually… (gulp)… agree with McCarver.
The discussion revolved around the notion that today’s major league ballplayers are injured more frequently – and more significantly – than players of prior eras. Unfortunately I don’t have access to the Elias Sports Bureau, so there’s really no way to tell if this is actually a true statement, but it certainly seems valid considering the plethora of players that have missed half a season or more with injuries since the mid-1990’s. Mostly these have been pitchers, and most of those injuries have been a result of Tommy John surgery, but there are still a significant number of position players currently on an MLB disabled list, too, so perhaps Buck and McCarver were on to something.
To start, I’ve comprised a list of all of the possible reasons as to why it may appear that there are more injuries now than there were a handful of decades ago.
- Better diagnosis of actual injuries
- Players more aware of a difference between “pain” and “injury”
- Players less willing to risk future contracts by playing through injuries
- Teams less willing to push players and risk future investments
- Players’ bodies less capable of responding to the movements of baseball
Hold your comments on the last one – the point upon which Buck and McCarver’s discussion was centered – and let’s break down the first five a little more.
Better diagnosis of actual injuries
This is a no-brainer “yes.” Medical advances have been one of the biggest reasons America has maintained its lead as a world power, and as athletes have earned more and more money, they’ve been able to afford better and better care. Dr. James Andrews is a household name for anyone that has followed sports for even a millisecond, a thought that would have been as foreign to Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig as satellite television. An entire sports medicine profession has flourished in the last quarter-century, and with it more and more athletes have been properly diagnosed with legitimate injures that need rest and rehabilitation, landing more and more players on the DL. Numerous studies have been done detailing the “injury culture” in professional sports, especially with regards to concussions, so there’s no doubt that players are missing more playing time now than in the past as a result of having a better, more complete diagnosis of their injuries.
For a more complete breakdown, just refer back to last week’s column. There’s certainly no denying, thought, that as players began to use steroids, they were able to maintain an elite level of play for a longer period of time, but they also then deteriorated rapidly from star to scrub, sometimes virtually overnight. Thus, as the performance enhancing drugs were slowly but surely removed from the game, players who had previously been steroid users were suddenly forced to stop – and quickly began to suffer injuries that sometimes lasted longer than expected. I won’t speculate on the actual names of players here because that’s simply not journalistically sound, but take a look at the list of players who began to suffer some major injuries in 2009 to parts of the body that are typically not prone to baseball injuries and draw your own conclusions.
Players more aware of the difference between “pain” and “injury”
This ties is somewhat to the first category of having a better diagnosis, but that refers more to significant injuries. This heading is more of the nagging, day-to-day type of injuries that in the 1960’s may have required a day off but today may require a trip to the DL. As a Mets fan, I think back to the disparity of injuries suffered during the middle part of the last decade by Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes. Beltran, who began having knee issues midway through his tenure with the Mets, would constantly play through the “pain” even though it was probably more of an “injury” that required significant rest. Reyes, meanwhile, routinely made trips to the DL for a balky hamstring early in his career that often led to speculation that the start shortstop was “soft” and wouldn’t push himself through what most thought was a little “pain.” Perhaps both players were right in their own assessments, or perhaps one or both were wrong, but the general feeling across all sports, and specifically in baseball with the everyday nature of the game, is that players are becoming less and less likely to play through “pain” even if it’s not truly an “injury.” Which dovetails nicely with…
Players less willing to risk future contracts by playing through injuries
Specifically, this applies to pitchers, but position players can sometimes fall into this category too. It’s fairly self-explanatory – if a younger player, making in the high-6 or low-7 figures, suffers an injury before reaching free agency for the first time, they have become increasingly accepting of going on the DL as opposed to pushing through whatever setback it may be for fear of damaging their open market value. Cole Hamels was accused of this in recent years, though he never actually went on the DL, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see other younger pitchers that may feel a tweak or twinge to likewise miss a start or two instead of taking the ball every fifth day as some of their predecessors may have done.
Teams less willing to push players and risk future investments
Likewise, once a player has signed that long-term deal, team owners are much more inclined to see their high-priced investments take a day off or even visit the DL for 15 days as opposed to worsening an existing injury and wind up missing significantly more time. Just call this the Stephen Strasburg rule. Or, call it the Johan Santana rule, depending upon which way your favorite team handles your highest-paid star player.
Players’ bodies less capable of responding to the movements of baseball
That brings us back to Saturday’s discussion by Buck and McCarver. The latter, a former catcher, opined that perhaps more players were getting injured because they have become “too built up” (“muscular” was apparently too big of a word for Tim’s vocabulary) that they are actually hindering their own body’s ability to react naturally to the quick-reflex nature of the game. Injuries to muscles like the oblique, quadriceps, and hamstring have increased dramatically in the last decade, which coincides with younger players beginning advanced weight training at an earlier age. Indeed, as the game of baseball shifted towards a more power-oriented style, players began building more muscle, especially in their upper bodies, than at any point in the history of the game. Coupled with the infusion of talent from Latin America, where players with major league potential are taught to focus solely on baseball sometimes well before their teenage years, it’s no surprise that this new crop of “power/baseball-oriented players” have begun to suffer injuries that were less likely in an earlier era. The bigger, bulkier, more muscular, and more baseball-centered a player becomes, and the earlier age at which a player makes those decisions, may actually have a direct correlation to the injury potential for that player, especially after they turn 30 and enter the later stages of their careers.
Perhaps McCarver’s point is just an inane and jaw-dropping as my favorite McCarver-broadcasting moment, when during the 2006 NLCS he indicated with tremendous flourish and amazement at how many more runs are scored when a runner reaches base with no one out as opposed to when a runner reaches base with two outs. What I assumed to be baseball common sense, McCarver relayed to the American public as baseball brilliance. Still, I think there’s definitely something inherently accurate about his perception of the injuries in baseball, and something for people significantly smarter and more well-versed in the strength and conditioning world of the game to study in greater detail.
And now, at least McCarver can go out having reached a pinnacle – or, for those more attune to Tim’s vocabulary, “on top.”
Playoff “Dead” List
June 17 – Chicago Cubs – Yes, the Brewers have a worse record, but after Sunday’s demoralizing loss to the lowly Mets, the Cubs jumped the team I had initially slotted here and will be officially eliminated. Any team that continues to employ Carlos Marmol won’t be reaching the postseason. He’s a poor man’s Jose Valverde, and that’s saying something. Looks like it’ll be another year without a title on Chicago’s North Side.
June 10 – New York Mets
June 3 – Houston Astros
May 27 – Miami Marlins
Three series to watch this week…
1) OAK @ TEX (6/17-6/20) – This is a huge week for Texas, which has now lost six straight after getting swept by the Blue Jays. They sit three games back of Oakland entering this big four game series, then get a visit from the hated Cardinals (see below). The Rangers really need to take at least three from the A’s to change the momentum in the division.
2) PIT @ CIN (6/17-6/20) – The second wild card only came about last year, but even going back to the three division set-up in 1994 it’s still only been three times that both wild card teams would have come from the same division. That’s what these two teams are up against as they meet for four in Cincinnati. Logic would dictate that something has to give, right?
3) SDP @ SFG (6/17-6/19) – I could have gone with Boston-Tampa or Baltimore-Detroit here, but instead I would like to draw your attention to the over-.500 San Diego Padres. At 35-34, they are just two back of Arizona and a half-game back of the Giants heading into their head-to-head matchup. These three games could determine the fate of San Diego’s second half.
Three series to watch this weekend…
1) STL @ TEX (6/21-6/23) – The last time these two teams met was the 2011 World Series. I don’t think I need to remind you what happened. Sure, the players have changed slightly, but Nelson Cruz, David Frease, Yadier Molina, Derek Holland, and a whole cast are still hanging around. This should be a great three nights at Rangers Ballpark at Arlington.
2) BOS @ DET (6/20-6/23) – Two AL division leaders square off for four in the Motor City. The Tigers are set up to have their top four pitchers in ascending order – Sanchez, Fister, Scherzer, Verlander – so it could be a long weekend for the visitors at Comerica.
3) CIN @ ARZ (6/21-6/23) – There may not be any real rivalry between these two, but both teams are currently playoff-bound and would like to stay that way. Plus, watching Votto and Bruce hit baseballs out of small yards never gets old.
If the playoffs started today…
1) Boston Red Sox (wins head-to-head tiebreaker with A’s)
2) Oakland Athletics
3) Detroit Tigers
4) Baltimore Orioles
5) *New York Yankees
5) *Texas Rangers
*= would play one-game playoff to determine second wild card team.
1) St. Louis Cardinals
2) Atlanta Braves
3) Arizona Diamondbacks
4) Cincinnati Reds
5) Pittsburgh Pirates
Check out my weekly column, “The Tenth Inning,” every Monday at ultimatecapper.com
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