By Ken Reed
We’ve written about Major League Baseball’s injury problem in the past. Players are missing more games and playing fewer innings than ever before.
The analytics revolution in baseball has led to several new strategies in the game designed to give teams a performance advantage. However, as far as we’re aware, nobody has developed an analytical tool, of any type, that can make sense of baseball injuries, more specifically, their causes and prevention.
We recently chatted with former Los Angeles Dodgers general manager, and long-time Pacific Rim scout, Dan Evans, for a League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast episode. One subject we touched on during the episode was what seems to be an epidemic of injuries, and time spent on the injured list, in Major League Baseball.
What follows is a slightly edited excerpt from that discussion:
Reed: When you go back and look at the MLB disabled lists from the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, and then look at the injured lists from the last several years, there are so many more names on the injured list in today’s game. On the surface, it doesn’t make sense. The players of yesteryear had to get jobs in the offseason. They used spring training to get back in shape. Today’s players work out year-round and are more fit than players of any other era. And given all the training, medical and nutritional advancements these days, how do you make sense of that? Why do you think that is?
Evans: I think there are a couple key reasons why that’s happening. The biggest of which is that medical technology has progressed so much during my career in baseball. When I started, Tommy John surgery wasn’t happening. A couple guys had done it and that’s it. There were no MRIs. We didn’t have the ability to look into a player’s body like we do today. Our medical awareness of what’s going on in players’ bodies is much better than it was 30 or 40 years ago. So now, when the medical people see the MRI, they see structural tears, they see a problem in an ankle, in a shoulder, in an elbow that the trainers in the 70’s and 80’s wouldn’t have seen. It’s different today because things can be seen by trainers and doctors that their predecessors couldn’t see. Given the technology and awareness, there are more injury list placements than ever before, we are cognizant of things today that they weren’t aware of in the past.
Reed: Do today’s baseball executives, managers and coaches look at injuries differently than they did 30 or 40 years ago?
Evans: Definitely. When I started in baseball in 1981, when pitchers had a “sore arm” they went to the bullpen, they didn’t go to the DL. But now we put them in MRI chambers and we can see things that don’t make sense.
There’s been a change in our perception of the game. It used to be “play through the injury.” The thinking went “We have a finite number of days in the season. Keep playing. Stay on the field.” I was one of those people. It was “We need you to play.”
Well, now we recognize we’re going to pay players $10-$25 million a year, $40 million a year. We want them to be a good investment, not only today but three years from now when we still have them signed. Eight years if you’re a Harper or Tatis. Clubs, more than ever, are getting medical information, getting data, and saying we need to sit this player down because if he’s not 100% we have a lesser player than the one we’re paying $30 million a year.
Another part of it is this: With the labor agreement where it is, players have access to their medical data that they didn’t have 30 or 40 years ago. And that’s the way it should be. So, players are more aware than ever before of their own health situation. Whereas, they weren’t told sometimes in the past. I think that equation has also resulted in more injured list placements.
And, from a strategic standpoint, it’s load management. You put a pitcher on the IL because you want him to skip a start or two. But you don’t want to play games a man down at 25, you want to play at 26. Making an IL move allows for that. So, you sit the guy for 10 days, and he comes back after skipping a start or two. He’s not going to throw 300 innings a year because we know that’s not in anybody’s best interest. The game’s strategy has changed. The IL is more of a strategic roster tool than ever before.
Reed: You mentioned the players’ role in this equation. I imagine they don’t want to play through injuries — as players did in the past — because if they make an injury worse they might be risking a big multi-year contract in the future if they do.
Evans: Players want to maximize their playing careers and I don’t blame them. It’s not like in the business world where if you’re an accountant and you have a medical setback when you’re 33 years old, maybe you take a medical leave for a year, you can still come back and have 30 years left of your professional career. These players are done in their mid-to-late-30’s, some even younger. Their shelf life is so short. When it’s over for them it’s over forever.
Reed: You’ve spent a lot of time scouting in Asia, and I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of different training methods. It seems like with pitchers specifically, they throw a lot more over there between starts and get injured less than pitchers in the United States. Are our pitchers’ arms not strong enough because they don’t throw enough?
Evans: That’s a great point. I think as a game, we have not included a throwing program at the youth level, the high school level, and the collegiate, minors and big league levels as much as we should. And the lack of throwing programs has impeded arm strength and cost us arm injuries throughout the sport.
I am very aware of the game in the Pacific Rim. I’ve traveled there 60 times. I’m immersed in it. I’ve scouted there for 25 years. I really know their game. There’s a reason their players don’t have as many arm injuries as ours do. It’s because they throw every day.
The Japanese game has the fewest arm injuries of anywhere else in the world. People in this country argue and point to a few Japanese pitchers who came to the States and had arm injuries. That’s true. But their big league clubs asked them to conform to their level of training instead of what these pitchers were used to.
— Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans
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