Recent studies have determined that almost 50% of MLB injuries occur before teams have played 60 games. Will history repeat itself during the upcoming 60-game season? Do the Blue Jays have the player resources to deal with injuries?
In 2019, the Physical Therapy in Sport website published two studies that analyzed MLB injuries during the 2010-2016 seasons. The first study was “Musculoskeletal lower limb injuries in Major League Baseball” by Hamza A. Salhab, Mohamad Y. Fares, Hussein H. Khachfe, and Jawad Fares. The second article, “Upper limb injuries in Major League Baseball”, was authored by Mohamad Y. Fares, Hamza A. Salhab, Hussein H. Khachfe, Liam Kane, Youssef Fares, Jawad Fares, and Joseph A. Abboud. The two research papers addressed the following aspects of injuries:
- The anatomical location of the injury
- Player position
- Time loss
- Injury type
- Seasonal timing
- An injured player is one who spent at least one day on the Injured List (“IL”)
- The data covers afflictions suffered during Spring Training, the regular season, and the postseason.
- The researchers excluded injuries that occurred during the offseason because they deemed them to be unrelated to baseball activity.
The 2020 MLB regular season will be 60 games, which is considerably shorter than the typical 162-game schedule for an MLB team. The when, why, and the potential impact of injuries is the primary focus of this article. However, a brief review of the other aspects of the two research papers is worthy of some consideration.
Lower limb injuries
- The thigh (41.4%) and the knee (23.2%) were the two most common lower limb injuries
- Fielders accounted for 60.0% of all lower limb issues, 62.3% of thigh problems, and 53.9% of knee concerns
- The average length of time on the IL for thigh injuries was 35 days; 56 days was the mean duration on the IL for knee problems
- Strains were the most frequently occurring type of injury (49.1%)
Upper limb injuries
- Shoulder injuries (35.4%) and elbow issues (30.5%) account for most upper limb injuries
- Pitchers made up 77.4% of the shoulder injuries and 90.2% of elbow problems
- The average stay on the IL was 71 days for shoulder concerns, 94 days for elbow issues, and 42 days for hand problems
- The two most common injury types were strains (33.9%) and inflammation (25.1%), both related mainly to the shoulder and elbow
The two studies did not provide a monthly breakdown of injuries by anatomical location (shoulder, thigh, etc.), the position of the player, the seriousness of the hurt (as indicated by the duration of the stay on the IL), and the type (strains, inflammation, etc.). Nevertheless, Table 7 and Table 8 are very informative.
Table 7 illustrates the occurrence of lower limb injuries by month; Table 8 reflects the same information for upper limb injuries. In the case of lower limb injuries, 49.3% of the incidents occurred in the March to May period; 52.2% of upper limb injuries happened during the same months.
Why do injuries occur during Spring Training and in the early part of the season?
Based on the research of others, the authors of the two studies suggested the following answers to the question above:
- The excessive and rapid increase in training loads that occur during Spring Training and the early months of the regular season, and
- Improper warm-up, fatigue, and lack of flexibility in the early stages of the campaign
For a definition of training load, Nic Gill (Strength and Conditioning Coach, New Zealand All Blacks) said the following in a 2018 Lesmills.com interview:
"Training load is one of those things where it’s more of an art than a science. It’s the cumulative amount of exercise you’re doing, usually measured over a week, and it can be measured by two things – duration and intensity. Duration is easy to measure. But intensity could be anything from how fast you’re running, your heart rate, how heavy the weight is on your bar, or the complexity of the group fitness session you’re taking."
The potential impact of injuries on the 2020 campaign
During the 2010-2016 seasons, the average number of games played before June 1 for each team was 52.6 games or 32.5% of a 162-game schedule. Therefore, approximately 50% of all injuries occur before the 60-game mark of a typical regular season. Furthermore, based upon the noted average stay on the IL, shoulder and elbow injuries will be regular-season ending injuries in 2020.
What to expect in 2020?
The injury rate during the 2020 MLB regular season should be the same, if not higher, than that of the March-to-May period of the 2010-2016 seasons. The reasons are as follows:
- The challenges to adequately train during the long layoff between Spring Training and Summer Camp increases the risk of injury.
- A rapid increase in training loads will probably occur either during Summer Camp or the early days of the 2020 campaign.
- The warm-up, fatigue, and lack of flexibility issues referenced by the two studies remain.
- The non-MLB players will not be playing minor league games. Therefore, there will be an increased susceptibility to injury for these players due to the factors previously noted.
Two things could mitigate the risk of injury. First, there are the expanded rosters: a maximum of 30 players during the first two weeks of the season, 28 over the next two weeks, and 26 for the balance of the campaign. Accordingly, larger rosters will allow teams to distribute playing time over more players. Second, sports science continues to evolve, which should translate into better load management. However, I think the incidence of injuries in 2020 will likely be comparable, if not higher than it was in the March-to-May segment of the 2010-2016 campaigns.
What does it mean for the Blue Jays?
In 2017, I wrote an article “Blue Jays: Has the Impact of Injuries Been Overstated?” I argued that three factors explain why teams fare better with injuries than other clubs. The first is better depth, and the second is superior non-injured talent. The third element is luck, which is the unexpectedly good performance of a player who gets into the lineup when an injury occurs (for example, Ryan Goins in 2015).
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On the subject of superior talent and depth, Table 9 shows the ZiPS team projections for the American League East. FanGraphs published the forecast on June 24, 2020. I have adjusted the figures for any subsequent news concerning significant season-ending injuries (Chris Sale) and COVID-19 opt-outs (none in the American League East to date). My conclusions, based upon the revised projections, are as follows:
The best five Blue Jays starters do not project to be as nearly as effective as those of the top two teams, but their #6 to #8 starter depth is similar to that of their division rivals.
The top eight Blue Jays relievers project to be fifth in fWAR. Their pitching depth (#9 starters and beyond) and other relievers also scored last in projected fWAR.
The Blue Jays rank third in terms of total fWAR, Top Eight fWAR, and depth fWAR.
When injuries occur, the Blue Jays have a competitive starter (#6 to #8) and position player depth. They lack proven bullpen depth and starter quality beyond #9. Furthermore, Toronto does not have superior, high-end talent compared to their division foes. Of course, this judgement assumes that all American League East teams suffer similar injuries in terms of seriousness and player value.
The last word
Two recently published studies concluded that approximately half of the upper and lower limb injuries occur before the 60-game mark of an MLB season. The indications are that we should expect the rate of injury to be at least as high in 2020 as it has been during previous campaigns. When injuries occur in 2020, the Blue Jays have position player and starting pitcher depth (#6 to #8) that is competitive with the related player resources of their American League East rivals. However, Toronto’s bullpen and other starting pitching depth is a relative weakness.