The Year of Living Dangerously

26 06 2008

The year of the injury seems to be prevalent in the MLB this year, just as last year was the year of the injury in the NBA and every year is the year of the injury in the NFL.
If there were any reason to not play fantasy baseball, it would be a year when Albert Pujols, Alfonso Soriano, David Ortiz, Carlos Zambrano, Victor Martinez, and other perennial All Stars are out for extended periods of time. Even the perfectly constructed player, Alex Rodriguez was on the DL this year.
People are scrambling for reasons, but there’s a lot of factors that are more a part of modernity than a product of the sky falling

For starters, let’s make sure to note that if you are a professional pitcher who has not had Tommy John surgery at some point in your career, you are now in the minority. A quick look at the MLB injury list shows that of the 151 players currently on the DL at the Major League level, 30 have some sort of elbow injury or surgery. Considering that there are about 330 pitchers in the majors at any given time, that’s something of a low number, and that elbow injury number includes position players too. So that’s a fifth of the injury list, including J.J. Putz, Chris Carpenter, Victor Martinez (catchers have the second highest rate of elbow injury), Rafael Soriano, and Tom Glavine. Carl Pavano is recovering from Tommy John surgery, and this is actually his most forgivable D.L. stint as a Yankee.

Another factor to consider is the rate of diagnosis of injuries in the MLB has increased due to advances in medicine. We now have better medical definitions of tendonitis, bursitis, muscle and tendon inflammation and tightness, concussions and weirder injuries such as plantar fascitis or Rocco Baldelli’s own personal mitochondrial disorder. These diagnoses would either go unnoticed or intentionally ignored even 30 years ago.
We may say those athletes were tougher, but they also had shorter life expectancies too. Of the current MLB injury list, there’s also around 30 members of the D.L., which includes some of the above mentioned elbow injuries, but also includes Brad Penny, Frank Thomas, Eric Gagne, and Ian Kennedy.

Part of the result of increasing medicalization of society is the rise of elective surgery.
While in some cases Tommy John surgery, shoulder surgery, and knee surgery are necessary, in even more cases they’re precautionary elective measures. Players and teams are both willing to have reconstructive surgery than deal with long term ineffectiveness due to a non-debilitating injury, and in most cases doing so is now successful.
Currently there are 44 players on the DL recovering from surgery, and that’s not including the surgery resulting from breaks or fractures. Even in particularly injury-plagued seasons 40 years ago, I can assure you the surgery rate was not that high.

Now lets look at the traditional baseball injuries: breaks, fractures, tears, pulls, dislocations and strains (or the type that would appear on a video Homer Simpsons would rent).Those injuries consist of 59 of the 151 players on the DL, a high number, sure, but that’s just two injuries per team.
Yet, it’s these kind of places were we are seeing the perennial All-Stars. Here’s an incomplete listing of the all-star caliber players out with these kind of injuries: Alfonso Soriano, David Ortiz, Hank Blalock, Erik Byrnes, Gary Sheffield, Albert Pujols, Ryan Zimmerman, Andruw Jones, Paul Konerko, Fausto Carmona, Chris Young, and Carlos Peña. It also includes injuries that wouldn’t have occurred 30 years ago. Chien-Ming Wang got his injury running the bases in interleague play, and Daisuke Matsuzaka, who has one of those “mild strains” that probably would have previously gone undiagnosed. That’s 14 out of those 59 traditional injuries.
While slightly around 1 in 10 players make the all-star team every year, around 1 in 4 of the current players with breaks, sprains and the like are all-star worthy.

There are certainly other factors in play.
The weather at the beginning of the year was particularly cold and wet, which will lead to many injuries in any case. Another factor is the rise of more athletic baseball players, who are also more likely to pull a hamstring. But the main outcome of this season should show is that the traditional complaints against steroids and HGH are somewhat bogus.
Even with stricter testing for steroids, the injury rate has gone up. In fact, with many players less willing to use HGH because of the Mitchell Report, a drug which has and few harmful effects on the body and even fewer performance enhancing qualities but does have benefits for recovering from injury, the D.L. stints are longer.
It seems that the reaction to PED’s has have as many negative effects on the game as PED’s themselves, causing injuries to run longer, which could end up meaning reduced ticket sales and T.V. ratings.

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