For the past 10 years, I've been keeping track of injuries in baseball. Using a proprietary database, the difference in how teams manage injuries has often led to insights. Some teams are good at keeping their players healthy; some aren't. Some teams take injuries seriously; some just shrug and say it's part of the game. Some are consistent; some aren't.
In 2014, there's some clear insights to be gained. There are only two ways to win in baseball: collect talent and keep it on the field. Only a few teams were able to do both or, in the absence of that ability, to work around it with depth, payroll or in some cases, dumb luck.
Here are 10 insights and a chart to show you the difference in injuries we saw in 2014:
1. Who were the best teams at managing health in 2014?
The Milwaukee Brewers have been at the forefront of injury management for the past decade, establishing themselves as among the elite. A few years ago, a long-term analysis showed that they were neck-and-neck with the Chicago White Sox for best medical results over a decade. That hasn't changed.
In 2013, the Brewers were hit with a series of fluke hamstring strains. There was no pattern to it, and that usually points to bad luck, something that corrects. With a lot of work behind the scenes from both the medical staff and the strength and conditioning staff, that did correct. They were able to minimize the injuries they did have, such as Ryan Braun's lingering thumb issue. They lost less than $9 million in value, more than $1 million better than the second-place team, the New York Mets.
The Pittsburgh Pirates also deserve recognition for their management of injuries. They lost just over 400 days total this year, the best in the majors by over 100 days, but the injuries were to star players, which ended up costing them over $25 million in value. While the Pirates did get the Wild Card, the team's tough first half and key injuries appear to be the difference between winning the division and being forced to play that extra game.
2. What teams had the worst results this season?
One thing to note is that at the far end of the results, it doesn't necessarily mean that a team is "bad." A team like the Texas Rangers is a perfect example of this. The Rangers medical staff is normally in the upper third of teams when it comes to days and dollars lost, but in 2014, their luck didn't just turn, it abandoned them.
The Rangers put up the single worst season recorded. While we only have about the past 10 years or so, there are estimates for seasons back into the '80s. The Rangers clear the previous record, put up by the 2007 Washington Nationals, by 10 percent. Lots more on the Rangers in the next answer.
Other teams on the low end of results are the Colorado Rockies, who lost $95 million in value, largely due to the loss of Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez for large parts of the season. Keith Dugger and his staff have never put up results this bad.
Another team at the low end is the San Diego Padres. The Padres have made residence in the bottom third for several years, with a three-year average of 27th of 30. With the team in transition, new GM A.J. Preller could find a lot of improvement by putting a focus on the medical side, as well as bringing in more talent.
3. How bad were things for the Rangers in 2014?
I'm out of superlatives. The Rangers lost over 2,000 days, which has never been done before. They lost 13 players for the season and another 13 for at least 100 days. On top of that, there was a significant amount of value lost.
They lost starters and prospects. They lost nearly their entire rotation at one time or another. Very few players escaped the carnage, but there's no real pattern to the injuries either. Many were traumatic injuries, such as Prince Fielder's neck and Matt Harrison's back. Others were chronic, including a number of pitching arm injuries, both elbow and shoulder. Among regulars, only Elvis Andrus made it through the season unscathed.
Jurickson Profar is one of only two players ever to go on the DL with a teres major injury and the other, Clayton Kershaw, came back in a month and will take home a Cy Young. Meanwhile, Profar remains unable to throw without causing a re-injury to this point. It's been that kind of season.
On the upside, the sheer number of traumatic injuries and the likely comebacks for some of the chronic injuries should have the Rangers in a good position. This medical staff's results have been solid over the last five years, so just getting back to 2013's total should mean about three wins. Getting back to the top 10 could mean as many as 10 wins. If there's such a thing as luck balancing, the talented and deep Rangers could be challenging again quickly.
4. If one-year stats aren't very meaningful, what about three-year stats?
On the downside, I mentioned earlier that the Padres were one of the league's worst. On a three-year basis, they're the worst. Even with the Rangers putting up a record in 2014, the Padres still finished almost 700 days ahead of the Rangers. They've lost at least 1,500 days each season and 1,900 in 2012.
On the upside, the Mariners have been quite solid, just ahead of the White Sox and Brewers. This is no surprise given that the Mariners took home the Martin-Monaghan Award for best medical staff last season. The Twins finished just behind these three despite a poor 2014.
5. Just how big of a problem are injuries in MLB?
If you listen to Forbes' figures, you could buy 26 of 30 teams for just the injury tab this season. While the stat used for value is not the same as dollars, the MLB lost about $1.13 billion in value. Yes, that's billion with a B. That's just 2014.
So what is this stat used? I call it injury cost, and it's a calculated value using Wins Above Replacement (WAR) and lost days. The salary structure of MLB depresses values for young players. The best example of this is Matt Harvey. Harvey missed the entire 2014 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. In salary terms, he was just over $500,000, but it's obvious that he's more important to the Mets than just as dollars lost.
By using the calculated value, there's a more even accounting of a player's true value. Harvey was missed by the Mets the same way hundreds of players were missed around the league. Overpaid or underpaid, injuries have a real cost and a value cost. Teams can insure their real losses, but on the field, the best way to insure against those losses is prevention.
6. What about that Tommy John "epidemic" we heard about at the start of the season?
The so-called epidemic turned out to be merely a cluster. After May, only three more MLB pitchers required Tommy John surgery, including one that was only on the 40-man roster (Matt Purke of the Washington Nationals.) The in-season numbers were relatively low, which points to throwing programs and spring training as the bigger problems.
That's not to diminish the issue; it still cost teams and players a significant amount, but the front-loading of injuries is not a new thing or even a baseball thing. The same pattern is seen in both the NFL and the NHL. The NFL sees over half of its total injuries by Week 2!
This points to some possible causes and cures. While elbow ligament injuries do tend to be chronic (building up rather than one traumatic event), it doesn't appear to be a single-season injury. Few of the pitchers over the past few years have seen high innings or in-game pitch counts. The insidious damage is long term, but few can sight when it begins. Bronson Arroyo fought an elbow sprain before finally giving into surgery, but he's been among the most durable starters in baseball for a decade. Inevitable or did something change?
With one-third of pitchers in the game sporting the triangular scar on their elbow and numbers in the minor league increasing, there's still a lot to be done to reduce this. If nothing else, the so-called epidemic may have forced some action by MLB. They established a new group to research what they can do to reduce the problem, including Dr. James Andrews and Dr. Glenn Fleisig on the panel.
7. Do injuries and wins correlate?
So you're asking if injuries matter? Yes and no. There are plenty of teams this year, including the Dodgers and Nationals, that finished in the lower half of results and made it to the playoffs. Teams like the Mariners and Brewers missed the playoffs despite great injury results.
Instead, they can be a small factor in-season but seem to be a forward indicator. Four of the 10 healthiest teams from last season are in the playoffs this season, but it's not enough to just be good for one season. While a team like the Royals had a drop-off from their Martin-Monaghan Award a couple of seasons ago in 2013, they were back near the top again in 2014. Consistently establishing a team at the top is good practice.
To overcome injuries or to accept risk the way that the Dodgers and Yankees have done for years, you'd better have payrolls like them, at or near the top of the game.
8. What teams made the biggest improvements or declines in 2014?
The Pittsburgh Pirates made a huge jump, going from 23rd to first overall in days lost, a difference of almost 1,000 days. The Pirates had one of the best days lost numbers ever four years ago, but they have since changed medical staffs and seen their results all over the place.
The Brewers went from 22nd to second in days lost, fixing the fluke problem with the hamstring strains from 2013 and keeping the rest of their players on the field. The Yankees were in the top 10 in days for the first time in a decade despite significant value lost. Without CC Sabathia and Masahito Tanaka's injuries, the Yanks could have challenged for first (in both senses).
On the downside, perennial top staff Diamondbacks went downhill again, largely due to arm injuries. The Diamondbacks lost several of their pitchers for the year, dropping them from 14th in 2013 to 27th. From the opening of the season, the Diamondbacks were locked in no better than 20th just on arm injuries.
The Rockies had a major drop, going from eighth to 26th, losing a ton of value as well along the way. A concerning number of injuries for the Astros dropped them from third to 23rd. Remember that injuries tend to be a forward indicator, but it could be that, like the Pirates and Brewers, the Astros' flukish injuries could balance out and give them a boost in 2015.
9. Looking through the data, is there anything you'd tell teams?
It's long been known that not all players have equal value. Given the choice of keeping a star healthy or a bench guy, the decision is easy, though it goes against the instincts of most athletic trainers. However, the decisions should be made on a less elitist level. In 2013, it was clear that outfielders should, for the most part, get very little attention. They're simply replaceable.
In almost every case, outfielders' extended losses were able to be covered easily by a fourth or fifth outfielder without a significant drop-off. Even on a pure value level, only two of the 25 most costly injuries were to outfielders. (Bryce Harper makes sense, but Nori Aoki? That surprised me, though he's certainly helped the Royals go deep into the playoffs.)
10. What is the MLB doing about this?
Sadly, very little. MLB loses billions each and every year in terms of value lost, but they barely put millions into research to prevent them. The billionaire owners wouldn't stand for these kinds of losses in their businesses, but seem to mostly shrug their shoulders and send their best players back to Dr. James Andrews or Dr. Neal ElAttrache.
While MLB's recognition of some of the problems of the game has picked up, with the aforementioned "arm injury" committee, spending on a significant level hasn't happened. MLB subsidizes almost no research and is behind other sports in terms of pure sports science. They will institute a new tracking system next year that will give a flood of data, but it could take years before any team learns how to make use of the data.
It would be very easy for MLB to fix this, and I can make it very palatable. MLB and its 30 teams should put together the "Selig Institute for Baseball Research." Each team puts in a certain amount, let's say $1 million each to establish it and then $100,000 a year every year thereafter. It's nothing in terms of what they spend or lose, but it could make a huge difference.
All findings at the SIBR would be made available to each of the 30 teams and to the public, so as to make sure that the best research is available to all levels of baseball. A focus on player safety, player health and game improvements is a nice mission and would be a nice legacy for the commissioner to go out on.
Significant contributions to this article were made by Tyler Brooke and Kameron Casey.
Will Carroll is the Lead Writer for Sports Medicine at Bleacher Report. He also hosts B/R Afternoon Drive on B/R Radio on Sirius XM. Tune in weekdays from 3-6pm Eastern on Sirius 93 or XM 208.
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