Hitting a baseball isn't the most difficult activity in sports—changing a long-standing culture is. For many years, a player was not officially diagnosed with a concussion unless there was a loss of consciousness. That started to change a few decades ago, but the physiological causes and long-term effects of concussions still were not fully understood. Thus, practices among players and non-medical personnel remained static.
The anniversary of that dam break has coincided with a series of tangentially related, not-quite-converging conversations about pitcher injuries. First, an Orange County Register feature by Pedro Moura explored the Dodgers’ new habit of stockpiling pitchers with serious or lengthy injury histories. The piece delved into the team’s balancing of the risk and reward those pitchers offer, and (in greater depth) into the club’s growing, large-scale commitment to both biomechanical analysis and long-term, data-driven research into injury prevention. Dodgers President Andrew Friedman said, “I would contend that any kind of advantage in injury prevention is significant,” which qualifies as candor for him.
PITCHf/x data is able to make a significant contribution to injury prediction.
Injuries, I think we can all agree, are a deplorable scourge on baseball. They remove our favorite players indiscriminately from the field, or ruin their effectiveness. They can take teams that are great on paper and reduce them to smoldering piles of ash (see the Texas Rangers, 2014). Even though injuries appear random, the result of bad luck and stochastic variation, they are (to a limited extent) predictable. Based on prior research, it turns out that commonsense factors can predispose position players to injury.
In particular, my last foray into the subject found that age as well as the number of days missed in the past three seasons could provide a reliable prediction into how many days each position player would miss in the coming year. However, the accuracy of these predictions was modest, and required extensive information from prior years. It would be desirable to make further improvements upon these injury predictions, but in the absence of other possible sources of information, prospects seemed slim.
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Can we figure out which teams are best at preventing injuries?
At the team level, injuries are as mysterious as they can be crippling. The Texas Rangers are suffering a whirlwind of pitcher injuries that threatens to break records and has certainly been one of the primary causes of their disappointing season. Meanwhile, teams full of aged veterans like the Yankees and Phillies have somehow managed to evade their fair share, albeit without benefiting very much.
Differences like these suggest asking whether some teams are better at limiting injuries than others. Ben Lindbergh (with the help of Russell Carleton) tried to tackle this issue a few days ago in the context of the Pirates' remarkable run of injury prevention. They found little detectable signal of any team having an ability to reduce injuries.
Are injury prone players actually prone to injuries?
In a twist of stunning unpredictability, Troy Tulowitzki is injured. Like the year before, and the year before that, Tulo is spending some time on the 15-day disabled list, after missing a handful of games for sprains and strains earlier in the season. Troy’s annual trip breaks up what was easily (on a rate basis) the best season of his career.
A glance at Tulowitzki’s injury history reveals a voluminous catalog of the many ways baseball players can be hurt. This year, Tulowitzki suffered a hip flexor strain. Last year, Tulowitzki had broken ribs. The year before, a torn muscle which necessitated surgery. Other injuries on his record include maladies in his foot, ankle, and hand.
How can we tell which hitters will have long careers?
In last week’s article, I extended my approach of survival modelling to examine what the early career success of a pitcher can tell us about his long-term survival in MLB. Despite the inherent randomness of the pitching profession in the age of Tommy John surgery, I discovered that by far the best predictor of a long career was the age at which a player debuted in MLB. Besides debut age, the abilities to rack up strikeouts and avoid walks meant the most for a pitcher’s long-term career outlook.
I turn the same method now to position players. Position players have different risks from pitchers, and a different set of career arcs. Position players are less likely to be hur, and more able to continue their career in the face of injury by moving down the defensive spectrum. What’s more, whereas a pitcher contributes the vast majority of his value from his pitching, a position player might be great in several different ways: by hitting, by fielding, or even (to a lesser extent) by baserunning.
Time heals all wounds, but in Washington's case, it will also inflict them.
You’d think Bryce Harper’s comeback from his latest long-term injury would be cause for unbridled celebration, and in some contexts, it has been (see the standing ovation Harper received from the fans at Nationals Park before his first plate appearance on Monday). However, the 21-year-old outfielder’s return also been cause for consternation. Harper’s presence, coupled with Ryan Zimmerman’s throwing problems from third, have given the Nats more qualified position players than they have open positions, which has made everyone around the team wonder: Where will they put their surplus player(s)?
Most teams suffer from the opposite issue—too few productive players—so the Nationals’ quandary is an example of the proverbial “good problem to have.” Still, it seems as though there’s no easy answer, and so the discussion has staying power. Twice last month, two weeks apart, I appeared on MLB Network’s MLB Now; both times, Washington’s positional logjam was a featured topic, and both times, the panel was split over what manager Matt Williams should do. The discourse in print hasn’t been much more decisive.
In their recent “position paper” on preventing elbow injuries in Major League (and Minor League and College and High School and Little League) Baseball, Drs. James Andrews and Glen Fleisig had an interesting recommendation for young pitchers: Don’t throw with 100 percent effort on every pitch. The arm, particularly the elbow, isn’t made to take that much stress all the time.
How do we know which hurlers will have long careers?
In the recent past, we’ve seen the rise of a generation of young and highly talented pitchers. From Corey Kluber to Chris Sale, from international acquisitions like Masahiro Tanaka to the sadly injured Jose Fernandez, young hurlers occupy an increasing share of the game’s best pitching matchups. Indeed, of the leaders in this year’s Cy Young race, only four of the top 10 are over 30. It’s easy to forget that even veteran aces Felix Hernandez and Johnny Cueto are still only 28. With the exception of some old stalwarts like Adam Wainwright and Mark Buerhle, the game’s best and brightest seem to be tilting toward youth.
If it seems to be the case, that’s only because it is. Younger pitchers are piling up the WAR(P) at an accelerated rate relative to the past couple of decades.
How do state pitch count limits for amateurs affect future elbow injury rates?
According to Wikipedia, Tommy John went to high school at Gerstmeyer High in Terra Haute, Indiana. I have to wonder how many pitches he racked up during those four years. Had he been pitching in high school today, he would have had to abide by Indiana’s state rules that a pitcher may not pitch more than 10 innings on three consecutive days. But had he been born in a state like Louisiana or Massachusetts, the sky would have been the limit.