Archie Bradley recently missed 33 games with a strained muscle in his left side. During the reliever’s absence, nine teammates joined him on the Phillies’ injured list, and a few others, including Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto, remained active despite being unable to play for a few days. Manager Joe Girardi this week described the roster as a “M*A*S*H unit.”
And the Phillies are one of the healthier teams in baseball.
With one-quarter of the season complete, two trends are emerging as baseball’s biggest story lines. Offense is down to levels unseen in more than half a century, while injuries are up at an alarming rate.
The former is an existential crisis for a sport desperate to inject action into games that have become, as Miami Marlins manager Don Mattingly put it this week, “sometimes unwatchable.” But the latter, the injury boom, is threatening to turn the 2021 season into an episode of Survivor and may even change the way 40-man rosters are assembled.
“You try to look at your own team and be like, ‘Man, we’re banged up,’ ” Bradley said this week upon returning from the injured list. “But you look around the league, and guys are going down left and right on every team. Crazy.”
Through Tuesday, the 48th day of the season, 351 players had been placed on the injured list, not including roughly 60 who were sidelined for COVID-19-related reasons. It marks an increase over the same point in 2019 (281), 2018 (291), and 2017 (283), the last three 162-game seasons.
The uptick is evident everywhere. Pitchers accounted for 203 IL stints through Tuesday, up from 162, 168, and 166 in 2017, ’18, and ’19, respectively. Position players were at 148 IL trips, up from 121, 123, and 115. Big-name stars – Christian Yelich, Cody Bellinger, George Springer, Jacob deGrom, and this week, Corey Seager, Mike Trout, and Realmuto, to name a few – were impacted as much as lesser-known players.
Thirteen teams had put at least 15 players on the IL, with the San Diego Padres leading the way with 23. The New York Mets shelved three core players — right fielder Michael Conforto, second baseman Jeff McNeil, and first baseman Pete Alonso — this week. Realmuto on Friday became the 11th Phillies player to go on the IL (the eighth for non-COVID reasons) after missing the previous four games with a bruised left wrist.
“When I talk to other clubs, they say, ‘We’ve never had injuries like this,’ “ Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said. “They’re decimated.”
“I’d say never before have we had a keener eye on player health and player workload,” Phillies general manager Sam Fuld added. “We’ve got a lot of good resources at our disposal that are going beyond the surface level ‘how many pitches did you throw.’ Like a lot of macro trends, there’s a lot of factors behind it.”
Searching for answers
Everyone has a theory. The most common explanation is the physical toll of a 162-game schedule after playing 60 games last year.
Makes sense, right? Trying to play through a pandemic one year may well beget an injury epidemic the next. Front offices across baseball worried about that possibility in the offseason as they hunted for roster depth. It certainly appears they will need it.
“I put it on not playing [a full season] last year,” Bradley said. “Everyone gets ramped up, then we get shut down. Guys kept working out, and then we ramped up again for summer camp, and then, I know we played 60 games, but that’s not what we’re used to. I’m just taking it as bodies are a little off and not adjusted to the full season.”
But there are other factors at play, too. Fuld suggested the addition last year of a 26th player to the active roster and the reduction in 2017 of the minimum IL term from 15 days to 10 has caused teams to be more aggressive with putting players on the injured list.
(The Phillies, interestingly, have often taken the opposite approach. Rather than losing, say, Harper for 10 days when he was able to return after three or four, they chose to play shorthanded.)
Fuld and Phillies first baseman/players union representative Rhys Hoskins also pointed to the industry-wide emphasis on power. Pitchers are optimizing for upper-90s fastball velocity and higher spin rates. Hitters are focused on exit velocity and launching balls over the fence.
In seeking to reach new heights, players are pushing the limits of their bodies.
“Guys are just getting bigger and faster and stronger, and with that comes more explosiveness,” Hoskins said. “And more explosiveness probably means more injury, too.”
To wit: In 2011, the average four-seam fastball velocity in the majors was 92.4 mph. It’s up to 93.6 mph this season. Ten years ago, 13,827 pitches –- 2% of the total number thrown that season – registered at least 97 mph. Already this season there have been 7,927 pitches clocked at 97 mph or more, 4.2% of the total number thrown.
“The human body’s not able to sustain that for such a long time,” Phillies pitcher Chase Anderson said. “Guys throwing 95-plus to triple-digits on a consistent basis, I just don’t know if your arm can handle that. There’s definitely merit to that [causing injuries]. I think it’s an accumulation of a lot of things. And I think last year threw a huge wrench into the development of minor-league players and major-league players getting their inning total up.”
Fuld, who helped the Phillies study injuries last season as head of their integrative baseball performance department, fears that injuries could be even more widespread in the minors. Most minor-leaguers were relegated last year to alternate-site scrimmages or working out on their own at home. The attrition rate could be considerable as the season gets longer.
“It’s a steep on-ramp for a lot of those guys who didn’t play competitive baseball last year,” Fuld said. “It’s concerning. There’s no doubt.”
As the pandemic continues to wane over the next year, training routines figure to fall back to pre-COVID-19 patterns. But the emphasis on velocity and power isn’t going away.
It’s possible, then, that the injury boom is baseball’s new normal rather than a one-off.
“I think getting back into a consistent workout routine over the next 15 to 18 months will help. I’m not sure it’s going to reverse the trend, though,” Fuld said. “I would be surprised if it does. I don’t really see the trend changing a whole lot, to be quite honest.”
In that case, depth will become even more valuable. The Phillies used 56 players in 2019 and 46 in the 60-game 2020 season. They’re up to 37 already this year. At present, outfielder Mickey Moniak is the only position player on the 40-man roster who isn’t in the majors or on the injured list.
Fuld said he can envision a time when 40-man rosters are expanded to allow for more flexibility to deal with the injury toll. Until then, contending teams may have to be more judicious with how they fill out that roster.
The Phillies, for example, have six spots occupied by pitchers who have made one or no major-league appearances. Maybe they believe Bailey Falter, Adonis Medina, Mauricio Llovera, Damon Jones, Cristopher Sánchez, and Francisco Morales can help in the near term. If not, can they continue to keep all of them on the roster?
“I don’t think there’s a whole lot of room anymore for 40-man guys that you’re just planning to develop and not use at the major-league level this year,” Fuld said. “I would say that those cases are probably dwindling across the league.”
If the injuries continue to spike, Fuld even conceded that teams may have to give more consideration to load management, a concept that has become common in the NBA.
Take Harper, for instance. He played an average of 145 games over five seasons from 2015 to 2019. Girardi has mentioned how difficult it can be to get him to take a day off when he’s healthy. But keeping Harper healthy may require him to take more days off, especially given the back and shoulder problems that have dogged him for the last two seasons.
“They usually have to fight me to get me out of my uniform. Because I do enjoy playing. The Philly fans deserve that. This organization deserves that,” Harper said last month. “But they also put value on days off as well now. If I can get the rest that I need once or twice a month and get us into September, I think it’s definitely a smart call but also a tough one for me.”
It’s also more essential than ever in a season that’s shaping up to be survival of the fittest.
“You can kind of feel that, right?” Hoskins said. “You can tell league wide. The training staff here has done a really good job so far, even with some of the injuries that we’ve had, of keeping guys on the field. Whether or not we like it or not, it’s going to have to be a focus to try to get through what we can.”