Major League Baseball is facing an injury crisis and the Yankees are being hit the hardest.
On Sept. 20, 1998, shortstop Cal Ripken Jr entered his manager’s office just prior to that night’s game against the New York Yankes, and for the first time in 2,632 games and 16 seasons, he told Ray Miller he will not play. Let that sink in — 16 seasons without missing a game! Ripken, of course, broke the record of Yankees all-time great Lou Gehrig, The Iron Horse, whose 2,130-game streak ended on May 2, 1939.
In today’s game, if a player avoids the injured list or the bench for one season it’s a big deal. In 2019 the Yankees set a record, sending 30 players to the IL, accumulating 2,320 days, which makes last season’s 103 wins pretty amazing.
Like last year, albeit in a 60-game condensed season, the Bronx Bombers have already seen some of their biggest stars go down including Aaron Judge, Gleyber Torres, Luis Severino and Giancarlo Stanton, who only played in 18 games in 2019, suffering various Ellsbury-ish ailments while on the IL!
But the Yankees are not an anomaly this year. IL stints are way up, especially among pitchers, with big names like 2019 Cy Young winner Justin Verlander and 2019 World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg out for an extended period or the entire season. The Yankees have seen Luis Severino and Tommy Kahnle succumb to Tommy John surgery and then watched James Paxton hit the shelf with a forearm injury.
Speaking of Tommy John surgery, back in the day, pitchers needing the procedure was somewhat rare. Coming back or coming back better was even rarer. Over the last 20 years, the number of Tommy John surgeries has exploded, especially in the last decade. Tommy John surgery is almost a rite of passage for pitchers nowadays. Guys like Nathan Eovaldi have underwent the procedure twice and still throw 100 mph!
But with all the wonders of modern science and training techniques, why are players so fragile today? Is the reason solely based on physical conditioning or do mental and financial factors also play a role?
Thus far in 2020 we have seen an unprecedented number of players, especially pitchers, go down over the season’s first 28 days. A recent article from Last Word On Sports about baseball injuries over the first 28 days of the last six seasons reveals a troubling truth.
And there’s still almost a month left to play in this irregular season!
The 57% increase in total IL stints since 2015 is certainly striking enough. But the pitching numbers jumping 68% since 2019 is alarming. Many are attributing this to pitchers starting up in February, then stopping, and then restarting in July due to the COVID-19 delay.
Former pitcher Jim Kaat has theorized that the increase in arm injuries over the last decade can be attributed to pitchers not throwing enough nowadays. We’ve also heard theories that the increase in average pitch velocity has put more stress on elbows and shoulders.
The multi-million dollar question of course is: “Why?”
Baseball is a game of violent motions. Throwing a ball as hard as you can repeatedly. Swinging a bat hundreds of times per week. Are today’s players too muscular, putting added stress on ligaments and tendons? Or has today’s extra-cautionary culture made players more fragile or overly concerned with their health from a mental standpoint? Does the promise of the big payday play a role in terms of ensuring proper rest and avoiding overuse?
As for the Yankees, Stanton has seven more years and approximately $230 million left on his contract. Thanks for nothing, Derek Jeter! Judge, the face of the franchise and one of the faces of MLB, has yet to land the big deal. He will not be an unrestricted free agent until 2023, however. He’s played in 214 out of 324 games across 2018 and 2019, and is sidelined again with a calf strain after only 18 games this season. Judge’s timetable for return remains unknown at this point.
One cannot help but think of the stories of Mickey Mantle playing his whole career in pain, his legs heavily taped from ankles to thighs. Different era, different mentality. Watch any game or highlights from 25 or more years ago and contrast the physiques of the players. While many of today’s players clearly do extensive training and weightlifting, the ballplayers of the past look like the only lifting they did was of the 12-ounce variety. Yet, they stayed on the field. Pitchers routinely threw complete games and went over 300 IP each season. That NEVER happens anymore.
Whatever the underlying reasons for the injury-prone nature of today’s players, baseball fans and owners want to see their guys on the field competing rather than off it tweeting. Guys like Judge and Stanton may very well need to adjust their training regimens and play through the inevitable bumps and bruises that occur over the course of a long season, because these lower-body tweaks are something players of the past were seemingly able to tough out.
We’re not sure how we got here, but the situation unfortunately affecting the Yankees the most and it’s killing their World Series hopes.