Yankees: Could over-reliance on analytics produce injury-prone players?
As most fans are aware, no MLB team came close to equaling the overall injury total that the 2019 New York Yankees endured. Yankees position players spent an unbelievable 1,149 days on the IL, while pitcher injury days totaled 1,171. Goodness.
The team had 30 players serving 39 stints on the IL, which was an MLB record. Only Gleyber Torres, DJ LeMahieu, and Austin Romine remained on the active roster all season, but even they dealt with some nagging issues. Without the contribution of over-performing replacement players, the Bombers would have never made it to the playoffs.
As I wrote at the time, something immediately needed to be done to address the unprecedented and alarming injuries suffered that year. GM Brian Cashman and the Yankee brass blamed the strength and conditioning department (correctly, I thought at the time). Thus, in January 2020, they moved quickly to overhaul and restructure this component of the organization.
The Yanks added Eric Cressey as the team’s new director of player health and performance. The Bombers also added Donovan Santas as assistant director of player health and performance as well as Brett McCabe as the team’s new Major League strength and conditioning coach. Other key strength and conditioning staff were brought in as well. Many expected that the addition of this new world-class health and performance staff would considerably reduce the number and seriousness of injuries.
Such optimism was warranted at the time. The new additions were among the nation’s top experts in those fields. They were relatively young and were familiar with the latest research and innovative approaches in their specific areas of expertise.
Yet, the shortened 2020 season was accompanied by surprisingly similar injuries, often to the same players. For instance, hurlers Zach Britton (hamstring), Tommy Kahnle (Tommy John surgery), and James Paxton (elbow) were placed on the IL early on. Also, valuable position players such as Aaron Judge (calf), Giancarlo Stanton (hamstring), DJ LeMahieu (thumb), Gary Sanchez (lower back), and Gleyber Torres (hamstring) missed time.
Maybe the new health and performance staff simply needed more time to work their magic? That seemed logical.
Well, with just over 60 more games left to play during the 2021 season, once again many Yankee players have experienced significant injuries and health problems. Thus far, Bombers hurlers Darren O’Day (hamstring), Corey Kluber (shoulder), and Clarke Schmidt (elbow) have landed on the 60-day IL.
While rehabbing following Tommy John surgery, Luis Severino suffered a Grade 2 groin strain in mid-June and was immediately shut down. This delayed his return to the Yankees to mid-to-late August.
Concerning position players, Aaron Hicks (wrist surgery) and Tim Locastro (torn ACL) are out for the rest of the season. Luke Voit has missed most of the year with a variety of ailments. He’s only played in 29 games. Trey Amburgey (strained hamstring), Miguel Andújar (strained wrist), and Clint Frazier (vision problems) are also on the IL with no timetable for return.
And let’s not even get into the SECOND COVID-19 outbreak the team has experienced this year…
Based on these results, it is unlikely that the number and seriousness of Yankees player injuries are due to a lack of care and treatment by the excellent health, strength, and conditioning staff. This is because players continue to experience injuries very similar to those in 2019 (and 2020), suggesting that the new staff is not to blame. Something else must be afoot.
An over-reliance on analytics in roster construction may be to blame for the Yankees’ problems.
An alternative explanation, which has not received attention thus far, relates to how Yankees executives use analytics to select and retain players on their 40-man roster.
Much has been written about the Yankees’ – and other MLB clubs’ – heavy reliance on analytics to determine players’ performance and value in addition to formulating baseball tactics and strategies. Baseball scouts, in general, have been complaining loudly that their player assessments and input are being pushed aside in favor of predominantly data-driven arguments. Sour grapes? Maybe.
Many close followers of baseball fear that an over-reliance on empirical assessments to dictate roster formation, tactics, and strategy tends to lessen the game’s human element. They argue that placing enormous weight on quantitative appraisals does not automatically translate into team dominance and success.
Those who share this view argue that one must also consider players’ psychological and behavioral characteristics to produce camaraderie and good team chemistry necessary to win games and reach the playoffs.
Yankee analysts and fans suspect that Cashman and other club executives depend almost exclusively on data and statistics in their evaluations of ballplayers and ignore the critical human traits, such as grit, drive, dedication, creativity, motivation to succeed, and willingness to sacrifice one’s own self-interest for the good of the team.
By primarily operating within a highly data-driven paradigm when assessing the performance and value of players, Yankee executives will more likely favor a particular type of baseball player who can play for the Bombers.
Getting to the point, their algorithms appear to steer the Yankees toward physically-imposing players (Judge, Stanton, Sanchez, Voit, Hicks) who mostly rely on walks and homers rather than smaller, athletic guys who can hit for average, play solid defense, and/or make an impact on the bases.
These tendencies, informed by analytics, may unwittingly lead to the selection of more injury-prone players.
Circumstantial evidence that Yankees’ over-reliance on analytics is likely to produce more injury-prone players
Playing baseball involves a certain type of movement that places a lot of stress on bones, muscles, connecting tissue, and tendons. Swinging a bat requires the use of tiny muscles you didn’t even know you. This is especially true for tall and heavier position players, due to their overall weight and body type.
Since I do not have access to the Yanks’ database and methodology, there’s no way to verify this. I would also need similar information from other MLB teams for comparison. Nonetheless, there’s circumstantial evidence we can draw on to see if this theory holds water.
Joel Sherman’s interview this month with Yankees assistant GM Michael Fishman, who oversees the team’s analytics department, sheds some light on this argument. When pressed by Sherman about the role of analytics and how it applies to the roster formation, he avoided answering the question and simply said that the views of other executives and scouts are also incorporated into the decision-making process about player acquisition and retention.
My review of injuries during 2019, 2020 and 2021 above points to a pattern whereby many, if not the most, frequent and significant injuries have been suffered by the physically largest position players. These include Edwin Encarnacion, Judge, Stanton, Voit, Hicks, and Sanchez.
For me, a blending of empirical information with consideration of the personal traits of players is the most prudent approach a baseball organization can take. Both bodies of knowledge, while different, are equally important. Nonetheless, arguments are likely to persist regarding how much baseball executives should weigh player performance data and statistics versus the human element in crafting rosters and team strategies.
Whatever the case, it’s clear that the Yankees’ strategy simply isn’t a winning one.