Year of the big-name injuries

What kind of playoff team could we put together using only players that have already hit Major League Baseball’s disabled list in 2011?

First, we could run out an infield including Kendrys Morales, Chase Utley, and Evan Longoria with Joe Mauer behind the plate. We’ll have to stick Ryan Zimmerman at shortstop and hope he wouldn’t embarrass us there.

Humor us; Zimmerman actually logged a game at short for the Washington Nationals and, like nearly every other MLB player, played the position as a youngster. We don’t have to get as creative in the outfield since Josh Hamilton, Jason Bay, and Corey Hart will suffice. Grady Sizemore could fill in as well.

Our No. 1 starter can be Adam Wainwright. We’ll put Ubaldo Jimenez next and split the right handers since Zack Greinke will be our third starter. We’ll go with Johan Santana fourth, and we’ve got Jake Peavy in mind for long relief. We can stock our bullpen with arms like Frank Francisco, Hong-Chih Kuo, Stephen Strasburg, Andrew Bailey, and Aroldis Chapman.

Oh, Chapman hasn’t hit the DL yet? Give Dusty one more week. We’re still in hypothetical spring training anyway.

The point of this silly exercise is that there are a plethora of players—star players—on the DL already this season. Hamilton tagged up from third base on a pop-up to the on-deck circle and ended up hitting the DL. Mauer has weakness in his legs. Longoria is one of many players with a strained oblique. Guys like Sizemore and Bay were hurt going into the year but, fortunately, have already started hitting in the short time they’ve been back, giving hope that they’ll play the bulk of the season.

With all these big names missing time, we may wonder if this is an unprecedented outbreak of injuries for the first few weeks of a season.

The short answer is that while there are certainly a large number of big-time players out this season, there have been other times that the game’s big names have come up lame at the same time. We can go back to 1999 and find an example. Right around this time of year, toward the end of April, some of the best-known players in the game were on the DL. As done above, we can use those injured at that time to construct a formidable lineup.

(Maybe a Strat-O-Matic fan can have these “teams” face each other. If someone’s willing, put a box score from the game in the comments and I’ll ship you an autographed copy of the next Hardball Times Annual. Honor code rules apply.)

So, from the April, 1999 disabled list, we could start Kerry Wood. He was the reigning National League Rookie of the Year in ’99 and had pitched one of the most dominant games in the history of baseball when he struck out 20 Houston Astros on May 6 of the year before. Mike Piazza can be Wood’s batterymate. Andres Galarraga, Carlos Guillen, Cal Ripken, and Alex Rodriguez will form the infield. It would probably be best to put Rodriguez at shortstop and Ripken at third but, either way, there would be plenty of pop from those spots. The outfield can consist of Barry Bonds, Ray Lankford, and Moises Alou.

The pitching is not very deep, but we’d have Matt Morris, Kevin Tapani, and Kerry Ligtenberg available in the bullpen.

Four of the position players ranked in the top ten in cumulative fWAR for the preceding three years. Two of the remaining players made the top 35.

Lankford makes the team just ahead of Jim Edmonds, who was also on the DL at that time. Edmonds would go on to replace Lankford in center field for St. Louis in 2000, continuing a run of fantastic production at that position for the Cardinals that would last a little over a decade.

While Bonds and Rodriguez are notable for their historic statistical totals, the name on the list above that is most significant may be that of Ripken. That disabled list trip in April of 1999 was the first in Ripken’s career. Although it didn’t end his consecutive games played streak, since Ripken had asked out of a game the previous September, it’s still amazing that he’d avoided the DL for that long.

Now, let’s go back another ten years to 1989. There we can also find an alarming number of the biggest stars in the game visiting the disabled list early in the year once again. Jose Canseco, Andre Dawson, Kirk Gibson, George Brett, Dave Winfield, Eric Davis, and Andy Van Slyke were all on the DL before the middle of May.

Although those players were all in the top 50 for cumulative WAR for the preceding three years, we can’t quite make a starting nine out of them. Despite that drawback, the group still holds batting titles, All-Star appearances, and Most Valuable Player awards. They fit the label of “stars” but don’t quite pack the historical punch of those on the list for 1999.

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Those are two quick examples of early seasons similar to this one in regards to big-name players missing time at the beginning of the year. 1989’s collection doesn’t quite equal the stature of the 1999 group, but they had star power nonetheless.

There’s little doubt that this season is somewhat rare, since so many of the game’s brightest stars are among the injured. But, it’s not entirely without precedent, as 1999 shows. Whenever the numbers or names on the injury front have been significant, we’ve looked for explanations.

In June of 2004, the number of players on the DL outpaced previous years’ numbers at the same point. Since that was the first year of MLB’s tougher performance enhancing drug policy, some figured players were more susceptible to injury since they supposedly didn’t have the benefit of steroids anymore. Astroturf and livelier baseballs have also been faulted for aberrant increases in injuries.

This season, 14 players have hit the DL with oblique injuries. Los Angeles Dodgers’ trainer Stan Conte noted in this article that that number is way up over recent years. He guessed that the reason has something to do with players transitioning to full workouts without easing into the season, while others actually think players are working out too hard over the winter.

The more likely reason a specific injury like an oblique strain will see a sharp rise in one year is simply chance variation. We’ve had two appendectomies already this year. Well, we haven’t, but Matt Holliday and Adam Dunn have. They recovered so quickly that they didn’t even make the disabled list. Therefore, they missed a spot on the All-Star team listed at the beginning of the article.

If we look at two appendectomies out of over 700 players and somehow think that there must be an underlying cause, we will be falling victim to a statistical anomaly. It’s very likely that the same could be said for 14 players suffering oblique strains, even if that number is up considerably over previous years.

The names on the DL as of a week or so ago included some of the biggest stars in the game. While it is unusual that this many popular players are hurt, it’s not unheard of. And while we can certainly look for a particular reason, or set of reasons, to explain such an increase, it’s still much more likely that it’s just “one of those years.”

References & Resources
Associated Press, Milwaukee Journal Sentinal, Fangraphs, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Times Union (Albany, NY), The Salt Lake Tribune, Herald & Review (Decatur, IL)

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Styles P Deadball
Styles P Deadball

Considering none of these guys are on my fantasy team, and yet it’s still crap, should I be worried?