Monday, December 06, 2010

The Myth of Injury-Prone

A tweet on Friday afternoon from Kirsten Brown, administrator of K-Bro's Baseball Blog, posed the following question:
Hey baseball fans, what's your definition of "injury-prone"?
Kirsten was wondering about the amount of time a player would have to miss on average to bear that description in people's minds, but lately I've been thinking more about the term itself. What does "injury-prone" really mean, and how often is it assigned unfairly?

It's a buzzword that's been used a lot recently in connection with J.J. Hardy, who looms as one of this offseason's biggest question marks. Beat writer La Velle E. Neal III wrote over the weekend that the team plans on starting Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Alexi Casilla up the middle next year and that the Twins have already discussed a Hardy trade with "about six teams."

Many fans have expressed that they won't be sorry to see Hardy go, citing his inability to stay healthy as a fatal annoyance. Among them is my typically level-headed friend Twins Geek, who doesn't "trust" Hardy to stay healthy, and lists the following separate ailments as evidence that the shortstop is a ticking time-bomb: "Back issue in 2009, played 115 games. 2010, 101 games. 2006, just 35 games, for ankle. 2004, shoulder, missed almost all."

I'm wondering if the intimation here is that Hardy's bones are somehow more brittle than the average player, or that his tendons and muscles are abnormally weak. Is there any other way to explain this innate proneness to differing injuries? I don't think anyone who's watched him can claim that Hardy plays the game in an especially reckless manner; heck, the wrist injury that plagued him last year was a fluke suffered on a routine feet-first slide.

While posting stellar numbers in 2007 and 2008, Hardy missed very little time (11 and 16 games, respectively). Over the past two seasons, he has missed a total of 87 games (accounting for time spent in the minors). If missing significant time in two consecutive seasons because of separate injuries qualifies a player as fragile, then I guess you can tag any player on the Twins' roster, save for a few.

Joe Mauer missed the entire month of April in 2009 due to a lower back injury. This year, he missed even more games due to a variety of different ailments. 

Justin Morneau was lost for all of September in 2009 because of a fractured vertebrae. This year a concussion knocked him out for the entire second half.

Back and thumb issues caused Michael Cuddyer to miss 18 games and sapped his power in 2007; he missed more than half the next season due to a cocktail of new injuries. (Cuddyer, by the way, has missed only 14 games total in two years since).

The list goes on, but there's your three top paid position players and they've all had lengthy stretches where they've had a hard time staying on the field. As a result, they've battled accusations of being "injury-prone," as if they're doing something wrong by getting hurt. Fans are painting some of the world's most pristine athletes out to be Samuel L. Jackson's character from "Unbreakable."

The reality is that these guys are playing a fast-moving sport at the highest level, where it's pretty easy to get hurt. Obviously they would like to avoid spending time on the disabled list but not everyone can be so lucky. In fact, very few players are lucky enough to evade major injury for several years in a row. 

There are certain cases in which the injury-prone label makes sense. For example, when a player is perpetually bothered by the same ailment (Joe Crede comes to mind quickly). In addition, it has been proven -- and makes sense -- that players are more susceptible to injury as they age.

But am I supposed to believe that Hardy's bad luck with past injuries somehow makes him more likely than another player to miss significant time in the upcoming season? Assuming that his major wrist injury and minor knee injury from 2010 are in the rear-view mirror -- as Hardy has stated -- then the shortstop carries no lingering injury concerns going forward. 

Sure, he might suffer another mishap and miss 40+ games for a third straight year at the age of 28. But when he was able to get on the field last year, Hardy was undoubtedly one of the best in the league at his position, in spite of playing through debilitating wrist pain at times. Bill Smith would be taking a pretty big risk by dumping that potential production for fear of another injury, especially if the plan is to entrust Casilla -- a perennial underachiever who has never played 100 games in an MLB season -- and Nishioka -- a relative unknown whose Wikipedia page points out that he has "established a reputation as somewhat of an injury-prone player" -- without any compelling insurance plan in place.

Without seeing what sort of follow-up moves might come along with it, I can't claim that dealing Hardy is the worst idea in the world. Maybe it's all part of a bigger plan. But considering how thin the market for middle infielders is at present, I have a really hard time seeing it. Shipping Hardy off with his value down over an irrational fear of injury or an obsession with increasing team speed would be tragically misguided.

Is Hardy an injury risk in 2011? Sure. So is everyone.


vita10gy said...

Preach it brother! The "injury prone" label drives me crazy. It's one of those things that people say without thinking out what they're actually saying.

Players might have weaker bones/joints/tendons that others, but even with that being the case the weakest player could get lucky, and the strongest could get unlucky. Happenstance is still going to be the major deciding factor.

The closest it comes is to guys like Crede, but I generally make the case that he's not "getting better" and then "re-injuring" over and over. His ability to play with it (the degree it effects him) might ebb and flow, but for all intents and purposes in those cases it's fair to say that's really just one nagging injury, not several.

Matt said...

I agree with your "injury prone" sentiment, it's a bunch of hooey.

However, watching Hardy at the plate makes me think he's just not going back to the peak power he displayed with the Brewers a few years back. Maybe some of these injuries have taken their toll?

Trading him away right now could bring some good value, and if they got a pitcher who could help right away at the big league level that would be nice.
But Casilla is a MAJOR underachiever who has been given lots of chances at an every day role and has failed to sieze the opportunities. This has to be his last chance, I would think, before he becomes the 2nd coming of Nick Punto, only lazier.

Still, if they can get some nice returns by moving Hardy, I say go for it. He's shown us who he is, it's doubtfull he's going to get substantially better at this point.

Anonymous said...

Dear Nick-

I do not consider myself "injury-prone," but I am home sick from work today. I would like to read more about Twins baseball. I'm sure you understand. Please respond.

Thank you.

vita10gy said...

I won't cry myself to sleep if we let Hardy go, but I don't see the need for it. I'm no Sabermetrician, but I get the impression from the guys that are that Hardy is a decent value for his production.

I think Casilla filling in often at 2nd and SS is actually a pretty perfect role for him, and if we let Hardy go, we'll just need someone else for that role anyway.

If Casilla doesn't start then you also have the speed on the bench for a key spot. Increasing team speed doesn't help if the fast guys are waiting to bat in 4 spots while Kubel represents the go ahead/winning run on first or second.

cy1time said...

I'm not sure about "compelling" insurance, but I could live with Plouffe holding down a middle infield slot for a little while if Casilla/Nishioka doesn't work out. After watching Valencia come up and look like he belonged, I'm willing to give Plouffe a month. If it doesn't work out, there's always all-glove guys available that could be picked up on the cheap.

Frank S. said...

Injuries themselves might be luck, but a player's willingness to play through them varies. For example, guys like Mauer are less willing to play through pain than guys like Cuddy. Heck remember Marian Gaborik? Guy wouldn't play with a hangnail. So while the label of "injury-prone" is silly there are some guys who might be called "slow healers" or some such. Sure some guys just get hurt more often than others, but that's different than guys who are less willing to play through certain things.

Hardy? More on the luck side I think. Last year was one nagging injury for him.

Dave said...

Regardless of my opinion on casilla as a starter, I am going to reserve judgment until I see who we pull with Hardy.

I still say that the number one trade target should be the D-Backs. The problem is that their middle infield is set. They just traded away their third basemen though. I don't know about Drew, but K. Johnson can't move to third, so could Hardy take his bazooka arm to the hot corner?

I really want the Twins to target AZ because it would almost surely mean Capps is headed to the desert. Hardy + Capps for Kennedy? Hardy + Capps + Cuddy for, gulp, Upton? Can I be so brash?

vita10gy said...

Not sure if that's an apples to apples comparison either. A "hangnail" that's going to get worse and worse if you play with it before letting it heal is different than something that's a bigger deal, but isn't going to worsen or be prolonged if you play though it either.

Plus it depends on the situation. Mauer probably plays a playoff series with his heal injury. As it stood no Mauer for a short time, after which his heel is better makes more sense then playing the whole season with a 95% Joe Mauer.

There's also of course the implication that trainers have nothing to do with these moves, and that these players decide whether or not they play 100% of the time, which is false.

Karl said...

"Hardy + Capps + Cuddy for Upton"

Trying to convince Arizona to trade three nickels for a quarter is a fools errand.

Anonymous said...

"Hardy + Capps + Cuddy for, gulp, Upton?" 2 terrible contracts and a solid SS for justin upton? You certainly are being brash however, not realistic. I was told last week that i have to wait until after the twins make a terrible jj hardy trade to pass judgment. But as someone who would rather be proven right than see the twins wins doing stupid things this kind of excites me. Trusting middle infield to Casilla, whos never been average, and ishi, whos never seen a mlb pitch, is so low percentage that the wheels could finally fall off.

Then the fans will wish they had a good SS and good prospects and instead well have matt capps and whichever similarly overvalued, overpaid, underwhelming setup man they get for jj hardy.

Dave said...

You watch, AZ will go elbow deep into an iffy closer sometime this offseason. New manager with old school mentality and no proven closer is a recipe for a fleecing imho. Upton may be a pipe dream, and maybe even undesireable, but Kennedy for Capps + others may just be doable.

WWCD said...

I agree with Nick's comments about "injury prone". I don't think Hardy has been out so much that we should be cutting the cord. Nor would his salary be out of line for that position. Is there perhaps another reason he's on the block that's not being mentioned? Is he a good teammate, or is he missing that Puntoesque "spunk" that we value so much?

Off topic - Does our interest in Koji Uehara tie in with Tsuyoshi Nishioka?

Anonymous said...

Hardy and some combination of guys for Jose Reyes.

Nick N. said...

Off topic - Does our interest in Koji Uehara tie in with Tsuyoshi Nishioka?

I think it ties more to his success as a reliever last season, but it would be crazy for the Twins to suddenly have two Japanese players.

USAFChief said...

Agree 100 percent Nick. The whole 'injury prone' meme is often sloppy thinking. I asked the same question on BYTO a couple days ago.

Oh...and taking the (relatively bad) Capps trade and making it worse by trading him, AND Hardy, for Kelly Johnson? LOL.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post Nick. I really think we don't know how lucky we are to have Hardy on the team. Hardy hit decently, fielded like a gold-glover (if it meant something) and won't cost an arm and a leg to keep for another year. This versus Casilla, a guy that has failed to hold down a starting job despite numerous opportunities, or a guy that's never hit in the major leagues? That's too big a risk to simply "increase team speed". That's the only thing Casilla has over Hardy! Worse defender, worse hitter, not a good idea at all!

Bryz said...

Carl Pavano is a good example of suffering from the "injury-prone" label. I suppose 4 consecutive years of being hurt in New York is really bad, but even now that he's pitched 2 consecutive years with a combined 420.1 IP, and people still point out those 4 years as a Yankee. Hell, Jon Heyman even pointed out that Pavano was "self-centered" in NY, despite the fact that there was no evidence of that in Minnesota (Note: He also said David Eckstein would be a free agent bargain this offseason).

Moral of the story: Don't fall on your ass and bruise your buttocks, and don't get into a car crash right after you recover from another injury.

Nick N. said...

I suppose 4 consecutive years of being hurt in New York is really bad, but even now that he's pitched 2 consecutive years with a combined 420.1 IP, and people still point out those 4 years as a Yankee.

Yet, ironically, teams are now targeting Pavano as a durable veteran innings eater and those days in New York are but a distant memory. The "injury-prone" label goes away as soon as the bad luck does.

Anonymous said...

Some people are getting way too excited about what has become an incredibly mediocore SS. Look at the #s...he is replaceable, on both sides. I was pushing for Casilla, Plouffe and Harris to plug the middle and spend some $$$ on pitching. All we're asking of those 3 is .270 or so. I think Nish might be the biggest mistake Smith has made. This guy is very unproven. We are solid at C, solid at the corners, ok in the've got to sacrifice somewhere to get good pitching, unless you're the Yankees.

Matt said...

I see your point about sacrifices to get pitching.
But all Harris "plugs" is a spot in the lineup card and a base with his slow feet, should he even manage to get on.
I'd be happy with Harris being a stalwart Red Wing all season.

Dave said...

"Oh...and taking the (relatively bad) Capps trade and making it worse by trading him, AND Hardy, for Kelly Johnson? LOL."

I assume this was responding to me even though it has nothing to do with my post. I said they should trade them for Kennedy.

Nick N. said...

was pushing for Casilla, Plouffe and Harris to plug the middle and spend some $$$ on pitching. All we're asking of those 3 is .270 or so. I think Nish might be the biggest mistake Smith has made. This guy is very unproven.

Is this a joke?

cy1time said...

Come on, Nick, if it is Anonymous, how seriously can you take it?

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