MLB Shortened Spring Training Correlates To 22% Increase in Injuries

2020 mlb injuries

On the players’ side, one of the most important components of restarting the 2020 season was a legitimate Spring Training to ramp-up to the regular season. This was for pitchers to get back on their throwing schedule, hitters to get their timing back, and for all players to get back in baseball shape. In addition to all of the pure baseball benefits, Spring Training allows players to do all of this while preventing injury by slowly ramping up to opening day. But in 2020 MLB injuries are increasing.

In a normal season, pitchers and catchers report to spring training six to seven weeks before opening day, with the rest of the team following them shortly after. However, with the well-documented dispute on restarting the season, and the coronavirus pandemic ravaging the United States, players reported to the team facilities just about three weeks before the season. Despite many players working out in the extended offseason and participating in a brief spring training in March, not knowing when the season will start and social distancing measures have prevented many from getting ready at the regular rate.

Although correlation does not equal causation, it is hard to avoid the drastic increase in injuries this season. Through 28 days in the 2020 regular season, 181 players have found themselves on the injured list according to Spotrac.com. These do not include the players placed on the IL due to illness, Covid-19, or undisclosed reasons. Here, this number will be looked at in the context of the last five seasons.

The Past Five Seasons

Fig. 1: Injuries over the past 6 seasons through 28 days of the regular season. Data from: https://www.spotrac.com/mlb/disabled-list/cumulative-player/

181 IL stints, on its own, would be a tough number to interpret without looking at it with the previous seasons in mind. Over the past five seasons, there have been changes to classifications from the 15-day DL, to the 10-day IL. The injured lists in this section will be classified by four categories: less than 15 days, 60-days, total pitchers, and total batters.

The 2015 season kicked off at Wrigley Field as the Chicago Cubs hosted the St. Louis Cardinals on April 5th. The 28-day mark of the 2015 season was May 3rd. By May 3rd (including Spring Training), 103 players were placed in the IL (DL at the time). Out of these 103, two were on the seven-day DL and 81 were on the 15-day. Notable names on these lists include Masahiro Tanaka and Adam Wainwright. An interesting facet of 2015 is that 80.5% of the injuries were short stints on the IL. This is by far the highest percentage on the list.

In 2016 and 2017, there was a notable uptick in injuries from 2015 as 136 and 134 players were placed on the IL respectively. 2016 marked a 32% increase in injuries from 2015 and a major increase in 60-day IL visits. In 2016, notable players on the IL include Charlie Blackmon, Kyle Schwarber, and Zack Wheeler, who underwent Tommy John surgery. After 2017, there was another small climb as 148 players were placed on the IL. It was only a 10% increase in 2018, and 43% higher than in 2015.

Incorporating 2020 into the Mix

The average number of injuries from 2015 to 2019, was 133.8. However, with the odd 2020 season, the number of 2020 MLB injuries has jumped to 181. This marks a 75.7% increase from 2015 and a 22.9% growth from 2019. Although the number of injuries has had added up since 2015, there have been 33 more injured list visits, which amounts to just over one more per team. This is the highest single-season addition in the past five seasons. The expected trendline for this season (despite the low linear correlation of .18) is about 172 IL stints. This was nine lower than the actual value of 181, which is 5% higher than the expected number.

Injuries + Trendline
Fig 2. Injuries over Past 6 seasons with expected values. Data from: https://www.spotrac.com/mlb/disabled-list/cumulative-player/

Perhaps the most striking number is the pitcher injuries thus far. The 125 IL stints for pitchers is a 45% increase from 2019 and a 76% increase from 2015. Although position players may have the luxury of not having to work on their arms as much to get back in shape, that is not the same as pitchers. Pitchers were most likely hit the most from the shortened Spring training as they normally have a set schedule to ramp-up to their normal pitch counts. Further, pitchers make up 69% of the injured list this season, which is the highest out of any season since 2015, where this number was a tad lower at 68.9%.

Another pitcher went down as Stephen Strasburg was placed on the 60-day IL due to carpal tunnel neuritis. Strasburg has struggled with a wrist issue in his first few starts, which made the decision to undergo surgery almost inevitable. It is difficult to say whether this injury (or any) was directly related to the shortened Spring Training.

Final Takeaways

The saying “correlation does not imply causation” is definitely true, but it is difficult to avoid the 33 additional IL visits this season. Although this is the same increase as there was in 2016, the total number of players who are injured is much greater. With pitchers throwing harder, and hitters getting stronger, higher rates of 2020 MLB injuries will just be a byproduct of this. Given the increase of injuries from 2015, it would be a difficult proposition for the total number to decrease. However, with the 22% increase, the shortened Spring Training likely played into the numbers. This is even more likely for pitchers who make up about seven out of every 10 IL visits.

With the postponement of various games early on in the season, it could be possible that these numbers are lower as they would be had all of the games been played. Despite all of these numbers, it is hard to prove direct causation of the injuries. But, it is noteworthy that 2020 MLB injuries have increased by 33% since 2019 and 75% since 2015.

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