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On the Yankees and the definition of “injury prone”

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Can a player have a real problem staying healthy?

Aaron Judge Catching a Fly Ball during Spring Training Photo by J. Conrad Williams Jr./Newsday via Getty Images

“I know it when I see it” — Justice Potter Stewart’s famous criteria for what constitutes obscene material was regarded both as beautiful in its simplicity, and fraught with fallacy. Leaving definitions up to any arbitrary observer, of course, makes it difficult to even have conversations on common ground. Language is a social construct, but it’s a very useful one.

This becomes even more evident when we talk about baseball. A simple case like Most Valuable Player regularly stirs debate on what exactly “value” means. Some of us think the most valuable means a guy like Mike Trout, the best player on the field. Some of us think you need to be on a winning team to be “most” valuable. Value is hard to nail down, but you know it when you see it.

Now let’s talk about injuries. There is a quantifiable, universally-agreed-upon side to injuries. A pitcher gets Tommy John surgery and sits out 12-18 months, a catcher strains his groin and misses two weeks—that’s hard to argue with. What becomes arguable very quickly is the definition of injury prone; can a player have an integrated issue with staying healthy? Do you know it when you see it?

This week we learned Aaron Judge would likely miss Opening Day with a stress fracture in his ribs, after weeks of the Yankees trying to figure out what exactly was wrong with him. Luis Severino is missing all of 2020 with Tommy John surgery, after being out most of 2019 with lat problems. James Paxton is starting the season on the IL after back surgery, and there’s something funky going on with Giancarlo Stanton’s calf.

Who among that group is injury prone? Judge had shoulder problems last year and his rookie campaign, as well as being sidelined with a broken wrist in 2018. He’s played just 214 games the last two seasons, and we will see what 2020 holds for him, but he only has one year under his belt with more than 150 games played.

How much of that is because of something inherent with Judge, something that would make him “injury prone”, and how much of it is bad luck or random deviations from expectation? You can’t really blame him for getting hit by a pitch; if that fastball from Jakob Junis ran two or three inches lower, Judge gets his in the meat of the forearm and is probably okay.

He’s also played through injuries, long considered the expectation among a more traditional type of sports fan. Sanchez and Stanton have done that, too, taking the field when they could have, or perhaps should have, rested their injuries. For some players, this would be a commendable thing, that they have such a passion or drive for the game that they don’t let silly things like muscles and ligaments stop them from competing. For others, it becomes another argument that they’re injury prone—even when they’re ON the field, something’s wrong with them.

Of course players are only as good as the medical professionals evaluating them. I don’t have any medical training, so it’s hard to criticize from this far outside the game. That said, Judge, Severino and our old friend Greg Bird have all famously been undiagnosed, or misdiagnosed, by the staff the Yankees employ, complicating the conversations around injury. Can a player be injury prone if the people hired to monitor their health make these kinds of major mistakes?

Even the term “injury prone” leaves a lot in the air. Does it mean a player often injured, or one often injured and those injuries affect on-field performance, too? Consider Paxton, who is legitimately one of the most dominant pitchers in the game...when he’s on the field. His injury history doesn’t lead to poorer stuff or less effectiveness, just fewer innings. Aaron Hicks is like this too:

On a per-plate-appearance basis, Hicks is a top ten center fielder in baseball, about as valuable as Byron Buxton and Lorenzo Cain. He’s also made 800 fewer plate appearances over the last four years than someone like Cain. Hicks is stellar on the field, but often not on it.

So much goes into our conversations about injuries, the predictability and projectability of them, and who exactly is “at fault”. Injury prone is one of those things that you know when you see it, and it carries the same fallacy issues as obscenity.