Over the past few seasons, the number of injuries and overall health of Yankees players has received plenty of attention. After a few frustrating seasons on the health front, and a relatively high-profile change in leadership in the strength and conditioning department, the Yankees entered 2020 with high hopes for a healthy and high-performing season.
Then, spring 2020 happened and matters went haywire for everybody. Unexpected challenges are always going to be part of baseball, but it’s safe to say that nobody had a plan for how to handle a situation of that magnitude from a player performance standpoint. Amazingly (from a time-flying standpoint), two baseball seasons have now come and gone for the Yankees since then. With that in mind, let’s take a look at how the organization did at keeping the players healthy and on the field over the past two seasons.
Prior to 2020, the number of players who visited the injured list in 2018-19 league-wide stayed almost exactly the same. Yet the number of Yankees going on the IL in 2019 rose significantly, presumably leading to the change in leadership.
Then in 2020, as you might have imagined, the number of trips to the injured list rose dramatically league-wide. Obviously, 2020 wasn’t a full regular season, but if you prorate the numbers over 162 games, the league was on pace to place 1,512 players on the IL in 2020 — a massive increase over the season totals of 705 and 699 in 2018-19, respectively.
Yet despite seeing a relatively small increase in the rate of trips to the IL in 2020, the Yankees were not nearly as affected as the rest of MLB. After placing players on the IL 39 times in 2019, the team used the IL 18 times — or on pace for 49 over a full season — in 2020. That increase is not insignificant and shouldn’t be dismissed, but when compared to the over 200-percent increase league-wide from 2019-20, it looks like the Yankees did pretty well keeping their players on the field in 2020.
Obviously, 2021 wasn’t a “normal” season from a player health and performance standpoint either, but the fact that 162 games were played gives us a little more information to go on when seeing how good the team was (or wasn’t) at keeping the players on the field.
League-wide, the rate of player trips to the IL per 162 games dropped pretty significantly in 2021 from 2020 — 22 percent to be exact. Yet interestingly, the Yankees’ rate of player trips to the IL stayed almost exactly the same from 2020 into 2021. In other words, in 2020 when players were going to the IL at an unprecedented pace, the Yankees stayed reasonably healthy comparatively speaking. Yet in 2021 when the league saw improvements in regards to the health of their players, the Yankees did not.
Admittedly, those numbers don’t paint a complete enough picture to give a comprehensive assessment of the Yankees as an organization in terms of how good of a job they’re doing with their performance and health protocols. For starters, trips to the injured list don’t account for players missing a few games with a minor injury here and there. Although less serious, not having a player available for a few days and not being able to replace him is problematic if it’s a semi-regular occurrence team-wide.
Additionally from a human standpoint, we never want to see any player get hurt, but from a team wins and losses standpoint, extended absences of individual players don’t all have the same effect on the team. The Yankees were a good example of that this season, as none of the players who missed significant time were named Cole, Judge, or Stanton.
Although perhaps it’s only part of the story, it does give us enough information so we can follow general trends and watch for certain things. I’m generally reticent to criticize training staffs, as we outsiders know very little about the protocols, programming, and how they’re implemented behind closed doors. Strength and conditioning staffs aren’t that dissimilar to analytics staffs in that regard — we know teams have them, but we don’t know exactly what information they’re looking at and how they’re using the information. Luck, it should go without saying, is also always a big factor in the relative overall health of a team.
We can use the above information to watch for trends, however. The Yankees’ making up a higher percentage of league-wide trips to the IL in 2021 than they did in 2020 shouldn’t set off panic buttons, but it is worth watching, as good organizations don’t overreact to short term issues but also don’t ignore long term trends. In other words, you don’t be the Mets — and if the trend continues, it’s worth asking further questions. Additionally, if there’s a certain type of injury that occurs more frequently on your team when compared to other teams, that’s a good time to ask questions as well (although that wasn’t an issue with the Yankees in either 2020 or 2021, knock wood).
None of us want to be watching this aspect of the Yankees closely heading into 2022, but it goes without saying that it needs to be. Teams overcoming the challenge of many injured players happens occasionally, but it certainly isn’t a mountain you’ll want to have to climb.
Thanks to Baseball Prospectus for its new injury tool.