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Stephen Strasburg's Latest Injury Shows Folly of Trying to Protect a Player

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Stephen Strasburg's Latest Injury Shows Folly of Trying to Protect a Player
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

When you ask any major league baseball player what his ultimate goal is, he will most likely say "to win a World Series." Exactly zero will answer: "To stay off the disabled list."

In 2012, the Washington Nationals looked to be on the precipice of supremacy. With phenom Stephen Strasburg and 2012 Rookie of the Year Bryce Harper leading the way, the team finished with the best record in baseball.

For the season, Strasburg finished 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA and 197 strikeouts in 159.1 innings pitched. But because of a decision made by the front office during preseason, Strasburg was shut down in the beginning of September, and as Jon Paul Morosi of Fox Sports noted on June 1, the rest was history.

“The organization's strategy came with no guarantees, and it was carried out in a manner that opened up the Nationals to continual second-guessing unless they won the World Series. (They didn't.)”

On Wednesday, Strasburg landed on the 15-day DL with a lat strain. There is often risk involved in reward, and because of last year’s foolish decision, the Nationals may have missed their shot.

Jeff Schultz tweeted this yesterday:

Strasburg is quickly turning into an injury-prone player . In February, Russell A. Carlton of Baseball Prospectus crunched numbers to understand what puts a pitcher at risk for injury. The results were that, “a previous DL trip makes a pitcher about eight times more likely to land on the DL this season.”

The oft-injured Chris Carpenter and Andy Pettitte are good examples of this.

Carpenter’s injuries go way back. While on the Toronto Blue Jays, he faced shoulder problems in 1999 and 2002, and then was sidelined for the entire 2003 season after undergoing labrum surgery. In July 2007, Carpenter—like Strasburg—had Tommy John surgery, and was out for the remainder of the season. The point is, the guy can’t catch a break (well it’s true, he never actually broke anything).  

Pettitte’s injuries started in his arms but then made their way to his lower body later in his career. In 2004, after three DL stints, Pettitte had surgery on his elbow to fix a torn flexor tendon. In 2010, he strained his left groin—déjà vu of nagging groin issues he battled in 2001. Last June, Pettitte was hit by a batted ball and broke his ankle, which sidelined him for six weeks. This year, he went on the 15-day DL with a strained trapezius muscle, and only returned several days ago.

So like Carlton said, for some players, the DL will become very familiar after their initial visit. He does however note a caveat.

“The rate at which previous disabled list visitors go back on is lower than 50 percent. A pitcher with an injury history is not a certainty to get injured, just a much higher risk.”

For both pitchers and position players, most injuries come out of nowhere. Pettitte’s ankle injury is a perfect example—that could happen to anyone. In 2013, there have already been several unexpected occurrences such as this one.

Take the generally healthy Ryan Vogelsong. On May 20, while batting, he swung at an inside pitch and got hit on his right (and pitching) hand. He broke his pinky finger in two places. Vogelsong underwent surgery the next day, and is expected to miss six weeks.

The speedy Jose Reyes is another case of a random unfortunate event. On April 12, one awkward slide turned into a severe left ankle sprain, sidelining the shortstop for three months.

Last year, a paragon of health—Mariano Rivera—went down. In May 2012, David Waldstein of the New York Times illustrated this by saying  “if there has been one constant with the Yankees during the most recent edition of their dynasty, it has been the unparalleled success and durability of their closer, Mariano Rivera." For Mo, shagging fly balls during batting practice went horribly wrong in the course of milliseconds, as he tore his ACL and was sidelined for the rest of the season.

So we’ve covered the chronically hurt and the baseball-related freak accidents. Lastly, we encounter a very special type: Players who go to war with inanimate objects.

Exhibit A: Hanley Ramirez.

If Ozzie Guillen calls something “very stupid,” you know it’s bad. Last July, in one of his temper tantrums, Ramirez got fed up with his poor performance at the plate and punched a cooling fan. This warranted two stitches. The outburst wasn’t exactly a surprise, but it still qualifies as an unpredictable event.

Exhibit B: Francisco Liriano

After signing a $12.75 million contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Liriano had to settle for a one-year, $1 million contract because apparently it’s tradition in his household to scare your own children on Christmas. In the act, the lefty had a bit of a tussle with a door and broke his humerus in his right arm.

Injury is part of baseball.

In an interview with Will Leitch of New York Magazine, former major-league pitcher Al Leiter (pictured below) said that because of the mechanics, pitchers are especially susceptible.

“It is an unnatural motion,” he said. “If it were natural, we would all be walking around with our hands above our heads. It’s not normal to throw a ball above your head.”

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

So yes, it’s possible that Stephen Strasburg—like fellow Tommy John-alum Chris Carpenter—is primed for a career full of DL stints. But if the Cardinals had taken precaution with Carpenter in the same way the Nationals did with Strasburg, the 2011 World Series could have looked a lot different.

 

All statistics are from Baseball-reference.com.

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