Baseball, it is said, is a game of inches. But in reality, it is a sport even more precise than this adage suggests.
A single inch may be the difference between a home run and a long out, but a solidly struck line drive and weak contact resulting in a harmless popup may be separated by much less.
Really, baseball is a game of half and quarter inches, split seconds that determine the paths of games and players.
Arriving at a base a moment too soon or too late, leaning a half an inch too far or pausing for a split second before acting can result in a concussion that can change the course of a career.
Beyond damaging the physical body, concussions pose long-term danger for baseball players because they can impede perception. Even the slightest levels of dizziness, fogginess or sensitivity to light can change the way the game is perceived.
For baseball players, and particularly elite hitters, correctly perceiving the way a ball is rotating, the angle it is taking, the plane it is on or the break it will have can be the difference between success and failure.
When Justin Morneau suffered his concussion on July 7, 2010, he was in the midst of his best statistical season as a pro. He was showing the form that made him the 2006 AL MVP, hitting for average and power, and was on pace for career highs in nearly every statistical category.
He simply has not been the same player since:
2010: 81 GP/.345 AVG/1.055 OPS/18 HR/56 RBI/102 H
2011: 28 GP/.212 AVG/.572 OPS/1 HR/9 RBI/22 H
Clearly, Morneau is currently a shadow of his former self. Part of his dramatic decline can be attributed to his exceptionally long recovery time. What was originally expected to be a week or two away from baseball turned into an eight-month recovery, where Morneau had to readjust not only to baseball, but even to everyday tasks like watching TV and jogging.
But beyond an extended recovery time, Morneau’s lack of success in 2011 has left fans and front office members alike wondering if he will ever be the same again.
Has his concussion done permanent damage to his eyesight, or his ability to properly strengthen his body for the rigors of an MLB season? Have his formerly sharp perceptive abilities been damaged forever?
The Twins would not have brought Morneau back if he weren’t symptom-free and showing significant recovery from his concussion. They were as cautious with him as an organization can be, and for that they should be applauded.
But the fact that they now feel he has fully recovered must be troubling for Twins fans. If this is a healthy Justin Morneau, will he ever return to his old form?
In reality, the only one who knows the answer to this question is Morneau himself, and it is possible that not even he knows. If his concussion has had lasting effects on his perception, clarity of mind or physical capabilities, he has yet to admit it.
But his statistics have done a world of talking for him.
The effects of Jason Bay’s concussion on his career are somewhat harder to gauge than Morneau’s, partially because Bay was never an MVP-caliber offensive force. Nevertheless, he too has suffered a significant decline in production:
2010: 95 GP/.259 AVG/.749 OPS/6 HR/47 RBI/90 H
2011: 15 GP/.228 AVG/.646 OPS/0 HR/1 RBI/13 H
To be fair, Bay simply has not been productive since he arrived in New York, concussion or no. That said, it is difficult to ignore the anemic nature of his post-concussion stats.
Bay has always made his living with power and balance. His average may fluctuate, but his pre-concussion slugging and home run totals generally do not.
While his declining power numbers could be attributed to an aging player hitting in one of baseball’s most pitcher-friendly parks, it is troubling that his overall production has suffered a similar decline. Not only is Bay not hitting home runs, he isn’t hitting much of anything. For power hitters, a major concussion seems to be the difference between life and death.
Like Morneau, it is suddenly clear that Jason Bay is not the player he was before his concussion.
While sports science has evolved tremendously in the past 10-15 years, concussions remain a relative mystery to those who study them. The short-term effects are easy to measure. It is the long-term damage that is a mystery.
Beyond recovery time, Justin Morneau and Jason Bay are dealing with potentially permanent side effects of their injuries.
It is possible that both players feel as physically healthy as ever—it is even possible that they have recovered to the point that they no longer notice the extra split second it may take them to process information.
But their on-field performances suggest that their skills have been compromised, at least a little bit.
And in baseball, a little bit is all it takes. Lose a couple MPH off a fastball, and a former Cy Young winner becomes completely hittable. A little bit of bat speed separates a batting champion from a washed-up former great.
In the cases of Justin Morneau and Jason Bay, concussions seem to have made this little bit of difference and it has resulted in a world of change.