If baseball returns, will we see an uptick in injuries during this awkward season?
Injuries have always been an inevitable aspect of professional sports and it’s also the most difficult area to predict.
Fluke incidents happen all the time, causing even the most physically gifted athletes to spend time on the shelf trying to regain their health.
As Major League Baseball attempts a comeback for this summer, health will be at the forefront of any discussion about a new season. The league is still working out a way to keep players, staff members and their respective families safe from the coronavirus during a shortened season, but what about injuries?
Baseball players typically get more than five weeks to get into shape for the season in Spring Training — stretching out their arms, fine-tuning their swing, getting their legs under them. Before the COVID-19 shutdown, teams were already nearly a month into the exhibition slate, but now players have been at home for the last two months trying to stay ready on their own.
If the season is able to take place this summer, the league will need at least three weeks of a Spring Training 2.0 to get everybody back into shape as much as possible. But will that be enough time to avoid injuries?
“If they try to do this thing too quickly, yes, I really do [feel players will be at higher risk of injury],” former Cubs manager and current Marquee Sports Network contributor Lou Piniella said in a phone conversation. “It’s not very hard to pull a muscle running. It’s not too hard for a pitcher to try to get ready quick or hurt his shoulder or hurt his elbow. I would say yes, the risk of trying to get started too quick will create a lot of problems injury-wise. No question about it.”
Even in a best-case scenario, players will only have about half the time of a typical spring training to get up to speed. Sure, they won’t have to prepare for the marathon that is a 162-game season, but this situation will face its own challenges.
This is all such unprecedented territory that it’s natural for players to be confused about the best way to stay in shape. In a lot of ways, they’ve been forced to go back into something of an offseason training program.
Cubs pitcher Alec Mills hopped on Cubs 360 Friday and said the only way he’s been able to throw the last couple months is into a net at home.
There’s no way to prepare for the awkwardness of spending a winter healing from injuries and getting into shape for a long season, then spending a month in Arizona or Florida for Spring Training and then shutting down again for at least two months.
“I just hope the players are doing the prep — you’re setting yourself up for injuries if you’re just kicking it,” said Sean Marshall, a Marquee Sports Network analyst who spent 9 seasons pitching for the Cubs and Reds. “These guys shouldn’t be kicking it — they should be getting their cardio work in, getting their core work in, stuff like that. It’s a blessing to have all the extra time with your families and to be around and have a little down time from the usual hecticness.”
Marshall believes pitchers would need 3-4 weeks to build up arm strength and stamina again, even if they’ve managed to find a way to throw at home during quarantine.
If he were still playing during this strange time, Marshall said he would be throwing into the net he installed in his house or spending time on the mound he built in his yard. At the very least, he advised, pitchers should be in a maintenance program for their arm and throwing as much as they can.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, a pitcher was always just one throw away from a major arm injury.
“There’s things our training staffs and pitching coaches give us where you’re doing exercises like the rotator cuff, the stability stuff to fight off injury, to be strong, to be stable, to have your shoulder function properly,” Marshall said. “There’s always a chance of injury, whether you’re in July of a regular season or the players take a couple days off for the All-Star Break and they come back with a little biceps tendinitis or something like that.
“The work you put in, the care you take of your body — especially the shoulder, the elbow — those are the things that prevent injury. But yeah, they went full go to pump the brakes and they’re about to go full go again. There’s always a risk of injury. Probably a bit more of a risk with this go-around, but do the preparation, do the things that are going to keep your arm in shape.”
In other words, each player has to be responsible for his own health and career. Teams can stay in touch and help each other during this shutdown but for the most part, it’s up to the individual. Some pitchers are getting creative, like Max Scherzer quarantining with his former Tigers teammate, catcher Bryan Holaday.
The less prepared a pitcher is heading into a second Spring Training, the more risk there will be for injury.
For position players, former Cubs outfielder and Marquee Sports Network analyst Ryan Sweeney believes 2-3 weeks would be enough time for hitters to get their timing and swing down, but that’s not necessarily an optimal timeline for pitchers.
That might mean the hitters will be a step ahead of the pitchers coming out of the chute. At the very least, expect teams to be cautious with their starting pitchers and it could be a while into a shortened season before we start seeing guys pitching consistently into the latter innings.
“If a starting pitcher can’t go in right away and throw 6, 7, 8, 9 innings,” Sweeney said, “I would think the hitters would have a little bit of an advantage by being able to stay ready to go during this time and not having to build your swing up as much as timing.”