MASTER NOTES: Ouch!

It might not be the shot heard ’round the world, but Mike Trout’s wrist injury and trip to the DL is a seismic event in this fantasy baseball season. But really, Trout’s injury is not an earthquake unto itself. If anything, it’s just the latest shock in what is starting to look like a whole new era of tectonic instability. [Enough with the geophysics analogy-Ed.]

We’ve already seen other high-round or high-dollar players hit the DL this season. DL hitters have included Robinson Cano, Yoenis Cespedes, Miguel Cabrera, Josh Donaldson, Trea Turner and Ian Desmond. Top starting pitchers hitting the DL have included Corey Kluber, Noah Syndergaard and Madison Bumgarner. And top closers have included Zach Britton, Jeurys Familia, Aroldis Chapman and Roberto Osuna.

The number of injuries is growing. So is the number of player-days lost. And the net effect for fantasy players is to confound our best attempts to value players and build rosters, especially in single-league formats.

We need to figure out some ways to fix our game before it becomes a game of trying to outguess the "grim trainer."

Ouch

There has been a little disagreement about the scope of the injury situation. So I went and tried to figure out if there actually are more injuries, or if it just seems that way because of recency bias and what the behavioral economists call the “availability bias”—asked to say what’s going on in the sport this year, the many injuries make the story jump to the top of people’s minds and perhaps overestimate the frequency.

Curious about this, I went to spotrac.com and got injury data for all of 2016 and 2017 through May 29. And as it turns out, there actually are more injuries than last year, and more days being lost to injuries.

First, let me acknowledge that it’s difficult to compare a part-season with a full-season when comparing how many player-days are being lost to the 60-day DL. Most 60s this season aren’t over yet, so we don’t know their length. And when we look at last season’s 60s, we don’t know the exact length of any 60-day stint that was interrupted by the end of the season.

This particular examination also excludes three or four DL stints that spotrac.com has classified as “injured reserve,” which isn’t a term used in any baseball rules I’ve reviewed. Also, it doesn’t include Bereavement or Paternity Leave. Becoming a dad isn’t an injury, although sometimes it can feel that way. Like when your little girl gets her driver’s license.

So when we talk about days lost in the Master Notes, we’ll be looking only at the 10-day list this year and the 15-day last year. Any 10-day DL stints that started after May 20 of this season are assumed to go only the minimum.

We’re losing more games to the DL

That’s the headline. And it starts with the number of DL stints. So far this year, we are seeing 31 10-day DL stints per 100 total games played (DL/100GP), more than double last year’s rate of 15 DL/100GP for the 15-day DL.

Some analysts have pointed out that the shorter minimum itself might be causing at least part of the gain, because teams are more willing to let a guy rest a lesser injury if he can come back five days sooner. But only about 9% of the 10-day DLs so far have seen the player return in the minimum. Last year, about 15% served the minimum on the 15-day DL. Curiously, the mode (number that appears most often) for length of stay on the 10-day DL is ... 15 days.

Also, the average total DL days lost is rising. The average 10-day stay so far in 2017 has been just over 23 days. That’s shorter than the 36-day average stay on the 15-day in 2016. But because there have been so many more 10-day stints, total DL days lost per 100 games played has risen sharply, to 7.1 days/100GP this season, a 27-percent jump over last year.

And while I didn’t count the days of 60-day DL stints for reasons cited earlier, I did notice that 60-day stints are also soaring in 2017. We’ve had 71 60-day DL stints already this season, which is 32% more frequent than in 2016. If the pace of 60-day DLings continues, there will be more than 225 in the full season—almost one-third of all the players on active rosters.

So, whaddya gonna do?

Not much, at least directly.

Let's face it—if you lose a Mike Trout or a Madison Bumgarner, there’s not really much you can do, especially in AL- or NL-only formats. In Tout-AL, for example, Trout’s owner was able to activate a replacement OF from his reserve, but had he not had a player ready, the best OF free agent was Mikie Mahtook. Which is like replacing your Lamborghini with, well, my car.

Some fantasy people say coping with injuries is all part of the game, and I agree—but I don’t think it has to be quite so dire as it is now. Fantasy leagues need to start considering rules changes, especially changing rosters to fewer hitters, more pitchers. I’ve discussed this before in Master Notes, but we should be drafting about 75% of all the hitters and 75% of the pitchers. In only-leagues, we take more than 90% of hitters and 55% of pitchers. And that’s not counting reserve players.

Speaking of which, let’s get rid of reserve lists, again especially in only leagues. If the owners in an only-league take just one active hitter each on reserve, there are no hitters left. Zero. Zip. Nadowski. The only replacements owners have for hurt players will be the Triple-A bench-enders called up to fill the roster slots. Fun!

Finally, if your league has weekly transactions, encourage a rules change that lets teams respond immediately to DL situations. If I have a guy going onto the DL, and an available reserve-list player (or guy coming off the DL) who could step in, why not? The DL system in baseball is rapidly becoming a revolving door, so let’s not jam a wedge under it.

There’s also a school of thought that says smart owners adjust their projections and valuations for injury risk. To that, I say, “PLLLFFFT” [check spelling-Ed.].

In his five previous full-time seasons, do you know how many DL stints Mike Trout had? Zero. He averaged 154 games played per season. Anyone who paid top dollar for Trout did factor in his injury risk—or, more accurately, factored in Trout’s lack of injury risk. Similarly, in his six previous seasons, Bumgarner averaged 32 starts and 213 innings per year. It seems like piling insult onto injury to suggest Bumgarner bidders should have knocked a buck or two off Bumgarner's valuation because of his risk of dirt-bike injury.

I had some other ideas for coping with the DL growth:

  • Read ‘The Big Hurt,’ Matthew Cederholm’s injury coverage at BaseballHQ.com, which has a description of the injury, its 2017 impact, and the player’s estimated return date. I’m a homer, but it’s really good resource.
  • Get Someone To Outlaw Head-First Sliding. Trout hurt his wrist slamming into second on a SB attempt. This happens a lot, and no wonder—hands and wrists are relatively small and unmuscular, requiring the small bones and connective tissue to bear the force, a task for which they are not adequate. Legs, which are heavily muscled and have stout bones, are much better adapted to absorbing the energy of a sliding player. So send Candy-Grams to Rob Manfred and the owner and GM of your team. Maybe write to your Senator, U.S. Representative (if you know who it is) or Member of Parliament (ditto). Remember to include a campaign donation.
  • Figure ways to exploit the DL. Many owners don’t think through the value proposition of an injured player. If Trout misses eight weeks, he will come back with about 10 weeks to go. That’s 60 games. He could rack up $15 in those 60 GP. So you might find a profit by trading a second- or third-level guy who’s playing for a Trout who (currently) isn’t. As well, get more into prospects. Even if your league doesn't have Ultra lists or farm teams, knowing who is playing well in Triple-A and could be next in line might let you grab a useful callup. And again, at the risk of sounding like a homer, BaseballHQ.com has some great scouting resources.

Heading for Home

The DL situation is not likely to improve, so it seems inevitable that fantasy baseball and its players will develop ways to manage. We should expect more DL stints and the resulting increase in lost playing time, and we have to be increasingly pessimistic about any player’s perceived invulnerability. The grim trainer comes for them all.

In the three days since I started researching this edition of Master Notes, the DL has claimed Adam Liberatore, Robbie Ross, Justin Nicolino, Lonnie Chisenhall, Paulo Orlando, Cameron Maybin, Vince Velasquez, Matt Andriese, Welington Castillo, Danny Duffy, Dustin Pedroia, Chris Stewart, Adam Ottavino, Peter Bourjos, and Joe Musgrove.


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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.