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The Braves’ injury history in context

The Braves don’t stack up that well when it comes to avoiding injury over the past few seasons, though it’s hard to say whether that’s due to training deficiencies or the targeting of injured players.

Photo by Pouya Dianat/Atlanta Braves/Getty Images

Injuries are a frustrating, yet ever-present part of modern major league baseball. Front offices make myriad moves with the hopes that the way their teams look on paper translate to on-field success, but the injury bug can lay waste to the best-laid plans of managers and men. To a large extent, many around the game think that the next wave of analytics will actually focus on something close to biomechanics, both helping to identify injury-prone players from the way they move on the field, and also helping players avoid injury by implementing helpful adjustments.

In any case, Braves fans know full and well the devastating effect that injuries can have on a season, or even a franchise’s path. The Braves’ front office likely does as well, as it recently shook up their medical and training staff. Even before then, though, Eric Cole posed to me a pretty important question — just how have the Braves fared, relative to the league, in terms of injury?

This post is meant to answer that question, albeit more in a choose-your-own-adventure than a pedagogic way.

The good news for analyzing injuries is that much of work has already been done: Jeff Zimmerman at Baseball Heat Maps has actually done the heavy lifting, creating really useful spreadsheets with every DL stint a player was subjected to since 2010. You can access these data here.

All I did was simply to take those data, combine them, and then re-separate them on a team-by-team and pitcher-versus-hitter basis. You can see, and play with, the results below.

As with previous embedded spreadsheets, the button in the bottom right-hand corner will pop it out for you to play with a new window. I can also provide a downloadable version where, depending on how you’re viewing this page, you may not need to scroll to the right to see the charts.

Overall, though - it’s pretty straightforward. Just select the time period you’re interested in — a consecutive stretch of seasons between 2010 and 2016, inclusive, and see how the DL days stack up, team-by-team. Red and green shading pertain to one or two standard deviations above or below the average number of days missed.

The obvious takeaways are:

  • Overall, the Braves have had some poor outcomes with regards to injury, concentrated in the last few years. It is very difficult to separate out different causes here. This may be the case because the Braves are worse than other teams with regards to training and conditioning their players, or it may be because they target more injury-prone players trying to get them for a bargain and hope they are able to remain off the shelf. It also could be a mix of these, or another explanation. But, no matter how you look at it, the last few years have not been kind to the Braves in the injury department, whether or not it was something the team brought on itself.
  • Notably, the Dodgers and Rangers are the opposite of the gold standard when it comes to injury avoidance, with the Athletics in the mix as well. On the other end of the spectrum, the Indians, Twins, Astros, and White Sox seem to have something good cooking with regards to injury avoidance. My only real takeaway here is that the Braves probably shouldn’t be hiring anyone associated with the Dodgers, Rangers, or Athletics systems to do any kind of sports medicine/conditioning role, just to be on the safe side.
  • Whatever injury woes the Braves have had, though, do not really apply to their position players — the Braves are slightly above average in avoiding injuries to these players. The pitchers, on the other hand, are a huge problem from this perspective, though not as bad as the Dodgers (wow) or the Rangers.
  • The Orioles and Indians have been great at avoiding pitcher injury in the 2010s; the Mariners, Tigers, and Royals have done the same on the position player side.

There’s one particular bugbear that has been known to challenge Braves hurlers: ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction, or as it’s more commonly known, Tommy John Surgery. Pitcher elbows are on thin ice all over baseball, it seems. So to what extent are the Braves unique in suffering the depredations of this ailment? (Hint: They’re pretty unique.)

Unfortunately, the injury data mentioned above does not perfectly segment injuries between Tommy John Surgery-related disabled list stints and other injuries that may be related to the types of elbow problems that end up requiring the procedure, or perhaps lingering discomfort post-surgery. To address this, I used two different approaches to categorize each injury as either related or not related to Tommy John Surgery. The “underestimate” approach only considers a DL stint to be related to TJS if it affirmatively indicates the surgery, an “elbow tear,” a “ligament tear,” “elbow reconstruction” or something similar. Meanwhile, the “overestimate” approach takes most elbow ailments, except where affirmatively not TJS related, and considers them to be relevant to TJS in some way. The answer, as with many things, is likely somewhere in the middle.

Another set of tables is below, for both of these approaches. The bronze bar on the charts is the non-TJS-related pitcher DL days over the selected time period; the brightly colored bars reflect the assumed TJS-related DL days.

The thing here, well, is that the Braves have had way more days lost to TJS than any other team, no matter which stretch of time leading up to 2016 you examine. Again, you can say that this reflects some deficiency on the part of the coaching, training, and/or conditioning staffs, but that’s not necessarily the case, because the Braves have also deliberately been targeting pitchers with elbow problems and stashing them on the disabled list. Going further would require player-by-player analysis that’s outside the scope of this simple arraying of data, but one noteworthy thing stands out to me: I’ve looked into these numbers before, in seasons past, and found that generally, the Braves were on the high end, but not incredibly so, for days lost to TJS. However, by including 2015 and 2016 in the mix, the Braves become far and away the leaders in TJS-related DL stints, regardless of whether you use the “underestimate” or “overestimate” methodology.

Another interesting aspect is the proportion of total pitcher injury days attributable to TJS. In this regard, the Braves are still on the high end, but not clear-and-away the worst. So, the takeaway here is that Braves pitchers are an oft-injured lot, and a substantial chunk of that is TJS-related, but there are other teams with fewer pitcher days lost to injury overall that have a greater relative problem with TJS. The Diamondbacks and Royals have, depending on the time horizon examined, a greater proportion of their pitcher injuries attributable to UCL/elbow problems, so the Braves are not uniquely terrible in this regard. (They are still uniquely terrible in total days lost to TJS-related problems, however.)

Notably, a lot of teams have been very successful at avoiding the TJS bug in recent history, so it’s not as huge of a pall over baseball as it might seem just from anecdata and media coverage. The Orioles, Brewers, Twins, Mariners, and Giants, all have had pretty good success with avoiding TJS-related disabled list stints, though, interestingly, between 2010 and 2016, their pitching staffs are in baseball’s bottom half in terms of effectiveness, and each of them has had worse aggregate pitching value than the Braves. So while TJS-related injuries may be a substantial burden for teams and front offices in terms of roster construction and similar considerations, they are not completely ruinous to a team’s ability to field an effective pitching staff (assuming they have the resources to compensate for losses due to injury).

As a final note, when coding pitcher injuries, I found that shoulder injuries were also very damaging in terms of days racked up on the DL from them. While those are not analyzed here, there seems to be another (perhaps less publicized) epidemic of pitcher shoulder injuries in baseball that appears to be having comparable impacts on pitching staffs. Is this worth similarly analyzing? What do you guys think?

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