A Modern History of Self-Inflicted Baseball Injuries

In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen wrote, “Angry people are not always wise.” While Jane never saw a professional baseball game, her words still have relevance to the sport. Angry baseball players sometimes make stupid choices without considering the consequences of those actions. Recently, Cardinals prospect Alex Reyes broke a finger punching a wall in frustration. It turns out this has happened more than a few times in the last 15 years. These injuries are never caused by anger at other people; it is always frustration over their own mistakes. There’s that old adage about Hall of Fame hitters failing 70% of the time; these guys are humans first, baseball players second. In this case, there are three types of failure: the immediate, the prolonged, and the sort that we can laugh at.

Some of these self-inflicted injuries happen in the heat of a single moment. For example, Troy Tulowitzki smashed his bat in 2008 after being pulled from a game in the seventh inning. The bat shattered on the ground and sliced open his right palm. He required 16 stitches, but fortunately for Tulo, there was no damage to any tendons or nerves so he was only out for a couple weeks. Immediately seeing the error of his ways, he said, “This one’s kind of a stupid injury that I could have prevented.”

That is a pretty common theme; no player actually thinks what they are doing is a good idea. In 2010, Yankees starter A.J. Burnett cut open his hands as he “took his frustration out on a clubhouse door.” He allowed three runs in the second inning of a game and sustained significant cuts on his palms. He tried to pitch the following inning but was pulled because he was ineffective. Burnett was apologetic and admitted it could have been a more costly moment. He said, “I’m human, I’m not the first person to snap, I didn’t break anything. I will make my next start.”

In July of 2012, Ryan Sweeney of the Red Sox punched a door “a little bit.” He had been robbed of a hit, capping an 0-4 day at the plate, and punched a door in frustration. Sweeney missed nearly four weeks; his teammate, Aaron Cook, gave him a pair of boxing gloves for use in future fits of rage.

Last season, the Giants’ closer, Hunter Strickland, punched a door. When he stepped on the mound in the ninth inning, Strickland had a 4-2 lead to protect. He gave up three hits and two walks, and the lead with them. He called punching the door “stupid decision,” and it was. He needed surgery to repair his fifth metacarpal bone and missed two months. His manager, Bruce Bochy, said, “The closer has got to have emotional control.” That seems to be the real driving force behind these injuries, failure eating away at players’ ability to think rationally.

This can happen on the sport’s biggest stages, as well. During the 2004 NLCS, Cardinals reliever Julian Tavarez gave up a go-ahead hit to Carlos Beltran. He went to the dugout, where he slammed his glove onto the roof and then punched the bullpen phone. He broke his hand and played the rest of the postseason with a protective wrapping in his glove. He would later take the loss in Game 1 of that year’s World Series.

However, failure in this game is rarely one-and-done. In order for someone to do well, someone else has to do poorly. If things are going wrong for a player, and they keep going wrong, eventually that simmer turns into boiling that bubbles over. Instead of being a heat of the moment thing, these injuries are the result of extended failure.

Back in 2004, Yankees pitcher Kevin Brown broke his left hand punching the clubhouse wall. Just like Alex Reyes, however, he pitched right-handed. He had gone 0-5 that June, and after tallying two wins he had another bad start. Brown’s manager said, “The thing that bothers me is that he thought enough to throw the left an not the right. I wish he would have thought a little more on that subject.” Brown himself admitted, “I reacted to the frustration I had swallowed all year. I did a good job of controlling it until now.”

The following year, Oliver Perez broke his toe when he kicked a clubhouse laundry basket. At that point in the season, he was 6-5 as a starter, while in spring training, the Pirates expected him to be a top of the rotation sort of pitcher. This was a combination of high expectations and a repeated failure to meet them. He said, “When you get mad, you don’t think about anything, you’re just angry.”

(Photo: Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

In 2012, Hanley Ramirez punched a cooling fan in the dugout. After grounding out to second, he returned to the bench and went to town on this innocent fan, just trying to do its job in the St. Louis heat. He had only two hits in his last 22 at-bats and, again, frustration got the better of him. Fortunately for the Marlins, Ramirez was only out for a couple days and required only two stitches on his finger. Ozzie Guillen, the Marlins Manager, said, “We’re not kids. We’re grown people. When you struggle and you’re a great player you have to try and be better.”

In late August, Sean Rodriguez fractured his right hand while punching a locker at Triple-A Durham. He was expected to join the Tampa Bay Rays only a few days later when rosters expanded. He had been down in the minors for less than a week to work on some things and ended up missing nearly three weeks in the majors because of his anger.

Let’s fast-forward to the final month of the 2015 season. After going from being the most exciting team at the beginning of the season to the year’s biggest disappointment, the Nationals were frustrated. That collective anger heavily affected their relief pitcher, Drew Storen. He gave up a go-ahead home run during a game in early September. He then went to the clubhouse where he accidentally slammed his locker on his thumb. Storen missed the rest of the season.

Last season, the Red Sox’s Carson Smith threw his glove down in frustration during a game against the Athletics. He had only made eighteen relief appearances, had a 1-1 record and 3.72 FIP. Smith sustained “a right shoulder subluxation” when he threw his glove. He said, “I think I’d finally caught my stride to be back to the pitcher I was in 2015. I know I had a rough 2016 and 2017 just trying to come back from Tommy John.” He was trying to be better and had a bad day, and that frustration manifested itself in this way. It was a freak accident; he underwent season-ending shoulder surgery that June.

Baseball players lose their cool. It happens to all of us — we’re human — but there are good and bad ways to express that anger. Being aggressive against a wall, locker, door, or hard surface of their choosing has never worked out well. Like Ozzie Guillen said, “Your injury doesn’t just hurt yourself, you hurt your ballclub.” Self-inflicted injuries occur more often than one would suspect. Yet it strikes me as unfair to judge players based solely on these decisions when failure is so rampant and success is so tough to come by. And not all self-inflicted injuries are borne of anger and frustration. On the contrary, some of them take on a hint of humor. Whether it is slicing a finger while opening a birthday present or doing dishes, accidents happen.

For example, Michael Taylor once sat out a week of spring training games after he cut his finger while throwing away a wad of chewing gum. The 6-foot-5 outfielder whacked his pinkie finger on the dugout ceiling. Even the great Sammy Sosa had his moment when he sprained a ligament in his lower back while sneezing. As they say on Game of Thrones, “The night is dark and full of pollen.”

Then there are some that are so ridiculous, it’s difficult to do anything but laugh. Josh Outman likely did not think his 2012 bout of food poisoning could get any worse until he strained his oblique while vomiting. He began that season on the DL. The Rockies manager, Jim Tracy, said they would “err on the side of caution” when it came to his return. I imagine this is the same way Outman now approaches a sushi bar.

The weirdest injury has to be Glenallen Hill’s, who played for the Blue Jays in 1990. He injured himself while dreaming about being covered in spiders. Yes, you read that correctly. Hill was afraid of spiders, and the dream caused him to jump out of bed then fall through a glass table, before he somehow woke up on his couch. This incident put Hill on the bench for weeks. He was on crutches, had cuts on his toes and elbows, and carpet burns on his knees. This gave rise to his nickname, “Spiderman.” However, this story has a happy ending — Hill conquered his fear in 2017.

So, there you have it. Baseball elicits many emotions from its audience and its players; happiness and despair and everything in between. Sometimes players injure themselves out of frustration; they’re just being human like the rest of us.

Audrey Stark is a contributor to Fangraphs; she has written for SBNation outlets Beyond the Box Score and Federal Baseball. Self-professed Yadi stan and proponent of #HighSockSunday. You can follow her on Twitter @HighStarkSunday.

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3 years ago

Sean Rodriguez learned his lesson. He made sure the water cooler couldn’t fight back.