Even Amid Vaccinations, Outbreaks on Padres and Yankees Offer Reminders of COVID-19’s Continued Impact

The Padres already had to endure life without Fernando Tatis Jr. for one stretch this season due to his left shoulder subluxation, and now they’re without him again. On Tuesday, the 22-year-old shortstop tested positive for COVID-19 and landed on the Injured List. He quickly gained company when right fielder Wil Myers also tested positive, while three other Padres — first baseman Eric Hosmer, outfielder Jorge Mateo, and superutilityman Jurickson Profar — were sidelined via MLB’s contact tracing protocols. The absences have left San Diego significantly shorthanded and highlighted the potential competitive disadvantage that a team can face while dealing with an outbreak.

The Padres aren’t the only team in the midst of a COVID-19 cluster, either. On Tuesday, about an hour before Tatis’ positive test became public, news of an outbreak among the Yankees’ coaching staff broke as well. While Padres manager Jayce Tingler declined to say whether any of his sidelined players have been vaccinated, their status will become apparent depending upon how quickly they’re allowed to return (more on which below). Meanwhile, the Yankees’ group — now up to eight, including third base coach Phil Nevin, first base coach Reggie Willits, pitching coach Matt Blake, and shortstop Gleyber Torres, plus four unnamed members of the team’s traveling staff — are known to have been fully vaccinated. In fact, the Yankees were among the majors’ first teams to reach the 85% vaccination threshold that allowed them to relax certain health and safety protocols. But less than a week after MLB announced that more than 83% of all Tier 1 individuals (players, managers, coaches, athletic trainers and support personnel) had been partially or fully vaccinated, and that it had gone a week without a single positive test from its major league camps (and just one positive from a staffer at an alternate site), the Padres and Yankees offered rude reminders of COVID-19’s lingering presence.

Tatis learned of his positive test on Monday, a day after his two-run homer off the Giants’ Johnny Cueto helped power the Padres to an 11–1 victory and prevent a series sweep by the NL West’s surprise early-season leaders. Before Tuesday’s game against the Rockies in Denver, he, Mateo, and Profar were all placed on the IL, and during the game — an 8–1 victory, incidentally — Myers was removed after the top of third inning, once the team learned of his positive test, and then Hosmer after the top of the seventh. Via The Athletic’s Dennis Lin, all five players were asymptomatic as of Wednesday, but unless they were vaccinated, the team will have to go forth with a tattered lineup through the weekend and beyond.

The Padres’ group is the second-largest to be sidelined by COVID-19 protocols this season. The Nationals put nine players on the IL in the wake of an outbreak that postponed their Opening Day by five days. The reason their games were postponed while those of the Padres and Yankees have not been is due to the high rates of vaccinations; even if they’re short of the 85% threshold, MLB is less concerned about team-wide spread on the scale of the major outbreaks on the Marlins and Cardinals last year.

The Nationals’ sidelined players included two members of their rotation, their closer, both of their catchers, and two other members of their starting lineup. None of their absent hitters — Alex Avila, Josh Bell, Yan Gomes, Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer, and Kyle Schwarber — was as central to their offense as Tatis, Hosmer, and Myers are. That trio has been among the most effective hitters for the Padres, who are 21–17 but have largely underachieved on the offensive side:

Padres in COVID-19 Protocol
Fernando Tatis Jr. 108 9 .240 .315 .552 136 0.7
Eric Hosmer 146 4 .305 .370 .443 127 0.6
Wil Myers 120 4 .255 .342 .415 112 0.5
Jorge Mateo 40 1 .250 .325 .417 110 0.2
Jurickson Profar 128 1 .234 .333 .308 85 0.0

Through Thursday, the Padres rank 10th in the NL in scoring at 4.05 runs per game, 0.23 below the league average; likewise, they’re in a virtual tie for ninth in wRC+ (92). Tatis, who hit just .143/.250/.314 with two homers in 40 PA through his first 10 games, had heated up, batting .295/.353/.689 with seven homers over his last 68 PA, and Sunday marked just the second time this year that he had recorded multiple hits in consecutive games. He leads the team in homers and is tied for second in the NL behind Ronald Acuña Jr. in that category; Hosmer and Myers are tied for third on the team in homers, with the former its leader in batting average and on-base percentage. Without them, the Padres have just four regulars with a wRC+ of at least 100: Trent Grisham (137), Jake Cronenworth (113), Victor Caratini (104), and Manny Machado (101).

The Padres split a doubleheader with the Rockies on Wednesday in Denver, with one game a makeup for Monday’s rainout. So far, Ha-Seong Kim has started all three games that Tatis has missed due to his positive test, that after starting seven of the nine games Tatis missed due to his shoulder injury. He has yet to get going to any great degree in his first season since coming over from the KBO, hitting just .203/.250/.270 (49 wRC+) in 80 PA, and none of the other players who have filled in for the missing members of the lineup have had much major league experience or success either. With Cronenworth filling in for Hosmer at first base, 21-year-old rookie Tucupita Marcano has started twice at second base, just the second and third starts of his major league career; he’s hit for a 41 wRC+ in 24 PA so far. Patrick Kivlehan, a 31-year-old righty who has played 134 games in four seasons, and Brian O’Grady, a going-on-29-year-old lefty with all of 33 games under his belt, have each started in right field once; the former owns an 82 wRC+ through 245 career PA, the latter a 93 wRC+ through 57 PA. John Andreoli, a 30-year-old righty who relieved Myers on Tuesday, has a 47 wRC through 69 PA. No one will confuse them with Murderer’s Row.

According to MLB’s health and safety protocols, the players who tested positive must quarantine for at least 10 days and then receive clearance by the Joint Committee (a four-person panel consisting of two physicians plus one representative from MLB and one from the players’ union) and the team physician following a cardiac evaluation and a determination that they no longer present a risk of infection to others. Asymptomatic players can be cleared sooner, provided that they test negative at least twice. The players deemed to have been in close contact with positive-testing individuals must quarantine for at least seven days and test negative on day five or later of that period.

There are exceptions with regards to fully vaccinated players, i.e., those more than two weeks out from their final shot (second for the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, first for the Johnson & Johnson one). Those who have tested positive despite being vaccinated — as happened to Padres pitcher Chris Paddack in late April, and now Torres and the Yankees’ coaches — can return upon testing negative twice. Those vaccinated who have been identified as close contacts with a positive individual are allowed to resume playing immediately if they’re asymptomatic.

Tingler did say on Tuesday that the Padres were “a couple” players away from reaching the 85% threshold of fully vaccinated Tier 1 individuals, which allows teams to ease some of the health and safety protocols for those individuals, offering significant incentives for compliance. From a March 29 ESPN piece by Alden Gonzalez:

Individuals who meet that requirement can gather without masks in hotel rooms, carpool together, play cards on airplanes, eat at restaurants, meet outdoors while on the road with anyone of their choosing and stay at personal residences when traveling, among other things.

Those individuals also will not have to wear masks when exercising and don’t have to inform a compliance officer when leaving the team hotel. They will have the option of decreasing testing to twice weekly and will not have to quarantine if they have been in close contact with someone who was diagnosed with COVID-19, as long as they are asymptomatic.

Teams that get 85% of their Tier 1 individuals vaccinated no longer have to wear masks in the dugout and in the bullpen, will no longer have to utilize the Kinexon tracking devices and can restore clubhouse amenities, including pool tables, saunas, steam rooms and video game systems.

On April 30, MLB announced that nine teams had reached the 85% threshold but did not identify those teams, some of which were still within the two-week post-vaccination window. Based upon subsequent published reports, the count of cleared teams is up to at least 13 now: the Cardinals, Rockies, Yankees, and Tigers (all identified via this Athletic story), as well as the Angels, Astros, BrewersCleveland, Dodgers, Giants, Orioles, Rangers, and White Sox. Additionally, the Rays will reach 85% soon, and the Twins are also pending.

Despite being on the leading edge for vaccinations, the Yankees’ situation has provided a jolt by illustrating that infections and even outbreaks are still possible among these teams. Nevin and his fellow Yankees tested positive despite having reportedly received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine during spring training or in early April. Of the eight Yankees infected, only Nevin experienced symptoms, though as of Thursday, general manager Brian Cashman said that he was now asymptomatic as well.

While such “breakthrough” infections are rare, they do happen. It’s worth noting that based upon data from clinical trials and published studies, including one in the New England Journal of Medicine, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is 67% effective at preventing moderate to severe COVID infections at least 14 days after administration, and 66% effective at doing so 28 days after administration, compared to 94% for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is 77% effective against “severe–critical” infections at least 14 days after administration, and 85% effective at least 28 days after administration. All of which is to say that while those vaccinated may get COVID-19, they’re far less likely to require hospitalization or to die from the infection.

The Yankees’ situation is unusual enough that the team is consulting with both the New York State Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as MLB and its medical experts. Via MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch, Cashman noted that during Saturday’s rain delay in the Bronx, the coaches would have been confined in a small area, which according to sports epidemiologist Zach Binney could have aided transmission. “A baseball team, like many workplaces, spends a lot of time indoors together, including in cramped and poorly ventilated spaces,” wrote Binney within a longer thread on Twitter. “If transmission is going to happen, there’s a lot of chances for it to here. It may be nothing short of a vaccine miracle there were *only* 8 cases!”

Via ESPN’s Marly Rivera, while Cashman admitted his concern regarding the possibility of the outbreak leading to more vaccine hesitancy, he felt that the incident provides evidence of the vaccines’ efficacy:

“The variant that we’re dealing with has been pretty aggressive. But thankfully, the information I’ve been provided is the benefit that we have been vaccinated in most cases has really taken root. I take a lot of great comfort that that’s the purpose of the vaccine, to protect. And it appears to be doing that, despite still having the ability to spread, which we were educated with that prior to the vaccination.”

…”When you read the fine print, they tell you that you still could get COVID and the vaccine is to protect you from the symptoms, either to eliminate them altogether and protect you. It’s not full protection … but the one thing I take from this is I believe the vaccine is working.

“We can take great comfort, thankfully, that all who were vaccinated with the J&J, provided from two different states, the one batch in New York, the other batch in Florida, at various different times, one in March versus obviously earlier in April, we believe it has protected us from obviously something severe or something much more difficult to be handling than we currently are.”

The timing of the details regarding the Yankees’ outbreak among vaccinated personnel made for an unsettling contrast with Thursday’s CDC announcement that it’s lifting the mandates for mask-wearing and physical distancing among vaccinated individuals “except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.” For as much of a milestone as it should be in the progress of combatting COVID-19, the Yankees’ experience illustrates that the spread has not entirely abated, even among those vaccinated. The experience of Torres, who previously had a COVID-19 infection last December and has antibodies and a vaccination, is a case study unto itself — a reminder that we are dealing with a relatively new virus that scientists are still working to. As the late Yogi Berra would say, “It ain’t over.”

As for the Padres, while they managed to take two out of three against the NL-worst Rockies (13–24) and will host them at Petco Park from Monday to Wednesday of the coming week, first they’ll face the NL Central-leading Cardinals (23–15) with a lineup appropriate for a spring training split squad contest. The mass absences, which may very well have been preventable with vaccinations, may not matter when the playoff picture is settled. But if the Padres wind up in a do-or-die Wild Card game when a division title might have otherwise been within reach, this juncture will be worth remembering.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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1 year ago

Irresponsible and alarmist. But I’m not surprised given it’s Jay.

1 year ago

That’s a cool claim. Care to back it up with evidence?

Bruce Schwindtmember
1 year ago

You are a fool.

terry mesmer
1 year ago

A ridiculous statement.

1 year ago

Gotta admit, I thought the exact same thing when I read about this in the Fangraphs briefing email. As a health care professional I immediately replied angrily to that email. Turns out I was very wrong.

Quite concerning to see this outbreak in what seems to be a fully vaccinated group.

casey jmember
1 year ago

I agree with you. The point isn’t that sportsfreak needs to “back it up with evidence” the point is the idea that the evidence we all have in our heads cannot be trusted as complete truth any longer, so Jay isn’t qualified to be discussing this. Call us names all you want. That changes nothing

1 year ago
Reply to  casey j

Stop playing the victim and realize the hate for the comment is due to the ad hominem against Jay.