Everyone Is on the Disabled List Right Now

Over the course of the last week, the Dodgers placed four players on the disabled list, most in baseball. Andrew Toles, with his torn ACL, would have gone on the DL in any other year, and that might also be true for Adam Liberatore and his strained hamstring. But Kenta Maeda (tightness in hamstring) and Brandon McCarthy (sore left shoulder) are dealing with less debilitating issues. They might not have been placed on the DL if not for the flexibility allowed by the new 10-day option. But has that flexibility really created an explosion in DL usage? What ramifications would that have on the game?

As with most things in baseball, it’s important to put the problem in numbers in order to better comprehend what’s going on. “This is why we can’t have nice things” has long been a refrain when a blizzard of injuries hits — and so, even as it feels like everyone in baseball is hurt right now, it’s better to get a numerical sense of the situation. Maybe we’re just in one of those pain tempests.

How you cut the numbers is just as important. For instance, you could say that 61 players have been put on the disabled list so far in May, more than any other two-week stint this early in the season over the last six years. But then you’d also have to point out that we’ve had other two-week moments that were nearly as bad: 52 players went down in late April in 2015, 51 early in May of 2012. Now your 61 seems like it’s within the range of normalcy.

Then we could point out that the last two weeks of this April also saw 61 players placed on the disabled list. Or that we’ve seen 149 total this year, a full 56 more players than we saw up to this date in 2012. Of course, that’s not an entirely perfect way to measure: seasons start at different dates every year. That could affect the totals. To adjusted for that, I placed the cutoff at April 4 to separate out all the beginning-of-the-year housecleaning that happens when a team has to set its Opening Day roster. Because of early-season rotation manipulation, however, there are still disabled-list ramifications in the first week that come out unevenly due to the vagaries of the calendar.

So, let’s try to compare like to like as much as we can. Here are the yearly raw disabled list totals from April 15 to May 15 for the last six years.

Disabled List Trips, 2012-2017
April 15-31 May 1-15 April 15-May 15
2017 61 61 122
2016 35 35 70
2015 52 40 92
2014 36 49 85
2013 44 39 83
2012 34 51 85
Avg, 2012-2016 40 43 83
SOURCE: ProsportsTransactions

Okay! So disabled list trips are up about 50% compared to the five-year average going into this season. That seems less than ideal.

And it’s going to get worse. It looks like the Dodgers built their team for this new reality, filling their roster with decent major-league pitchers who could rotate in and out as the disabled list allows. As much as other teams with different levels of resources can copycat this, it’s likely they will (if they haven’t already).

If you feel there’s a whiff of the nefarious here, you’re not alone. If you don’t get why more players on the DL might facilitate more underhanded dealings, imagine this totally real hypothetical. A veteran with no more options is struggling as a young player comes off the disabled list. That old player either reads the writing on the wall and grabs a hammy, or, as teams have long done, someone convinces that player into taking a 15-day break to ease a roster constriction. I’ve personally heard stories from veteran pitchers detailing how the team let them know that the choice was between release and the disabled list. Now teams have even more pressure to do the same, as 50% more players are on the disabled list at any given moment.

Big deal, one could say. The players still get paid. This is just a way for teams to get more out of their 40-man rosters, to use more of their rostered players, and maybe keep their stars healthier. Consider the story of McCarthy, for example, who had some shoulder soreness due to a regularly scheduled weight-lifting session. Instead of either powering through, or skipping one start and putting the team in a bind with a bullpen game, he can now sit for 10 days and miss just one start, allowing the team to use a decent starter in his stead. This 10-day DL could allow more minor leaguers to get paid, as they step in and earn major-league salaries while they fill in. It favors teams with depth, but that depth can come from cheaper players and good farm systems, so it’s not totally skewed towards the rich. All is well.

Or, it might be. Most of the players will get paid if they’re playing or on the DL, that’s right. And yet it’s still not awesome to make this sort of decision for the player, or to try and convince them to take a faux disabled stint because the 25-man roster happened to get full all at once. Think of how well players with demonstrated good health get paid. Suddenly, even if a player took a knee for the team, it might cost him the next time he’s on the market.

And then there are performance incentives that can cost a player in the present. Like the ones in Kenta Maeda’s contract. At the extreme, sitting down and missing two starts for a condition through which he might have otherwise pitched — like, say, a tight hamstring — could cost Maeda nearly $4 million in bonuses this year. It probably won’t cost him that much, but it will cost him something.

The positive spin on this situation is that maybe, once the dust settles, we’ll see some reduction in days lost. Players can take a 10-day breather in a situation where they would have previously attempted to return too early. Maybe a little bit of preventative rest will reduce the amount of catastrophic injury. Trips up, days down might be the slogan.

But that’s a maybe. In the meantime, we’re left a very real explosion of unavailable players. And a few teams that are perhaps superior at manipulating that rule change and new situation, whether due to resources or superior preparation. As a fan, it seems less than ideal. In terms of fairness, among teams, or to the players, there’s also some uneasy aspects.

Is this another example of the rule of unintended consequences? Or are we on are way to getting healthier, as paradoxical as that sounds?

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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OddBall Herrera
6 years ago

The other number I’d like to see, when all is said and done, is the % of DL stints that ended in the minimum number of days.

One would expect if these are minor or ‘phantom’ injuries, that number would shoot up as well, and that’d bolster the argument that these are DL shenanigans rather than just a fluke outlier in player injuries.

6 years ago

Or that they’re just minor 1-9 day injuries

6 years ago

I’m not sure that would falsify the hypothesis that they’re resting guys for knicks and scrapes.