Jacoby Ellsbury and Injury Proneness

They say that Tuesday was maybe the craziest MLB offseason day ever. There’s a good chance it was, although in fairness, after Tuesday, none of us can remember any days other than Tuesday. Pretty much every player in baseball up and went somewhere else, and the day was capped off by news ┬áthe Yankees were guaranteeing Jacoby Ellsbury a hundred million dollars and then half of another hundred million dollars. Right there, even by Yankees terms, that indicates the organization believes pretty strongly in Ellsbury’s future. You don’t make that kind of commitment to a player whose ability and health you don’t believe in.

But Ellsbury finished the 2013 season hurt, and he was on the disabled list in September. In 2012, he made fewer appearances than Chad Durbin. In 2010, he made fewer appearances than Ben Sheets. What Ellsbury has is an injury history that’s cost him an awful lot of playing time, and it’s taken a toll on his reputation. It’s worth considering what all this says about Ellsbury, and more generally, it’s worth considering how we think about players who have and haven’t gotten hurt.

There are a lot of people who think Ellsbury is soft and/or injury-prone. Take two players of similar ability. One of them has been durable, and one of them has a track record of missing time. The guy who’s missed time will be projected to miss more time down the road. That much is obvious: After all, playing time is a skill, to some extent. The question with Ellsbury is whether he really deserves to be grouped with the rest of baseball’s talented injury-prone. You’ve probably read this before, but Ellsbury’s history is simultaneously unfortunate and not particularly worrisome.

Ellsbury played a ton in 2008, and he played a ton in 2009. Early in 2010, he had the misfortune of colliding with Adrian Beltre in pursuit of a foul ball. Beltre isn’t built like a brick wall, but he’s more like a brick wall than most players, and here’s the highlight:

That busted some ribs, and Ellsbury wasn’t helped by an initial misdiagnosis. Between that and a later aggravation, Ellsbury missed almost the full year. If you were to classify injuries simply as either “potentially chronic” or “freak accidents,” this was a freak accident, because it stands to reason Ellsbury isn’t unusually prone to running his ribcage into Adrian Beltre’s knee.

Ellsbury played a whole bunch in 2011. Early in 2012, he had the misfortune of having Reid Brignac fall on his body. Brignac isn’t built like Beltre is, but Brignac is also a human , and Ellsbury’s shoulder was exposed after sliding. Here’s the highlight:

Ellsbury’s shoulder was badly hurt, and he didn’t come back for three months. Probably, it contributed to his underwhelming statistics the rest of the way. Again, this is more of a freak-accident thing, because anyone could have a player fall on him while trying to break up a double play. Ellsbury’s mistake, if anything, was reaching base in the first place. That led to contact.

Ellsbury played a ton for most of 2013. By Aug. 28, he’d played in 124 of 134 games. On Aug. 28, he fouled a ball off his own foot. Here’s the highlight:

Ellsbury aggravated the injury a week later:

Once more, freak accident, like when Jermaine Dye destroyed his own leg. Ellsbury was even wearing padding, which, if it helped, didn’t help enough. For what it’s worth, Ellsbury spent the playoffs playing through a hurt hand, but it didn’t diminish his performance. It was initially injured when Ellsbury was jammed by a pitch inside.

In the past few years, Ellsbury has missed significant time because of one foul ball and a pair of collisions with grown men. His last rib-injury aggravation was also the result of a collision with another grown man, and what you don’t see are a bunch of groin injuries or hamstring pulls. You don’t see chronic, potentially lingering injuries, like you do with, say, Matt Kemp. You see accidents that could’ve happened to anyone. As such, the history is less of a concern.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s unconcerning. We don’t know how Ellsbury’s playing time compares to the hypothetical average player who’s had the same stuff happen to him. Maybe Ellsbury’s body is slightly more fragile. Maybe the average player doesn’t get busted ribs. Maybe the average player doesn’t get a busted shoulder. Maybe the average player doesn’t get a busted foot. We can’t know the reality, and the Yankees probably can’t either, no matter how many tests they might perform. But when we look at these incidents, we’re left thinking, “Lots of people probably would’ve been hurt here.” Ellsbury deserves a pass, because his injury history appears more like bad luck than bad something else.

When Ellsbury doesn’t have something bad happen, he’s pretty durable, even if he isn’t Cal Ripken. There will probably be at least a disabled-list stint or two over the course of his contract, but that’s because we’re talking about seven years for a guy entering his 30s. The Yankees should worry less about, say, the odds Ellsbury hurts his shoulder again, and more about the extent of his recovery from the first shoulder problem that might’ve sapped his power. Obviously, the Yankees aren’t very worried by anything they’ve seen. They paid something like market price for an everyday star.

Thinking about Ellsbury got me thinking about the general perception of injury proneness. This has been on my mind for some time, and it’s all about small sample sizes at the core. It’s the same line of thinking by which it’s realistically difficult to evaluate a front office or a player-development system. We’re given a small sample of transactions and a small sample of prospects, and it can take a lot of time for patterns to emerge. If a system has one or two extra pitchers bust or not bust, that changes the way the system is seen, even though it could be nothing but noise given pitcher volatility. What we think we know about systems, we don’t, at least not that well. And front-office evaluation can be perplexing. After all, the same front office dumped Prince Fielder and subsequently dumped Doug Fister. What are we supposed to make of that?

And to bring it back to injuries, how often do injuries happen, really? Over a given period of time, the average player will miss X games. Miss more than that, and you might be thought of as prone to injury. Miss fewer, and you might be thought of as durable. One of the convenient things about baseball analysis is that, every season, players generate hundreds of plate appearances. Yet for a player there tends to be just a handful of injuries, even in most of the more severe cases, and with such a small sample we can’t be that sure whether they’re flukes.

Occasionally, it’s just obvious. Nick Johnson, for some reason, is naturally fragile. Rich Harden seems the same way. What about Grady Sizemore? The guy can’t get on a field, but how meaningful is it that he’s had knee problems and a back problem? If Sizemore returns to the field, how do we project him? What do we make of Franklin Gutierrez, who’s had some regular injuries, but also some freak-accident injuries? Ellsbury’s been significantly hurt basically three times, which is nothing. There’s always some risk of injury, and getting one or two or three more injuries might not be reflective of a body’s actual health.

Complicating matters is that injury situations aren’t black and white. We can’t look at a player and say he’s hurt or he isn’t. Sometimes players choose to play through injuries. Sometimes they do so for a long time, even if it hurts their production. Some other players are more willing to go on the disabled list with similar ailments. Some players don’t say anything about their condition, because no one wants to be labeled as fragile. The historical record will show that Miguel Cabrera just played in 148 games, and 11 more in the playoffs. It won’t show that he played a lot of those games while beaten up.

And what this all does is make it difficult to know who is and is not particularly prone to injury. We can be aggressive with our labels, but sometimes we’re probably too aggressive. Some players will be more prone to injury than others, but I’m not sure the extent to which we’re able to identify them. Which can become a thing to try to exploit. No one believed that Jed Lowrie could withstand a full season, and then with the A’s he played in 154 games. Coco Crisp has gone on the DL two times in three years, and one of those was because of an inner-ear infection. Injury proneness does have to exist, relatively, but it’s not easy to spot. Which means we have to mentally regress pretty hard, in most cases.

We might come to know more in the future. Some teams are probably well on their way to significant advances. In the meantime, injuries happen a lot, but they can be mysterious. The frequent temptation is to hold them against the players that they happen to, but that’s not always deserved. It might be very seldom deserved.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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In 2010 was also a freak accident team thought to use Cameron in CF and Ellsbury in LF.

Lord BatCat
Lord BatCat

Maybe it was for the sole purpose of protecting Cameron’s face from his freak accident with Beltran happening again…who knows.