Baseball Being Hit With Brutal Spike in Soft-Tissue Injuries

Through May, there were 104 such injuries in MLB that resulted in stints on the injured list

MLB pitcher Jack Flaherty of the St. Louis Cardinals
Jack Flaherty of the Cardinals tore his oblique muscle.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty

With strikeouts on the rise across the league and batting average hitting a historic low last month, Major League Baseball is in the midst of a somewhat off-the-rails season.

Contributing to MLB’s issues in 2021? An unprecedented number of soft-tissue injuries in players, like pulled hamstrings and adductor and oblique strains, including many of baseball’s top stars. Through May, there were 104 soft-tissue injuries across the league that resulted in stints on the injured list, a 160% increase over the 48 after two months in 2019, former Dodgers and Giants trainer Stan Conte told USA Today.

 “The increase is real,” Conte said. “Whether it will smooth out after these two months? We’ve never seen an increase like we’ve seen these past two months. The why is a little bit tougher.”

MLB typically has the longest season in professional sports with 162 regular-season games in the middle of two months of spring training and an additional month of games for playoff teams. The 2020 season was chopped down to a shortened spring followed by a 60-game season and monthlong postseason because of the pandemic. With Memorial Day in the rearview mirror, most teams have already played almost as many games in 2021 as they did in 2020.

Though there is no obvious culprit for the spike in soft-tissue injuries (which medical experts believe are preventable), the shortened length of last season followed by a return to normal this year could be a contributing factor.

“I think a lot of it has to do with the short season,” Yankees reliever Zack Britton, who is rehabbing from surgery to remove a bone chip from his throwing elbow, told The New York Times. “Hitters probably missed out on about maybe 400 at-bats or something like that. That’s a lot of at-bats and buildup that they’re missing. Pitchers, the same thing with innings. And think about the minor leagues guys especially; they didn’t have anything. So to come back now and have these workloads, it’s going to be tough on your body.”

Whether that’s actually the case or not, Conte believes the misery of last year is a worthy scapegoat for the pain players are going through in 2021. “2020 is great to blame everything on,” he said.

As for a potential solution, other than more maintenance days for players and increased time off in general, decreasing the number of games in the season and playing more seven-inning doubleheaders could be an option. But, as Ken Rosenthal writes in The Athletic, that is unlikely to happen for the same reason most things do or do not happen in MLB: money.

“Neither the owners nor players would want to sacrifice the accompanying decreases in income,” Rosenthal writes. “But at a time when the explosiveness and intensity required of players have perhaps never been greater, the amount of travel and lack of recovery time makes it that much more difficult for them to stay healthy. The issues are complex. The daily parade of injuries in 2021 is only the latest manifestation of the problem. How many warning signs does baseball need? How much longer will it be before the sport starts figuring out meaningful solutions?”

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