J.D. Davis of the New York Mets reacts with his...

J.D. Davis of the New York Mets reacts with his teammates after scoring a run during the fifth inning against the Washington Nationals at Citi Field on Friday, Apr. 23, 2021. Credit: Jim McIsaac

J.D. Davis tried to describe the painful history of his injured left hand, which has kept him on the injured list for almost a month, during Thursday’s Zoom update for the media. But when the team’s own medical staff initially had trouble determining the exact cause, before a second MRI, we got an idea of just how frustrating the whole diagnosis had been.

Pulling back the lens a bit, Davis’ own issue speaks to the larger conundrum haunting MLB in 2021: a rapidly escalating number of injuries resulting in thousands of injured list days less than a third of the way through the season.

And much like Davis’ perplexing case — it turned out to be a sprained ligament between two fingers — nobody seems to have a handle on why so many players are getting hurt so often.

Not only did the Mets sit atop the NL East heading into the Memorial Day weekend, they also were the leaders in missing player value with a 3.737 WARP, according to Baseball Prospectus (Wins Above Replacement Player is an analytics measure of a player's value).

Seven teams had compiled more IL days than the Mets, who had 472 through Friday’s games. The Padres had the most with 729, followed by the Rays at 593, but the Dodgers were runner-up to the Mets in missed WARP at 3.675.

League-wide, there had been 450 IL placements entering Friday, with teams sitting around the 50-game mark. A year ago, the 60-game season finished with 456 overall. But the more alarming comparison is the last two full seasons, with a total of 574 in 2019 and 585 in 2018 — numbers that soon will be eclipsed at MLB’s current injury pace.

"There could be a lot of reasons for that in general," Davis said. "I would say maybe one of them is guys are throwing way harder and guys have to swing a little bit harder. It could be the cold weather. It could be just ramping up, and it’s just different having only a 60-game season last year and then all of a sudden, a full spring training and then playing two months into the season.

"We were just talking about that the other day — not just us, but looking at that [scroll] on ESPN and seeing guys go on the IL left and right throughout the league. So it is a little bit concerning."

Los Angeles Angels' Mike Trout watches batting practice during spring...

Los Angeles Angels' Mike Trout watches batting practice during spring training baseball practice, Monday, Feb. 17, 2020, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings) Credit: AP/Darron Cummings

Having more than a dozen All-Stars sidelined at any point, especially with a list headlined by Mike Trout, is a worrisome trend for the league on a few different fronts — not the least of which is financial. This season, those 450 IL days have come at a sunk cost of more than $230 million (according to Spotrac) before Memorial Day, and all that missed time runs up a hefty price tag by season’s end. For players and owners alike, it’s a problem worth deeper investigation.

"I think a lot of it has to do with the short season," said the Yankees’ Zack Britton, who serves on the eight-member executive subcommittee of the Players Association. "Hitters probably missed out on — I’m guessing here — maybe 400 at-bats or something like that. That’s a lot of at-bats, a lot of build-up they’re missing. The pitchers, same thing, with innings. And especially the minor-league guys, they didn’t have anything.

"So to come back now and try to have these workloads, it’s going to be tough on your body. The game is so different now, too. A lot of things are max effort and I feel like you’re starting to see soft tissue injuries because guys train differently than they have in the past."

Britton, like Davis, was speaking while on the IL himself. After an offseason bout with COVID-19, Britton was shut down early in spring training and then required March surgery to remove a bone chip from his left elbow.

Britton said the Yankees have been as "proactive" as possible from an organizational standpoint, and they’re currently in the middle of the pack with nine players on the IL, 319 days missed and a 1.880 WARP.

"We’ve done a lot of things to put ourselves in a better situation to stay healthy and sometimes as an athlete, things happen and you get injured," Britton said. "That’s what happens in sports, no matter the precautions that you take or how well you eat or sleep. It’s just the nature of playing a sport."

Sticky situation

From a distance, it was easy to dismiss Wednesday’s mid-game hat confiscation of Cardinals reliever Giovanny Gallegos as an outlier, the result of some overzealous cap-policing by Joe West’s umpiring crew.

MLB has made cracking down on foreign-substance use by pitchers an emphasis for this season, but the process had been limited to seizing baseballs on occasion — Trevor Bauer was singled out earlier — for further analysis.

What made Gallegos different, and why other teams should be on a heightened alert, was the tipping point — a brownish smudge on the top surface of the cap’s visor. To anyone who has watched a game this season, seeing that exact same smudge on a number of pitchers’ hats is not unusual. Cameras zoom in on pitchers frequently and it’s easy to spot.

The smudge could be a variety of things — sunscreen, residue from the rosin bag, pine tar, perhaps some other custom concoction — and Cardinals manager Mike Shildt, who was ejected for arguing the confiscation, called this widespread practice "baseball’s dirty little secret" while suggesting it’s also something the sport doesn’t want to necessarily expose in this public manner.

Shildt isn’t wrong. Pulling on this thread could cause an unraveling that MLB probably doesn’t feel like adding to a growing list of concerns, especially if the Gallegos incident means that umpires will target more pitchers going forward.

"Usually, that’s something that should come from the opposing teams, unless there’s something egregious or obvious that has to be, and we understand that’s part of it, too," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. "Any time an umpire sees something that’s egregious, it’s certainly within their right to go out and check on that."

That’s the debate here. A giant, shiny pine tar slick on the back of Michael Pineda’s neck qualifies as "egregious." A quarter-sized blotch that’s become quite common is harder to define, but it suggests that MLB needs to ramp up efforts to find a legal substitute for whatever goop already is being deployed on forearms, gloves or caps on a regular basis to significantly (and illegally) increase spin rate.

"I think most pitchers out there, and most hitters for that matter, want to be able to get a better grip on the ball," Boone said. "I know Major League Baseball is even exploring and hoping to have the technology that will allow them to even doctor the baseballs themselves to make sure there’s no grip issues for pitchers.

"Obviously, there are some pitchers out there I’m sure that are going above and beyond, and it starting to affect the quality of their pitch beyond just getting a grip. Obviously, that’s something of a concern to all of Major League Baseball and why they’re really diving into this."

Grabbing baseballs now and again or studying spin rates is one level of investigation. But policing caps in the middle of games, such as what happened to Gallegos, is taking it to another that could lead to some unintended consequences.