It’s not only the coronavirus.
In the Year of the Global Pandemic, this baseball season is being affected more than ever by the sport’s very familiar foes, such as hamstring strains, muscle tears and shoulder inflammation.
On Friday, eight more players went on the injured list, including three prominent Yankees in Gleyber Torres, James Paxton and Luis Avilan. The previous day, the number was nine, with the Astros’ Alex Bregman, the Rangers’ Elvis Andrus and the Dodgers’ Pedro Baez among them.
Rattle off a list of All-Stars or Cy Young Award winners, and a bunch of them already are on the shelf. Some are even gone for the season. The names include Justin Verlander, Stephen Strasburg, Mike Soroka, Corey Kluber, Josh Donaldson, Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, Bo Bichette, Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge.
Why? There are a few reasons. If you ask around, the blame for the escalating casualty count lies with the interrupted prep work for this 60-game season, a program that had many predicting this more traditional epidemic.
The first spring training stretched a month before the virus-mandated shutdown on March 12; the next session of organized workouts didn’t begin until July 3.
During that nearly four-month layoff — longer than a standard offseason — what players could do mainly depended on where they were staying to weather the pandemic. That could range from playing catch on your lawn and taking BP in the garage to organized drills with a personal trainer or maybe (underground) get-togethers with teammates for scrimmages.
“It was different,” the Mets’ Wilson Ramos said. “I understand a lot of guys were working out at home, but it’s not the same. I was working out really hard in my backyard, but I didn’t have much space to run long distances or hit on a field. It was hard to come back for another spring training and just get ready in three weeks. To me, it wasn’t enough time.
“Also, we’re playing with a lot of protocols and overthinking a lot. But it is what it is.”
Staying healthy over the course of a six-month, 162-game season presents its own daunting challenges, and players were accustomed to tailoring their routines for the long haul.
The grind of performing every day, with few breaks in between, requires a regimen that’s unique to baseball. But hustling back for summer camp, which had a constantly moving target as a start date, made the timing especially difficult.
This was not the gradual conditioning progression for pitchers and catchers, followed by position players, then fine-tuning over the course of 32 exhibition games. Instead, the players got two-plus weeks to prepare, staging their own in-house simulated games before facing real opponents maybe two or three times.
Now mix in a number of COVID-related absences, along with the need to abide by a 108-page pandemic manual, and it was impossible to expect rosters to stay intact, even for just a 60-game season.
This year, getting ready for game speed was like jumping out of an airplane and then trying to learn how to use a parachute on the way down.
“It’s a quicker ramp-up and it’s the intensity of a major-league environment,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “That’s why — going back to the start of all this — you had to be mindful of yeah, we understand we’re playing 60 games and the urgency of everything. But also trying to be mindful of players’ health and building them up as best as possible.”
The Yankees did an overhaul of their training staff after sending an MLB-record 30 players to the injured list for 39 separate stints last season. It didn’t help. This year, through 25 games, they already have 10 on the IL, a group that includes nearly half of their starting lineup, two-fifths of what figured to be their starting rotation and the All-Star setup man.
As much as Boone has insisted on dispensing days off to his roster, it figures to get even harder to keep guys healthy, only because they could wear down quicker because of the abbreviated summer camp.
“That is certainly something because you’ve come into things rested in a lot of ways, so everything feels good,” Boone said. “But then it’s a ramp-up in the intensity and stresses of the major leagues. You’ve got to try to strike that balance. Assess where guys are all the time.”
The Yankees have been among the most unlucky in this regard — for the second straight season. But this goes well beyond the Bronx. The Astros have 12 players on the IL, which includes one confirmed COVID-19 case. In addition to Verlander and Bregman, they lost Yordan Alvarez, last year’s AL Rookie of the Year, for the season to knee surgery, Michael Brantley (quadriceps strain), Roberto Osuna (elbow) and Chris Devenski (elbow).
Phils first to deal
Phillies general manager Matt Klentak fired the starter’s gun Friday for the final sprint to the Aug. 31 trade deadline, which was temporarily moved a month later this year. Klentak acquired three relief pitchers: David Hale from the Yankees and Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree from Boston.
Teams may be reluctant to do very much this week, given the hazy future of this truncated season. Sacrificing valuable prospects to bolster a World Series run won’t be as palatable, mainly because the coronavirus still has the capability to wipe out the rest of the schedule, as well as the playoffs, at any moment. Also, clubs aren’t as willing to take on significant salary, given the financial losses already created by the lack of gate-related revenue.
For Klentak, however, the pressure was mounting to make a move. He swapped three minor-league arms with some promise for three veteran relievers to bail them out now.
Through Friday’s games, the Phillies’ bullpen was dead last in the majors with a 7.97 ERA, a full two runs worse than the No. 29 Mariners, who had a 5.95 ERA. The relief corps was singlehandedly sabotaging the Phillies, who were 9-13 after dropping four straight since the Mets left town last weekend.
“This season is very unique for a variety of reasons,” Klentak said Friday night on a Zoom call. “It’s Aug. 21 and yet we are a third of the way through a short season. On the one hand, we can look at this as our trade acquisitions only have six weeks to pitch with us this year. But on the other hand, they’re going to be with us for two-thirds of the season, which is significantly longer than the typical trade deadline would allow. We had to factor all that in.”
2020 IL-STARS (non-COVID edition)
A rundown of the most prominent injured players by position (includes players currently on the IL not related to any pre-existing conditions before the start of summer camp).
1. Justin Verlander, Astros (forearm strain)
2. Stephen Strasburg, Nationals (carpal tunnel syndrome)
3. Mike Soroka, Braves (achilles tear)
4. James Paxton, Yanks (flexor strain)
5. Corey Kluber, Rangers (shoulder muscle tear)
Set-up: Zack Britton, Yanks (hamstring strain)
Closer: Roberto Osuna, Astros (elbow)
Catcher: Salvador Perez, Royals (vision problems)
First base: C.J. Cron, Tigers (knee surgery)
Second base: DJ LeMahieu, Yanks (sprained thumb)
Shortstop: Bo Bichette, Blue Jays (knee sprain)
Third base: Alex Bregman, Astros (hamstring strain)
Rightfield: Aaron Judge, Yanks (calf strain)
Centerfield: Ronald Acuna Jr., Braves (wrist inflammation)
Leftfield: Michael Brantley, Astros (quad strain)
DH: Josh Donaldson, Twins (calf strain)