We've seen two things so far in the 2018 Major League Baseball season we don't see all that often. The first was the early start to the year. The second is a rash of early-season injuries, some to the game's best players. Many teams have stacked disabled lists, and top players like Mike Rizzo, Christian Yelich, Steven Souza, Corey Knebel, and Justin Turner are all missing time.
Some guys, were the victims of freak impact injuries after getting hit by pitches (Turner, Elvis Andrus, etc) or comebackers (Bumgarner and a disturbing rash of other pitchers around the league). But a lot of these injuries are soft tissue injuries in the form of sprains, strains, and tears—and that's really concerning.
What's more disturbing is that one of the biggest culprits in this might be that early start—which is a reverse of exactly what that start was meant to accomplish—and could be exacerbated by commissioner Rob Manfred's pet project.
The unusual late-March start to the season was meant to allow for extra off days to be built into the schedule. Those off days were meant to alleviate some of the stress of the travel inherent in the long 162-game season, which players were concerned heightened the chances of injury later in the season.
While that is a noble idea, the trade-off to it is that teams playing in the Northeast and Midwest are forced to play in weather that is not meant for baseball. The Detroit Tigers saw three of their first six scheduled games postponed due to weather, and the New York Mets saw the opening game of their series against the Philadelphia Phillies on April 2 put off when five-and-a-half inches of snow fell on in Queens. The average game-time temperature of the Kansas City Royals' first five games of the year was 41 degrees.
This weather has been unseasonable, to be sure, but it's also been normal to see baseball players bundled up in the first week or two of the season—and cold weather and muscle injuries go hand in hand. No matter how much one stretches and warms up, cold temperatures will tighten everyone up, especially in a sport like baseball, where players must wait out extended periods of inactivity, both on the field and in the dugout.
That can only lead to the kind of soft tissue injuries we've seen guys like Yelich, Souza, and Rizzo suffer early this season. It's likely true that a few of these players might not have ended up on the DL two years ago, when the minimum stay was 15 days rather than 10, but even then, these kinds of niggles can have a trickle-down effect—the exact thing that the extra off-days in the schedule counteracted.
Don't rush the masters
The effects of the bad weather might not be so bad if players were given the opportunity to take care of themselves during games. Unfortunately, Rob Manfred's single-minded—and ill-advised—pursuit of shorter baseball games doesn't give them the chance to do that.
As part of his quest, Manfred made a modification to the way between-inning breaks are handled. These breaks have been on a timer since 2016, but the commissioner made some needlessly complex changes this winter. We will dispense with trying to put this in our own words and just take it straight from mlb.com:
As has been the case since the start of the 2016 season, a timer will count down between innings from 2:05 for breaks in locally televised games, from 2:25 in nationally televised games and from 2:55 for tiebreaker and postseason games. The difference now is that at the 25-second mark, the umpire will signal for the final warmup pitch and the pitcher must throw it before the clock hits 20. The batter will be announced at the 20-second mark and the pitcher must begin his windup to throw the first pitch of the inning within the five seconds before the clock hits zero. Another important change is that a pitcher is no longer guaranteed eight warmup pitches between innings. However, he can take as many as he wants within the countdown parameters noted above. The timer will start on the last out of the inning, unless the pitcher is on base, on deck or at bat, in which case the timer shall begin when the pitcher leaves the dugout for the mound. If the final out of the inning is subject to replay, the timer begins when the umpire signals the out.
Here's the problem with all this: warming up between innings is an important but almost completely ignored aspect of the game. The inactivity of sitting in the dugout during the offensive half of an inning results in a cool-down not only for the pitcher but for fielders as well. Infielders don't take grounders between innings just to stave off boredom. They're re-loosening their arms, as are the outfielders playing catch with each other, or ball boys, or someone at the bullpen door.
But this affects pitchers most of all—and at least one of them isn't happy about it.
A week ago, Trevor Bauer pitched a gem with one exception: Lucas Duda took the first pitch of the seventh inning for a home run, and the Royals beat the Indians 1-0 in Cleveland. Talking to Cleveland.com after the game, Bauer gave an unsolicited opinion on the new rules:
First pitch of the inning, coming out I tried to get loose, but with the new Rob Manfred time B.S. we only have a certain amount of time between innings, it's hard to get loose sometimes, especially in conditions like that [the game-time temperature was 34 degrees]. It's not safe, but, you know, whatever...Every inning you start off basically not loose. I told the umpire today when he was trying to make me speed up, I said, "Look, I'll take the fine if I need to." I'm not going to put myself at risk, and I'm not going to put my team at risk having exactly what happened, happen.
What we're looking at is clear: the new rules force players to either rush their between-inning warmup or cut it short, either of which can directly lead to injury.
Manfred's obsessive efforts to shorten games have, mostly, been nonsensical and detrimental to the game, but Bauer's evaluation of this problem is spot-on, not just for pitchers but fielders as well. The cold weather itself is might not have been enough to trigger this avalanche of injuries. Even in the cold, professional athletes can take care of themselves—if they're given the opportunity to do so. Manfred's pace-of-play initiatives may be—frankly I would say are—a major detriment to player safety and completely wipe away the benefits that the season's extra off days are meant to create. It's yet another reason Manfred needs to be talked down on the pace of play—or removed from his position if he refuses to be.