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The myth of injury-prone

Posted by: Nick Nelson Updated: December 6, 2010 - 1:05 AM

A tweet on Friday afternoon from Kirsten Brown, administrator of K-Bro's Baseball Blog, posed the following question:

Hey baseball fans, what's your definition of "injury-prone"?

Kirsten was wondering about the amount of time a player would have to miss on average to bear that description in people's minds, but lately I've been thinking more about the term itself. What does "injury-prone" really mean, and how often is it assigned unfairly?

It's a buzzword that's been used a lot recently in connection with J.J. Hardy, who looms as one of this offseason's biggest question marks. Beat writer La Velle E. Neal III wrote over the weekend that the team plans on starting Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Alexi Casilla up the middle next year and that the Twins have already discussed a Hardy trade with "about six teams."

Many fans have expressed that they won't be sorry to see Hardy go, citing his inability to stay healthy as a fatal annoyance. Among them is my typically level-headed friend Twins Geek, who doesn't "trust" Hardy to stay healthy, and lists the following separate ailments as evidence that the shortstop is a ticking time-bomb: "Back issue in 2009, played 115 games. 2010, 101 games. 2006, just 35 games, for ankle. 2004, shoulder, missed almost all."

I'm wondering if the intimation here is that Hardy's bones are somehow more brittle than the average player, or that his tendons and muscles are abnormally weak. Is there any other way to explain this innate proneness to differing injuries? I don't think anyone who's watched him can claim that Hardy plays the game in an especially reckless manner; heck, the wrist injury that plagued him last year was a fluke suffered on a routine feet-first slide.

While posting stellar numbers in 2007 and 2008, Hardy missed very little time (11 and 16 games, respectively). Over the past two seasons, he has missed a total of 87 games (accounting for time spent in the minors). If missing significant time in two consecutive seasons because of separate injuries qualifies a player as fragile, then I guess you can tag any player on the Twins' roster, save for a few.

Joe Mauer missed the entire month of April in 2009 due to a lower back injury. This year, he missed even more games due to a variety of different ailments. 

Justin Morneau was lost for all of September in 2009 because of a fractured vertebrae. This year a concussion knocked him out for the entire second half.

Back and thumb issues caused Michael Cuddyer to miss 18 games and sapped his power in 2007; he missed more than half the next season due to a cocktail of new injuries. (Cuddyer, by the way, has missed only 14 games total in two years since).

The list goes on, but there's your three top paid position players and they've all had lengthy stretches where they've had a hard time staying on the field. As a result, they've battled accusations of being "injury-prone," as if they're doing something wrong by getting hurt. Fans are painting some of the world's most pristine athletes out to be Samuel L. Jackson's character from "Unbreakable."

The reality is that these guys are playing a fast-moving sport at the highest level, where it's pretty easy to get hurt. Obviously they would like to avoid spending time on the disabled list but not everyone can be so lucky. In fact, very few players are lucky enough to evade major injury for several years in a row. 

There are certain cases in which the injury-prone label makes sense. For example, when a player is perpetually bothered by the same ailment (Joe Crede comes to mind quickly). In addition, it has been proven -- and makes sense -- that players are more susceptible to injury as they age.

But am I supposed to believe that Hardy's bad luck with past injuries somehow makes him more likely than another player to miss significant time in the upcoming season? Assuming that his major wrist injury and minor knee injury from 2010 are in the rear-view mirror -- as Hardy has stated -- then the shortstop carries no lingering injury concerns going forward. 

Sure, he might suffer another mishap and miss 40+ games for a third straight year at the age of 28. But when he was able to get on the field last year, Hardy was undoubtedly one of the best in the league at his position, in spite of playing through debilitating wrist pain at times. Bill Smith would be taking a pretty big risk by dumping that potential production for fear of another injury, especially if the plan is to entrust Casilla -- a perennial underachiever who has never played 100 games in an MLB season -- and Nishioka -- a relative unknown whose Wikipedia page points out that he has "established a reputation as somewhat of an injury-prone player" -- without any compelling insurance plan in place.

Without seeing what sort of follow-up moves might come along with it, I can't claim that dealing Hardy is the worst idea in the world. Maybe it's all part of a bigger plan. But considering how thin the market for middle infielders is at present, I have a really hard time seeing it. Shipping Hardy off with his value down over an irrational fear of injury or an obsession with increasing team speed would be tragically misguided.

Is Hardy an injury risk in 2011? Sure. So is everyone.

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