Longer Games, More Injuries

"Ever notice that nobody talks about the length of the games when they talk about injuries being up around baseball?" Oakland outfielder Sam Fuld asked before a game against Texas. Maybe it’s time to remedy that. 

It’s a simple fact that games are longer. Even before replay became a thing, games were trending longer. Look at the average minutes per game for matchups that went longer than eight innings, and see it jump even since 2002:

Though there are plenty of good theories about why there’s a rise in Tommy John surgeries, perhaps we’re missing the simplest explanation: Longer games and more strikeouts means more pitches. More pitches means more chances to hurt yourself. 

Look at pitcher injuries since 2002. Even in this short time frame, we’re losing more days to the DL: 

Both the troughs and peaks are higher as you move along the graph to the right. This seems to describe a general upward trend. Then check out the number of pitches thrown in the big leagues since 2002: 

This graph is all over the place. It’s probably not enough to explain the rise in pitcher injuries with the simple fact that games are longer. There aren’t a lot more pitches in your average game since, say 2004, and though the general slope of the line is positive, it’s not steady. 

Since run scoring is down over the same time frame (4.09 per game this year, 4.66 in 2002), pitchers are getting easier outs and avoiding extra pitches. That’s how, even with more pitches per batter (3.84 this year, up from 3.74 in 2002), there aren’t a ton of extra pitches overall. The rise of the called strike may have also just converted balls into strikes. This relationship isn’t super clear, at least not over this short time frame. 

But hitter injuries? Would a small amount of extra time on the field really mean more injuries? "Yeah, it looks like we just stand around a lot," Fuld admitted. "But every minute means more action, more inaction, and another chance to strain a hamstring." 

Hitter injuries are up, even since 2002:

Over the course of a season, the difference between 2005’s 169.9-minute average game and last year’s 184.7-minute average game can add up. For an everyday player who stays on the field — like say the games played leader since 2008, Robinson Cano — the difference is meaningful. Over the course of his average 158-game effort, Cano would have been on the field 39 hours longer in 2013 than in 2005. 

Maybe you roll your eyes at baseball’s effort to control the length of the game. Maybe, to the passionate baseball fan, that sort of thing seems to be about marketing and attracting less passionate fans to punchier, shorter games. After all, you like baseball. Why would it matter if the game was 10 minutes longer if you like baseball? 

But these numbers seem to suggest that the longer games are hurting the quality of baseball you’ll see in those extra minutes. Once the starter goes down to injury — more likely in today’s longer games — the backup has to step in. Usually, that means a lesser player. 

And if it seems ridiculous to worry about more time on the field leading to more injuries — why even play the game if you’re worried about getting injured, the argument might hold — not all time is created equal. Many of these extra minutes in longer games are spent standing on the field. 

"The longer you stand on the field, the tighter you get, and the tighter you get, the more prone you are to injury," Fuld said. 

Jimmy Rollins agreed: "One thing about baseball: You hit. You run. You sit. A lot of sitting. You get tight." In response, Rollins has turned to yoga, and often does yoga stretches in between innings. Despite the taunts from unfriendly crowds. 

So, if you like quality baseball — a strong assumption if you’re reading this — you may want to support the effort to shorten games. After all, every minute they’re out there, even just standing there waiting for a replay decision, might be making them more prone to injury.