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Bad knees and torn tendons: How injuries have shaped the Giants’ season

© Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports


It is impossible to tell the story of the 2018 Giants without examining the injuries that have depleted the lineup. Even players who avoided time on the disabled list, like Brandon Crawford with knee soreness and Buster Posey, who quietly played through a hip that needed surgery for most of the season, had some sort of knock.

Granted, most baseball players rarely play anywhere close to 100 percent. The 162-game season is a long, slow grind and sometimes forces players to go for two weeks straight without an off day. So it begs the question, have the Giants actually been dealt a worse injury hand than other teams, or are their injuries about the same as most teams in the league?

To answer this question, you have to start with the most basic injury stat: the number of players each team has sent to the disabled list this season. The data being used is from Spotrac.com that is then verified using the official MLB website. All information used is following the conclusion of games on September 18.

This is the most basic way to look at injuries. From this perspective, the Giants are almost exactly in the middle of the pack at 19 players sent to the DL. It nearly matches the league average that hangs at just above 19.

The chart below drills into these numbers a bit deeper, examining how many players each team has had on the disabled list for extended periods of time.

It breaks down players total disabled list time by 25-plus, 50-plus and 100-plus days, taking into account players with season-ending injuries that will hit each threshold by the end of the season. For example, Steven Duggar, who has currently spent 23 days on the disabled list, will cross the 25-day threshold by the end of the year and is included in the 25+ day category.

Here, the Giants again appear to be middle of the pack. They have had some serious injuries and slightly more 25+ day injuries than most teams, but overall, they hang around the league average.

Going by the tables above, you probably wouldn’t peg a team like the Diamondbacks, who have had the fewest players sent to the disabled list, to have been significantly hampered by injuries. But that’s the exact opposite of what’s happened.

What these charts above don’t account for are “key injuries.”

These “key injuries” are defined as injuries occurring to players who have notched a wins above replacement (WAR) of 2.0 or above or who were selected to an All-Star game in this or at least one of their previous two seasons (min. 300 plate appearances for hitters, 140 IP for starting pitchers, 50 IP for relievers). A WAR of 2.0 or above is viewed as starter quality.

For them to count on this list, they must have been on the disabled list for 30 days (a month of playing time or roughly 1/6th of the MLB regular season) or will by the end of the season, due to a season-ending injury. For players without stats dating back more than two years, only their current year’s stats have been used.

This focuses solely on regular-season implications, so recently-injured players on likely or certain playoff teams are not included unless they will cross the 30-day mark by the end of the regular season.

This criterion is used to identify players who were expected to or have played a key role for their team this season.

Three out of the four teams at the top of this list – the Giants (8), Diamondbacks (8) and Los Angeles Dodgers (7) – are in the National League West, which been by far the hardest-hit division by key injuries.

Seven of the Giants’ key injuries have happened to players at or above the age of 30. The team has lost Madison Bumgarner –  the only sub-30-year-old – Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija, Mark Melancon, Brandon Belt, Evan Longoria, Buster Posey and Hunter Pence each for more than a month out of the season (Posey will reach that mark by the end of the year).

To make sense of key injuries, it’s important to look at how many key injuries a team should expect. The chart below shows the percentage of players a team sends to the disabled list compared to how many of those players are key injuries. It is essentially the chart of bad luck.

The larger a team’s bar is, the more the injuries have targeted key players. The Diamondbacks have had 61.54 percent of their DL injuries be key injuries, with the Giants coming in second at a 42.11 percent mark. The league average is 19.79 percent.

The one caveat in identifying key injuries which hasn’t been mentioned is that if you don’t have great players, you’ll have a lower potential of key injuries by default. This also highlights the luck, or extremely successful injury prevention, of teams like the Chicago Cubs, Atlanta Braves, Colorado Rockies, Houston Astros and Oakland A’s, all top-tier playoff contenders that have managed to have an extremely low proportion of key injuries.

Key injuries also can’t account for players, like Duggar, who had good, but not great statistical seasons due to limited playing time. It is a limitation that most often affects young players who have not had prior starter-quality seasons, at least by WAR standards.

One final measurement of analyzing how bad a team has been hit by injuries is a solely monetary one. As the Giants have seen firsthand, spending a lot of money on players is no guarantee they will play well. However, if you spend a lot of money on players, the expectation is that they will be important to your team.

The chart below compares a team’s players sent to the disabled list to the amount of money (in millions) the team has spent on disabled list players. The New York Mets lead this category by a significant margin, but the Giants are a clear No. 2.

To recap just how unfortunate the Giants’ injury situation has been, here’s a look at their collective ranks in the categories mentioned above:

Key injuries: 2nd

Percent of DL players to be key injuries: 2nd

Money spent on DL: 2nd

Players sent to the DL: T-14th

Despite a league average number of players to be sidelined, most of the Giants’ injuries this season have quite literally and practically cost them. Yet, the Diamondbacks (T-1st), Dodgers (T-2nd), Red Sox (T-3rd) and Yankees (T-3rd) are potential (or definite) playoff teams despite being four of the top six teams worst hit by key injuries. The Giants and Texas Rangers are the only two teams in the top six to have no shot at making the playoffs this season.

There’s no question the Giants’ front office has taken note of this. The team just fired its longtime strength and conditioning coach Carl Kochan, who’d been with the team in that role for seven years.

It’s clear the Giants have struggled with injuries, but it’s important to understand how they were hit by those injuries. The vast majority of their injuries have been spread out so that the team has often been missing three key players simultaneously.

There has only been one week (July 7-15) in the entire season when the Giants have had just one key injury. In total, there have been just 25 days with only two simultaneous key injuries. The rest of the season, the Giants have had at least three key players simultaneously injured. The season-high is five at one time, on May 30.

Below is a month-by-month breakdown of those disabled list stints that left the Giants hanging around .500 for most of the season, and more recently, 10 games below.

March

The Giants started the season already in a hole in the pitching rotation, with Melancon, Bumgarner, Samardzija and Will Smith all starting the season on the 10-day disabled list. Julian Fernandez’s season is over before it starts, and he’s placed on the 60-day disabled list with a UCL sprain. Bumgarner fractured his left hand after taking a line drive to it in spring training.

Without Bumgarner, Ty Blach throws an opening-day five-inning shutout to lead the Giants to a 1-0 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Giants get the exact same result the next night after Johnny Cueto throws seven shutout innings.

April

Cueto sprains his ankle on April 10th and heads to the 10-day disabled list. The Giants win that day to go 3 for their last 8, and Bumgarner goes on the 60-day disabled list the next day. With Cueto, Bumgarner and Samardzija out of the rotation, the Giants move to a rotation of Chris Stratton, Andy Suarez, Ty Blach, Derek Holland and Tyler Beede.

Beede is immediately sent back to Triple-A, while Stratton and Blach perform well. Cueto returns for a seven-inning shutout performance in 1-0 loss to the Diamondbacks.

On April 20, Hunter Pence sprains his thumb and is put on the 10-day disabled list. He will spend 44 days on the disabled list and spend the entire month of May with the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats. The same day Pence is sent to the DL, Jeff Samardzija comes off of it to get his first win of the season over the Dodgers.

On the 28th Joe Panik is sent to the 10-day disabled list with a thumb sprain and Mac Williamson suffers a horrific concussion by the left-field bullpen and goes on the 7-day disabled list. Melancon goes to the 60-day DL with a right elbow flexor strain.

In return, the Giants call up Austin Slater, Alen Hanson and D.J. Snelten. They finish the month at 15-14 after taking 3-of-4 against the Dodgers.

May

The first day of May kicks off with Cueto back on the 10-day DL with right elbow inflammation. He’ll eventually need Tommy John surgery, but for now, he prolongs the inevitable and is placed on the 60-day DL a week later. The Giants call back Suarez.

The following day sees Will Smith activated for the first time and Slater sent back to Triple-A. On the 7th, Williamson gets placed on the 10-day DL with his concussion. The next week sees Derek Law and Alen Hanson go on the 10-day DL, with Slater and Jose Valdez getting sent to and from the majors. Valdez suffers right elbow inflammation and quickly goes to the 10-day DL.

After starting May off hot with four-straight wins and a sweep of the Atlanta Braves, the Giants (25-30) lose 15 of their next 21 games and fall to five games under .500 just before the end of the month.

Before their 11-game slide in September, this drop off was the furthest the Giants had fallen below .500. Samardzija goes back on the 10-day DL while Bumgarner starts rehab.

June

On June 1, Melancon is activated from the 60-day DL for the first time and Panik returns from the 10-day DL. The next day, Hanson and Pence both return from the 10-day DL, while Belt contracts appendicitis and heads to it.

Three days later, on June 5, Bumgarner is activated for the first time all season and takes a loss despite pitching six innings of two-run baseball. Halfway through June, Evan Longoria is hit by a pitch and fractures his left hand. On June 15, he’s placed on the 10-day DL, where he remains for 42 days.

The next day, Belt is activated. Starting with Belt’s appendicitis on June 2, he and Longoria manage to avoid being in the same lineup until August 14. Three days later, Hunter Strickland infamously fractures his right hand by punching a door and ends up on the 10-day DL before being moved to the 60-day DL. The Giants finish June 44-40 as Dereck Rodriguez starts to carve out a place in the rotation.

July

Johnny Cueto is activated on July 5 from the 60-day DL. Two days later, Panik goes back on the 10-day with a left groin strain, but Samardzija is activated. Longoria is currently the only key injury on the roster, although Panik and Strickland are also on the DL. Samardzija pitches two games, with his second outing going four innings before he’s back on the 10-day DL on July 15 with right shoulder inflammation and done for the season.

On the 26th, Longoria returns from the disabled list and Belt heads to it with what turns out to be a bone bruise in his right knee, which sidelines him until August 14. On the 30th, Panik returns while Cueto and Sandoval head to the 10-day, with what are initially called a right elbow strain and right hamstring strain, respectively. It’s the end of both of their seasons after Cueto gets Tommy John surgery August 2 and Sandoval gets hamstring surgery.

By the end of July, the Giants are firmly average at 55-54.

August

This is the month where things really go south. While it seemed like Cueto and Samardzija’s absences would hurt, they’re actually not the issue at all. Their absences allow rookies Rodriguez, Suarez and a revitalized Holland to succeed in the rotation. Chris Stratton gets stung by the Diamondbacks and heads down to Triple-A, but he returns at the end of the month as an important rotation piece.

Belt comes back on August 14. Three days later, Rodriguez picks up a groin strain from the Hundley-Puig brawl and misses a start. The next day, Strickland is activated.

On the 24th, Rodriguez returns to the rotation. Two days later, on August 26, Buster Posey finally goes on the DL. He prepares to get season-ending hip surgery on the following Monday, something that he knew he needed for most of the season.

On the 28th, rookie standout Steven Duggar tears his labrum diving back to second base a play before he scores the game-winning run against the Diamondbacks. His season is officially confirmed over the next day. Two days later, the Giants trade Andrew McCutchen to the Yankees.

September

In the midst of what would be an eighth-straight loss, Ryder Jones dislocates his knee on a swing. The Giants would go on to lose 11-straight games from the first of September to the 12th, a San Francisco record. Belt has not played since September 14, and while an MRI revealed no structural damage in his knee, Bochy said his season is “likely over.” He flew back to San Francisco for a second MRI and likely surgery.

The prognosis

The extreme downturn in September reveals just how thin the Giants’ roster is. With Duggar and McCutchen gone, the Giants lost two of their most dynamic players, and with Jones gone, they lost a potential option at first base to give Slater more outfield reps, where he has often looked uncomfortable and could use more time.

The last young sparks the Giants have on offense are Chris Shaw – who snapped his 1-for-22 start by going 6-for-10 (3 RBIs) in his last three games – and Abiatal Avelino, who hasn’t seen much time. It doesn’t appear that he’ll see much time rest of the season by the way Bochy has backed up Crawford with Kelby Tomlinson and Hanson.

Based on Bochy’s comments following the team’s first win in September, it’s clear that Belt won’t see much more playing time if the condition of his knee doesn’t improve. While Crawford’s knee soreness could open the window for a few games for Avelino, the Giants will be facing playoff contenders in the Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals, and Bochy has made clear that being a “disruptor” of playoff races is essentially the only thing the Giants have left to play for.

It leaves the Giants in an awkward position at a time where you’d like to see young players get reps. While Slater, Shaw and Aramis Garcia have been getting time, other potentially MLB-ready position players like Duggar and Jones have been injured and there’s no indication Avelino will get to play.

It’s a symptom of an ultimately unproductive season in which injuries were effective and ill-timed enough to keep an already fringe playoff team from having any shot at the playoffs. Yet, injuries weren’t devastating enough to push the team to tank, trade and acquire young assets in favor of a full rebuild – not that the full-on rebuild has ever been seen as an option by the Giants’ brass.

What this season’s injuries have revealed more than anything is the fact that the Giants have an aging roster with little quality depth. The Giants’ key injury prevention was terrible compared to teams like the playoff-contending Braves, Astros, Rockies, Indians and Athletics.

But key injuries don’t mean a team will necessarily have a bad season. While the Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Red Sox and Yankees have been hit similarly hard by key injuries and remained competitive, the Giants could only hover around .500 at best.

While young pitchers like Rodriguez, Suarez, Stratton and the resurgent Holland have comprised a surprisingly successful rotation without Samardzija or Cueto, the offense has failed to bounce back from injuries and the loss of McCutchen. With little MLB-ready starting pitching depth in the minors, the Giants can ill-afford to have a similar situation next season.

It demonstrates the fundamental problem the Giants have faced this season. The team has failed to prevent significant injuries, and once those injuries occurred, the Giants lacked the depth to deal with them and remain competitive.

 

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