Apr 21, 2017
Play Ball

Held every four years, the World Baseball Classic (WBC) has become an exciting way to reach new fans and expand the game during the offseason. But many people in Major League Baseball have their reservations about the tournament. Most notably, some fear that players who choose to participate in the WBC rather than the typical spring training are more likely to get injured.

But are these fears rooted in fact? Ben Lindbergh, Staff Writer for The Ringer, recently partnered with various researchers to find an answer to this question. His goal was to collect and analyze the data that could pinpoint whether the WBC really does contribute to a disproportionate number of injuries.

With MLB players such as Didi Gregorius (Netherlands), Martín Prado (Venezuela), Drew Smyly (U.S.), Seth Lugo (Puerto Rico), and Roberto Osuna (Mexico) all starting this season on the disabled list after seeming to sustain new injuries or aggravate old ones while appearing in the WBC, opponents of the tournament appear to have an argument. However, Lindbergh notes that it is also common for players to get hurt during spring training.

The MLB has published data that shows the rate of season-opening DL stints among players on 40-man rosters who didn’t appear in the WBC has been far higher than the rate among those who did. But Lindbergh points out that this data is insufficient because players who are rehabbing existing injuries in the offseason are not going to participate in the WBC.

So to find out if participation in the tournament was actually increasing the risk of injury, Lindbergh started by looking at data published by a Washington University Sports Analytics group. They did a study that compared the number of days each WBC participant spent on the disabled list in the season immediately following his WBC appearance with the average number of days the same player spent on the DL in the three seasons before and after his WBC year, wherever applicable. In theory, if the WBC injury effect was real, researchers expected to see a higher number of DL days in the WBC year than the average from the surrounding years.

The Wash U research seemed to confirm a small WBC effect of roughly three DL days per player. But Lindbergh went a step further by combining these results with data collected by Athletic Trainer Corey Dawkins, ATC, owner of Baseball Injury Consultants. Dawkins’s data includes day-to-day injuries, DL stints, minor league injuries, and major league injuries.

Overall, the results indicated a slight correlation between participation in the WBC and higher injury rates. WBC pitchers lost about four more days to injury during their WBC years than they did during the surrounding seasons. In addition, WBC hitters lost slightly less than one day to injury during their WBC years.

Yet, the effect is so minimal that the results could be thrown off by one seemingly unlucky year. For example, 2009 skewed the data because a number of players received injuries that year. When 2009 was excluded and the results from 2006 and 2013 were combined, the WBC injury effect became almost nonexistent. Pitchers lost 1.3 more days during those WBC years, and hitters were seemingly healthier, with 2.0 fewer days lost.

“Teams have many millions of dollars tied up in their players’ well-being and the outcome of the regular season, and the loss of a single pivotal player [after the WBC] such as Smyly can derail a winter’s work and lead to lasting frustration,” writes Lindbergh. “For now, though, the evidence of an injury effect isn’t strong enough to justify preventing players from participating, especially since a well-populated tournament is so much fun for fans — and, in the long term, potentially beneficial for baseball, which in turn enriches teams.”

Photo by LiAnna Davis

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