News came out yesterday that Mike Lowell has been playing since August 20th with a fractured rib. In that span, he’s hit .262/.289/.310 while playing a premium offensive position for the Red Sox hanging on by a thread in the American League playoff chase. As you might imagine, the fact that his presence amounts to a major hindrance to Boston’s winning efforts does little to curb writers’ enthusiasm over Lowell “toughing it out”. Lowell is sacrificing for the team somehow, despite offering nothing at the plate and nothing with his glove. He’s retiring at season’s end. Isn’t it possible that playing baseball games is just fun, and with one month left in his career Mike Lowell is playing baseball games for Mike Lowell? Because Boston could pluck any one of 10 Minor Leaugers from their system and immediately get better first base production. Whatever Lowell is sacrificing, it’s not for the good of the Boston Red Sox that he does so.
There’s something larger going on here, however. What’s fascinating in the larger context of the 2010 Red Sox season is that the virtue assigned to “toughing it out” still has meaning, even as one Boston player after another finds himself out for the season thanks to playing through injuries. Meanwhile, when J.D. Drew takes a day off here or there because of a sore hamstring, he can’t escape ridicule. It’s time to reconsider what it means when a player plays through injury, and it’s time to temper our instinct to question the toughness of the player who decides he needs a night off every now and again.
The Red Sox have four Opening Day starters who have missed extended amounts of time this season and will not play another game in 2010. We will start with Jacoby Ellsbury. Ellsbury was hurt in just the sixth game of the season when he collided with third baseman Adrian Beltre and fractured ribs on a shallow fly ball in Kansas City. Ellsbury would not return until May 22nd in Philadelphia, only to find himself right back on the Disabled List after hitting the ground hard and once again damaging ribs diving for a fly ball two days later at The Trop against the Rays. He went 1 for 14 with a walk in his brief return.
After that, nobody is really sure what happened. There was a disagreement over how his medical situation was handled by the Red Sox staff. Ellsbury’s agent Scott Boras arranged for Ellsbury to receive medical examination and treatment from specialists Boras recommended. Then Ellsbury went to Athlete’s Performance in Arizona for an extended time to rehab, all while other injured teammates traveled with the team as they battled to stay afloat in the American League East.
This led to the local media reporting that Ellsbury’s absence spoke to his character on two fronts. First, they questioned his commitment to the team, largely fueled by relatively benign commentary from Kevin Youkilis (“One thing I can say is there’s a lot of guys here that are hurt and supporting the team. We wish Jacoby was here supporting us, too.“). Second, many questioned his overall toughness and his desire to play.
Regarding the first critique – that Ellsbury’s absence somehow reflected poorly on him as a teammate – I am reluctant to form an opinion on such matters and I wish others had that same instinct. He’s entitled to look after his own interests and if, when pressed, a teammate expresses frustration with Ellsbury’s absence, so be it. It’s between Ellsbury and his teammates, and it has little to do with wins and losses. I’m just not into the day-to-day clubhouse soap opera.
On the second piece of criticism, his toughness, there’s one fact that looms over the whole discussion that discredits those that think Ellsbury wishes not to play and that fact is this: He has everything to play for.
Ellsbury set an all-time Red Sox record with 70 stolen bases in 2009. He was the 17th most productive offensive outfielder in the American League as a 25-year old with an encouraging defensive skillset, even if it did not translate in the advanced defensive metrics. If he never improved off of his 2009 season, or even if he regressed a bit, he was poised to earn tens of millions of dollars in Major League Baseball. And that first major payday should have come after the 2010 season when he would become arbitration eligible. He would be looking at as much as a 1,000% raise, if not a long-term contract extension, with the Red Sox buying out his arbitration years. Instead, he’s now looking at a much more modest 2011 compensation year because of his injuries. He had every incentive in the world to be on the field this season.
Of course Ellsbury did return again. He came back on August 4th, played nine games, and hit .118/.211/.118. Good thing he battled back, huh?
One player who “toughed it out” through injury is Dustin Pedroia. Pedroia has had a couple of problems this year. The first was a knee injury he suffered on May 14th in Detroit sliding into home plate. Pedroia chose not to take any time off and hit .184/.286/.252 over his next 25 games, later admitting that his knee had been bothering him the whole time. He would eventually opt to wear a knee brace and regain his form in a major way for a couple of weeks, but doesn’t it seem like a DL trip with a more productive player in Pedroia’s place through at least the end of May while he healed properly might have been the best course of action for all parties?
Pedroia suffered an unrelated injury on June 25th at AT&T Park in San Francisco, where he fouled a ball off his foot and injured the navicular bone. When he went on the DL, in contrast to Ellsbury, Pedroia was a constant presence around the team. Famously, he would field practice ground balls from his knees in front of a swooning media that couldn’t wait to pass along reports of his toughness. Check out this video, as Amalie Benjamin and Tom Caron can’t contain their enthusiasm while Pedroia risks further injury taking grounders on his knees (sorry about the advertisement at the outset):
When it finally came time for Pedroia to make his return, it felt rushed considering the seriousness of his foot injury. He had only missed 44 games, or a month-and-a-half’s worth of baseball. Nonetheless he came back with much fanfare, and with much hope that his return could offset the loss of Kevin Youkilis, who had been ruled out for the season just 10 days before Pedroia’s return. The All-Star second baseman would last two games before returning to the Disabled List. He had damaged his foot further, and now needed surgery in order to be ready for the 2011 campaign.
Speaking of Youkilis, he played his last game for Boston on August 2nd. He admitted to feeling pain in his thumb on the West Coast a little after the All-Star Break but chose to play through it for as many as 13 games. With the Red Sox still within shouting distance of the playoffs, Youkilis would be lost for the season after “playing through pain” for two weeks. It was the most crushing blow of a brutal 2010 filled with crushing blows, and who knows? Maybe if Youk sought treatment and rested for a couple of games it could have been averted.
Another guy who was forced to play through pain, Mike Cameron, is also lost for the season. Making matters worse, even when Cameron was able to play, he wasn’t himself and his performance reflected as much. His abdominal issues limited his mobility in the outfield, as he looked shaky defensively for the first time in his career. At the plate, he managed just a .259/.328/.401 line for Boston. Like Lowell, Pedroia and Ellsbury, his time on the field while injured – “toughing it out” in the local media parlance – hampered his performance and, by extension, Boston’s ability to win baseball games. Like Pedroia, Ellsbury and Youkilis, his time on the field playing through injury led to deterioration in his health and a longer absence from the team.
In contrast to these cases is that of J.D. Drew. Drew will occasionally ask out of games, which prompts the local media to take shots at him. Notably, after one such instance on July 27th, Peter Abraham contributed this piece of petulance that the Globe saw fit to publish to its official Red Sox blog.
J.D. Drew has added to his MLB record of most times scratched from the lineup because of a hamstring strain.
Meanwhile, Drew’s boss appreciates that he will ask out of games. Listen to this interview (scroll to the 6:20 mark for injury-related talk but the whole thing is fantastic), in which Theo Epstein explains that there’s a reason that the Red Sox put time and effort into assembling a quality bench. If you need a night off, a capable player is there to fill in. Maybe Drew saves himself more extended absences by asking out of the occasional game. Although he has been awful of late regardless, as a broader point, perhaps his performance would suffer if not for a game off here and there to nurse nagging aches and pains.
The tie-in here is that, in the face of heaps of evidence to the contrary, the media reflexively treats players who persevere on the field through injury as though they are serving the team’s goals. As the Ellsbury case teaches us, injured players deserve the benefit of the doubt because of the incentive structure in place. Ellsbury will take a major short-term financial hit because of his 2010 injuries. And like Drew, he has incurred reputational damage. He has no reason to sit out for the heck of it. Moreover, what Ellsbury, Lowell, Cameron and Pedroia teach us is that injured players often make for lousy players. All of those guys played terribly when they tried to “tough out” their injuries. And finally, what all of these cases tell us is that an injured player who takes the field risks longer-term injury and therefore greater damage to his team’s chances for success.
Sometimes there is virtue in playing injured. On a personal level, it’s admirable. We all can identify with someone willing to work when they’re not quite feeling up to it. But in the larger context of a team’s goals, playing through injury is rarely a course of action that serves a team’s interest. And so as fans, if a player is playing through injury or playing it safe by sitting out a game with a minor muscle tweak, maybe we should think twice before labeling the former “tough” and the latter “soft.” There’s a much bigger picture to consider.