Mining the Disabled List for Insight Into Baseball Injuries
IRA FLATOW, host: Here we are in the midst of the baseball season, my favorite season. And no matter what team you root for, you know that injuries can make or break a team's season, so it might surprise you to know that, in Major League Baseball, there's no central record of who got injured doing what. Other sports organizations have such registries, but not baseball. And that's surprising, considering that, you know, it seems that baseball gurus keep statistics for just about everything imaginable.
Well, that's about to change. A team of baseball-minded doctors has mined the disabled lists of teams for recent years, has put together its own set of data on Major League Baseball injuries. Joining me now to talk about what they have found is one of those doctors, Brett Owens. He's chief of orthopedic surgery at Keller Army Hospital in West Point, New York. Welcome to the program, Dr. Owens.
Dr. BRETT OWENS: Thank you very much. It's an honor to be here.
FLATOW: This is not an Army West Point project, is it?
OWENS: This is not, and, yeah. That's a good point.
FLATOW: So you're doing this as sort of a hobby.
OWENS: Pretty much as a hobby. And, you know, clearly, just to start off, you know, my employer wants to make it clear that, you know, I am an active duty Army orthopedic surgeon, and these are my personal opinions that don't reflect any official positions.
FLATOW: Well, maybe they'll be jealous of them later on.
OWENS: I'm not sure.
FLATOW: You get to be famous about these statistics, and they're not going to say, oh, yeah. He was an Army doctor.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
FLATOW: So tell us about this. You've been keeping track of them. You had to dig into the records to find out the injuries.
OWENS: Well, yeah, exactly. Like you put, there is no officially sanctioned injury surveillance system in Major League Baseball. As you'd mentioned, you know, other sports, primarily the NCAA has been very successful with being able to monitor its injuries. But Major League Baseball doesn't have a dedicated injury surveillance system, even though there has been some discussion recently about that.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-9255 is our number. Talking about the Major League Baseball injuries. Did you find that injuries - there's a trend in injuries. Are they rising? Falling? What can you tell us?
OWENS: Well, you know, clearly, we have - we studied one small subset, you know, in time, basically seasons 2002 to 2008. And, you know, in that small seven season sample, there appeared to be an increase, you know, over time. We've broke into two sets, up to '05, and (unintelligible) 7 percent increase, you know, over time.
There's one other prior study (unintelligible) that looked at, over 11 year period, they found that the number of injuries also increased, you know, over time.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And was there a bigger increase? I'm looking at the story from the newswires here that - from Reuters that quotes your study and says that player injury rates jumped by nearly 40 percent after 2005. Is that correct?
OWENS: Correct. It was an increase of 37 percent between, you know, '05 and '08.
FLATOW: Well, that was at the time when the drug policy changed.
FLATOW: Is there any connection?
OWENS: Well, clearly, you know, clearly that's one potential, you know, possibility. But, you know, clearly that's speculative based upon our data. We're not really able to say right now. We were able to look at one small subset in time. And, you know, clearly that's one of the things that we did look at was whether it did influence, you know, injury rates, and there appears, you know, to be a pattern. But it's really hard to say unless you look specifically at the injuries.
FLATOW: Can you tell us - give us an idea of who gets injured most and what kinds of injuries there are?
OWENS: You know, certainly upper extremity injuries seemed to dominate the entire spectrum of baseball players, you know, accounting for 51 percent of all injuries were upper extremity, mainly shoulder, elbow, you know, but when we break it down between pitchers and position players, there's a stark difference with, again, the - not surprising, the pitchers have majority shoulder and elbow injuries. The fielders were predominantly, you know, lower extremity. They had a lot of knee, hamstring injuries, also had a little bit higher rate of hand and wrist injuries.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And did they happen - I know this from reading your paper, they happened mostly at the beginning of the season, right, or at spring training.
OWENS: Well, we didn't - we specifically excluded spring training because it's really hard to determine, again, our data really focuses on disabled lists, classifications. So that excludes all the little minor bumps and sprains that may well go unnoticed (unintelligible). A player maybe plays, you know, day to day, may not play a couple of days, but it's not going to result in a designated list designation by - disabled list designation by the team. That's an injury that results in being out of play for at least 15 days. It can also go on a 60-day (unintelligible) as all of know that are baseball fans. But clearly, the limitations of our study, we looked just at disabled list injuries.
FLATOW: And as I say, they happened - if I read your...
FLATOW: Correct. They happened, like, in April, a lot of them or...
OWENS: Correct. You know, higher instance - injury rate in April, especially compared to September, but some of the caveats of our study is that we - we're limited by this disabled list, just clarification(ph) by the team.
FLATOW: But it's also...
OWENS: Well, a lot of players in September might not be placed on the disabled list as the team expands to a 40-player roster, and there may not be as much pressure to place a player on the disabled list. But we had a higher injury rate in April compared to later in the season.
FLATOW: So that means, as you're saying, the disabled list is not a good barometer of injuries because they may not be on there. The teams may not want to place them on there.
OWENS: Correct. It is not the optimal barometer of injuries. It is a crude barometer of injuries. It's the best we have right now.
FLATOW: Should Major League Baseball take this more - I'm just going to use the word seriously - in keeping good statistics about this?
OWENS: Well, from, you know, again, I have no official relationship with Major League Baseball. I'm just a fan. Clearly, I would think that they are interested in this, the hazards of work in this area, in the past. I'm not sure exactly what the hurdles are to create this. As you understand, you know, the teams, I'm sure, want to be somewhat protective of this data.
FLATOW: Yeah. But they, you know, they should let the public know. Could it, you know, in the other sports, we know that there's a lot of gambling involved in lots of sports. Could it be that, you know, there's not as much gambling involved in baseball so that there's not as much concern about who's injured?
OWENS: I'm not sure. It's a (unintelligible) point.
FLATOW: You know? What kind of injuries other - you say pitchers were the number one injured players.
OWENS: Correct. They had around a 67 percent, you know, upper extremity injury rate. But compared to lower - compared to fielders, they had a two to three times injury rate for the upper extremity injuries.
FLATOW: Wow. And is that because they have such, you know, violent motions with their bodies when they're doing some things?
OWENS: Well, certainly, you know, that would make sense, the pitching motion is one of the more extreme acts that a shoulder or an elbow can experience, and to repeat that, you know, numerous occasions, you can get these repetitive, overuse type injuries. You know, clearly it's been documented, the increase in - in Tommy John or ulnar collateral ligament reconstructions. So it's not really surprising that the pitchers had more shoulder and elbow injuries.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Do you have any opinions on how - what's going on with the injuries with kids who play Little League or in schools, about the kind of injuries they're getting?
OWENS: Sure. There's been, you know, a great deal of interest in this recently. My parent organization, the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine, has been very involved, and actually I would refer folks who want to learn a little bit more about this to a website, which is stopsportsinjuries.org. But there clearly has been a large push into trying to stop some of these injuries that happened to young athletes, particularly junior pitchers seem to experience a great deal of overuse-type injuries that hadn't been experienced in previous generations.
FLATOW: We're talking with Brett Owens about baseball injuries this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. Would a centralized listing of injuries be useful to people? If you were able to collect them, what kind of good use could you make out of that?
OWENS: Well, I think looking at injuries from a larger viewpoint, not looking at it from a specific single provider perspective or from the perspective of a large hospital system or someone that takes care of one team, you're able to - when you pool all the data together, you're able to better see injury patterns that haven't been appreciated before. This, you know, the most notable example in orthopedic surgery is - some researchers that looked at ACL injury patterns between men and women in the youth collegiate basketball, but the NCAA has an established database.
These researchers in '95 were able to compare women versus men in the same sport. And they found, you know, I believe it was eight times the injury rates in women versus men when they control for athletic exposure. Now, clearly more men are playing sports most of the time, but you know, when controlling for athletic exposure, meaning(ph) one practice per person or one game per person, the women had a higher injury rate. And that caused us to take a step back and look at landing patterns for women, other differences physiologically that may help account for this difference in injuries rates, and then hopefully work towards prevention patterns.
FLATOW: And because Major League Baseball does not have an established database, you could not do that in that sport.
OWENS: Correct. And clearly, you had made some comment earlier about possibly, you know, making it public. You know, the disabled list is kind of the public disclosure of that injury. I'm not sure if a publicly accessible, you know, database is the best. But at least internally to be able to track injuries may have some significant benefit for players.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. Let's see if we can get a quick call in here from Ken in St. Louis. Hi, Ken.
KEN: Hi, Ira. Love your show.
FLATOW: Thank you.
KEN: Mr. Owens, I want to tell about 1969 - 1968, Bob Gibson world-record ERA, his catcher was Tim McCarver. In '69, the owners took eight inches off the pitching mound and took the legs out of the pitching. That's the reason for all these injuries.
FLATOW: Spoken like a true St. Louis Cardinals fan.
KEN: If you don't - if you don't want to(ph) ask me, I'll tell you, contact Tim McCarver. He talks about this all the time.
FLATOW: Well, we all know that Bob Gibson was a terrific, a great pitcher. And being a baseball fan, I know exactly what you're talking about. Lowering the mound took the advantage away the pitchers were enjoying. Do you think, Brett, that might have contributed to injuries pitchers are getting now?
OWENS: You know, clearly there's discussion, you know, of that. I agree, you know, Tim McCarver does - he does go on about that. I used to listen to a lot of his - him covering the games as well. And I agree, you know, clearly that has - may have something to do with it. I wish we had data going back to that time.
FLATOW: Doesn't it surprise you with all the stats, and you know as a baseball fan, how - there's a stat for everything, and there are new metrics coming out all the time, right? WISPs and things, things you never heard off when we were kids. Is it surprising that they don't collect these statistics?
OWENS: It is surprising a little bit. But, you know, the numbers that are collected now in baseball as well as other sports, you're looking at, you know, fantasy football, for example, you know, they've been able to use some of these numbers almost as proxies for outcome, so to say. There's a recent study that looked at ACL injuries in NFL players. And they used their power number, which is, you know, fantasy football score as - sort of as an outcome score to evaluate how well they did after ACL reconstruction. So you know, the numbers - I can't help quantify sometimes the disability and/or the success maybe after intervention.
FLATOW: Well, here's hoping we get some sort of central database for you guys to use as research tools.
OWENS: That would be great.
FLATOW: All right. Thank you, Brett.
OWENS: Thank you.
FLATOW: Dr. Brett Owens is chief of orthopedic surgery at the Keller Army Hospital in West Point, New York.
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