cover photo: Don DeBold
Major League Baseball (MLB) spring training starts this week. Team owners couldn’t be more relieved. During the offseason, these high-powered businesspeople were stuck on the phone dealing with health insurance companies.
Why do sports teams spend more time comparing health insurance rates than you or I? Because after five months on the couch, their stars are out of shape and prone to injury. Pro athletes – they’re just like us!
Baseball has one of the highest collision injury rates of all major league sports. When you consider that ballplayers endure a grueling 162-game season, it’s hardly surprising that most MLB players spend time on the Disabled List (DL) at some point in their careers. Teams have to plan around this, too.
Insurance Shapes Your Favorite Sport
The Economist writes that “sports teams that offer guaranteed contracts face huge losses if stars are injured, even only temporarily. As a result, the economics of the business are now shaped by insurance markets just as they are by TV contracts or ticket sales.”
To be sure, player injuries – both the acute, traumatic kind and those resulting from chronic, repetitive overuse – are quite costly. According to a 2014 study by Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center examining baseball injuries at home plate, “about three players per year are injured severely enough [in these plays] to be put on the 15-day disabled list. Using the average MLB player salary for 2011 of $3.1 million, the Wake researchers determined that baseball teams lose over $2 million each season from home plate injuries alone.
Baseball fans have grown increasingly aware of Tommy John surgery, a procedure in which healthy tendon is used to fix injured muscles. More recently, issues concerning nets and spectator safety have received attention. However, other dangers in baseball remain unexplored.
Studying Baseball Injuries
Despite these high stakes, relatively little is known about injury rates in professional baseball. MLB did not begin a formal injury surveillance system until 2010. Moreover, MLB has not commissioned a comprehensive study of player injuries since 1998. Some experts say this is why relatively little is known about injury rates in professional baseball.
One way to prevent baseball injuries is to understand how they happen in the first place. Yet, few articles exist on common patterns in MLB injuries. Even fewer studies have analyzed the risk profiles of different positions – although we know that pitchers and outfielders are rarely hurt in the same way!
Common Danger Zones In Pro Baseball:
To better understand when and how players are likely to get injured, let’s explore five potential hazards that occur during baseball games.
photo credit: jnashboulden
1. THE BASES.
First, second and third bases shall be marked by white canvas or rubber-covered bags... The bags shall be 15 inches square... not less than three nor more than five inches thick... and filled with soft material.
In reality, bases put players in danger. Rock-hard and anchored deeply into the ground, bases become slick and slippery when they get wet. As scores of sports doctors can attest, bases are misinstalled all the time. Some are anchored in the ground too securely or raised too highly above the dirt – and their lack of “give” can easily cause hand injuries when players slide into them head-first.
In recent years, injuries to players’ fingers, hands and wrists have prompted several prominent figures in MLB, including Scott Boras and Buck Showalter, to urge MLB and the MLB Player’s Association to explore whether bases can be made safer. The believe changing their composition material and lessening the rigidity of bases may help.
photo credit: Keith Allison
2. WHAT’S ON SECOND?
“Turning two,” a baseball colloquialism for executing a double play, can be scary. Along with the catcher guarding home plate, some baseball players believe that second basemen are particularly vulnerable to injury when they are trying to turn a double play. To get that second out, a second baseman must fire a quick, accurate throw to first, at the same time a large man with metal spikes barrels towards him. Sounds like fun, no?
Data supports the notion that second base is a dangerous place to be, for the position player and runner alike. Sliding injuries are nearly four times more likely to occur at second base relative to other bases. And due to their delicate bone structure, a player’s hands, fingers, and thumbs are more likely than his ankles and knees to be injured during sliding situations.
photo credit: Dustin Nosler
3. BALLS EVERYWHERE.
In September 2014, a Bloomberg News reporter named David Glovin wrote an article about the number of fans who get injured during baseball games. What made the story especially noteworthy was Bloomberg’s statistical analysis supporting Glovin’s claims.
The figure Bloomberg came up with, confirmed by five mathematicians who reviewed the analysis, was way higher than anyone expected.
Approximately 1,750 fans are hurt each year by stray balls and broken bats over the course of the major league season. To put that figure in perspective, that’s about two spectators hurt every three games. This means that fans are hit by errant balls more often than an actual batter is hit by a pitch (there were 1,536 hit batsmen in 2016).
The Players’ Association has tried to negotiate with the League to make stadiums safer, but MLB is hesitant to force teams to extend the netting behind home plate. They merely suggest that teams do so.
It’s a delicate issue regarding a delicate area. As one Washington Post writer put it, “ was a bad summer for crotches in baseball.” The situation didn’t improve much when October rolled around, either.
This photo, which shows NY Yankees pitcher Dave Robertson empathizing with his catcher Gary Sanchez after Sanchez took a foul ball to the groin, was all over the internet during the last postseason.
So, which players wear cups, and who prefers to play unshielded? The consensus according to surveyed MLB players: catchers and pitchers wear ’em, but outfielders generally fail to suit up. One trainer estimates that a quarter of infielders don’t wear them, either.
photo credit: jnashboulden
Among players who’ve sustained a mild brain injury, catchers are significantly over-represented. Contrary to popular belief, the worst injuries that baseball catchers face on the field come from errant bats and foul balls. Home plate collisions with base runners just aren’t as gnarly, even though they’re a more common occurrence.
Even so, in an attempt to reduce catcher injuries, MLB implemented rule changes in 2014 that require catchers to allow base runners a clear path to home plate. The rule change, which went into effect in 2014, bars catchers from blocking home plate unless they are actively fielding, or are in possession of the ball. The new rules also prohibit runners from moving off their running path to deliberately collide with a catcher.
To date, no study has analyzed whether the 2014 rule has resulted in fewer collision injuries, so it’s unknown if the rule change has accomplished its goal.
Athletes Are Happy With Their Health Insurance, Thank You Very Much
Fortunately, the 750 or so active MLB players have comprehensive health care coverage. MLB’s Benefit Plan offers former players the option to continue the same health insurance benefits as current players for life.
While retired MLB players have to pay more for their health insurance than current stars, we can guess that their plans are cheaper than COBRA coverage. Otherwise, players would swing for that option.
You may be used to COBRA or alternatives – it’s the rule that allows you to continue on your employer’s insurance plan after you leave your job. Whatever plan fits you best, make sure you have something before going to the game (or the post-game celebration).
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