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Article: Playing Hurt: A Painful Debate


Nick Nelson
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Everyone wants to criticize the Twins for the way they handle injuries.

 

On the one side, there are those who claim that the club has created a culture where players don't communicate injuries to coaches and too frequently play hurt. NBC Sports blogger Craig Calcaterra recently suggested this in a post about Chris Colabello playing (and struggling) through a serious thumb injury.

 

Then, on the opposite end of the spectrum, there are those like Jim Souhan who argue that the Twins too often let players sit with minor ailments. In a rather brutal column for the Star Tribune this week, Souhan urged new manager Paul Molitor to "end [the] coddling of Twins players," declaring that the team's deferential treatment of Joe Mauer sets a bad example.

 

Which one is it? Or could it be that both these viewpoints are being taken to absurd extremes, and that the Twins are not really all that different from the majority of teams around the league when it comes to their management of injuries?

 

Yeah, I'm gonna go with that.Injuries suck. They are frustrating. They often keep good players out of action, or severely inhibit their performance on the field. And the worst part is that they're almost totally uncontrollable.

 

Baseball is a dangerous game. People get hurt. Just ask Byron Buxton.

 

Maybe it is the randomness and, oftentimes, vagueness of injuries that cause so many otherwise intelligent individuals to view the subject with so little rationality.

 

Souhan's incendiary article this week was tough to stomach, in part because it showed little regard for the well-being of actual people, and in part because it took a harsh stance on a touchy subject without providing much of anything resembling evidence or support.

 

Here's an actual line from the piece: "When the guy making $23 million a year begs out of the lineup because of a bruise, it’s difficult for the manager to push others to play through pain."

 

I mean, come on. A bruise? Why fall back on such a ridiculous exaggeration? Fellow Star Trib columnist Patrick Reusse was spouting the same brand of nonsense late last season, and it's a pervasive talking point in some circles.

 

For the record, here's how Mauer's career has played out since that disastrous 2011 season that apparently earned him an unshakable reputation as a wussy:

 

2012: 147 games played, 641 plate appearances. Both career highs.

2013: Was on pace for 149 games and 669 plate appearances before suffering a season-ending concussion in mid-August. A severe, season-ending brain injury.

2014: 120 games played, 518 plate appearances. Missed six weeks in July/August due to a strained oblique. This is about the standard recovery period for any player anywhere with an oblique strain.

 

Making an argument that Mauer "begs out of the lineup" due to minor aches and pains is pretty much impossible if you're being the least bit intellectually honest, particularly when you consider that he's spent much of his career playing the most punishing position in the game.

 

It is more likely that Mauer, like many other players, has too frequently tried to play through pain.

 

I have a hard time believing that he was completely healthy in the first half of 2014, when he put up an uncharacteristic .342 on-base percentage and sub-700 OPS. After returning in August from his long layoff, Mauer looked much more like himself, posting a .397 OBP and .802 OPS the rest of the way.

 

It's strange that some people seem to think he should have just toughed out the bilateral leg weakness situation in 2011. He tried, for the first couple weeks. He looked completely terrible, putting up a .550 OPS while hitting everything into the ground. Most often, "playing through pain" -- in a more extreme sense, because the vast majority of major leaguers are doing it to some extent on a regular basis -- does your team no favors.

 

This brings us to the idea posed by Calcaterra and others -- that the Twins have created a culture in which players dangerously try to battle through injuries, ultimately resulting in a negative impact.

 

This is a bit more plausible as a theory. There have been plenty of examples of Twins who have gone through bad slumps, only to later reveal that they were playing hurt. Just this season, you could point to Colabello, Mike Pelfrey, Ricky Nolasco and others.

 

I think it's undeniable that the Twins have had too many players problematically attempt to play while injured. I only question whether that is remotely unique to them.

 

It happens everywhere. Pro athletes play through pain because they are by nature extremely competitive and prone to overestimating the capabilities of their own bodies. In many cases, like Colabello's, it's about maintaining your livelihood.

 

Does it happen more here than other places? How could that be true when everyone's being coddled?

 

Maybe we should try to step back and look at this topic with a little more clarity and compassion. I promise it won't hurt.

 

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For some the analysis of a problem means finding ways to criticize.  They can also justify it by sying they are being tough on the Twins, or whomever. This is the Souhans  of the world as well as many on the internet.

There is either a culture of playing hurt, maybe exacerbated by misdiagnosis or magically people need an operation suddenly days after the season ends. This year Collabello Nolasco was playing wounded then the knife. A couple years ago Diamond  fit the description, before that it was Blackburn.  I am not recalling some of the others. They get to be called routine procedures, but if you need a procedure, you are not healthy.

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I don't necessarily blame the team for players who play hurt.  If I were in Cola's situation, I would feel like I was fighting for my career with every at-bat.  If I say I'm hurt, it gives the team a reason to look elsewhere.

 

My daughter is a college varsity soccer player who got relatively little playing time last year as a freshman.  She was competing for a starting spot this fall, and was given a chance in the first game of the season.  The day before she had taken a pretty bad fall due to a collision in practice and hurt her neck.  She warmed up for the game, and didn't feel ready to play.  The coach told her to talk to the trainer, the trainer told her she should sit out, and the coach has held it against her all fall, reminding her that when she did get a chance to start, she wasn't "mentally ready".  Because I guess having an injury means you aren't mentally ready.  This is of course one of 36 million similar stories from athletes.

 

Why would I risk that with a major league career?  I would do what I did in my college career- suck it up, rub a little dirt on it, get on the field, and let the coach tell me if I'm too injured to play.  Dumb idea, but it's a natural way to do it.

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Probably like everyone else on this site, I don't have knowledge of Mauers injurys, so you have to listen to people who are closer to the situation.  I would think Souhan & Reusse are closer to the clubhouse and would have better information on the culture.  I'm not hearing any teammates jumping out and defending Mauer toughness.  The only time I remember anyone talking about was Torii Hunter, who basically agreed with Souhan & Reusse.

 

All that being said, Mauer just need to go out and play 150 games and drive in 100 runs.  It's really up to him to show he can still produce.

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I don't necessarily blame the team for players who play hurt.  If I were in Cola's situation, I would feel like I was fighting for my career with every at-bat.  If I say I'm hurt, it gives the team a reason to look elsewhere.

 

THIS.  It has to be easier to beg out when your job is secure rather than when you are the 24th or 25th man.

 

I thought both stories were exaggerations and I suspect similar circumstances with most teams.

Edited by JB_Iowa
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I think there's a lot of factors here. First off, can you be productive playing hurt? Nolasco was dealing with that elbow problem for how long before being sidelined? On the flip side, Radkee was effective on a torn labrum in his last season. Some people can do that, some cannot. I don't think it's fair to castigate a player if they cannot play through pain. Some can, some cannot. I tend to think that there's far more Mike Lamb's and Ricky Nolasco's out there than Brad Radkees. That's just the nature of things.

 

Second, as others pointed out, guys struggling to make the roster are going to play through it. Coaches are known to retaliate as well, which I think is the bigger cultural issue here. Of the things that need to be done, I really think these decisions need to be made by a doctor who is in some sort of way shielded from the team. That's probably easier said than done.

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Probably like everyone else on this site, I don't have knowledge of Mauers injurys, so you have to listen to people who are closer to the situation.  I would think Souhan & Reusse are closer to the clubhouse and would have better information on the culture.  I'm not hearing any teammates jumping out and defending Mauer toughness.  The only time I remember anyone talking about was Torii Hunter, who basically agreed with Souhan & Reusse.

 

Sure a AAAA player will want to hold onto his spot and collect as many checks and hope to breakthrough and earn another contract.  Other teams have guys that don't tell their coaches about injuries as well. I drafted Tony Cingrani last year in my fantasy league.  He was awful for about 6-7 starts and then told the coach he was pitching hurt.  It happens all over.

 

However, I think it is a completely fair thing to say that nobody has ever described Joe Mauer as tough, gritty,or hard nosed.  Part of that is the contract.  Concussions are un-avoidable.  To this day, nobody really knows what bi-lateral leg weakness is.

 

But I completely agree that Souhan and Ruesse are around the club house and probably hear whispers or get the reaction on guys faces when they are asked about Mauer.  Is anyone really going to come out and say what they think?  Probably not.

 

So i will at least be open to the idea that a grain of truth exists to the notion that Mauer takes days off where guys, say Cal Ripkin would not.  Or even Robinson Cano, the guy has missed about a game a year from 2007 to 2014. 

 

Regarding the missing games for bruises....I googled "Joe Mauer and bruise" and quickly found four instances since 2010 where he has missed time with bruises. I only looked on the first two pages.  There could be more. I also think he had a shin issue at one point, stiff back a few times, etc.

 

Bruised Heel  5 days

 

http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/news/story?id=5155712  

 

Bruised Thumb  5 days

 

http://espn.go.com/mlb/story/_/id/8013790/minnesota-twins-joe-mauer-sidelined-bruised-thumb  

 

Bruised elbow  Missed 8 innings one day and next game

 

http://minnesota.cbslocal.com/2014/09/23/twins-1b-mauer-leaves-with-bruised-right-elbow/ 

 

Bruised thigh  4 days

 

http://www.twincities.com/ci_20910974/minnesota-twins-joe-mauer-sits-again-bruised-thigh  

Edited by tobi0040
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Athletes, ime, try to play through pain because their coaches are generally macho idiots that think they are soft if they don't. Not all coaches, but I've seen it in grade school, middle school, HS, and college. I've seen it in kids that have real futures, and kids that just want to play sports for fun. I'd guess Souhan has it 100% backward, given the experience I have. 

 

If anything, the trainers and coaches need to protect players from themselves. 

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It seems like a corner has been turned - a few years ago, the Twins' medical staff was getting blasted for the phrase "rest and rehab." Do people still think that the medical/training staff are under diagnosing injuries? Or is it the opposite now? The Medical Staff is now too quick to say that a player has to sit or needs to go on the DL?

 

I think the point diehard makes about effectiveness while injured is a good one. In my mind, it is a question of communication between, player, coach and medical staff.

 

If a starter gets shelled, maybe they were just off that day, or maybe they are experiencing enough pain that they are not able to pitch mechanically sound. The coaches should be able to see the mechanics part of it, the player should feel free to tell the trainers what the discomfort is, and the trainer should be able to tell player and coach what can be done medically to heal / repair the injury.

If the player is performing well, but is in tremendous pain, they should be able to tell the trainer that, too.  

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In my opinion, Reusse and Souhan write to an audience that makes some of the most inane comments possible. That is what they get paid for.  I admit that I enjoy reading some of their stuff, but like politicians, I try to take what they put out with a grain a salt. They create a narrative that is just plausible enough to gain traction and then feed the beast. On any team in any sport, there will be players who routinely play through injuries and players who routinely need to be at 100% to perform. I believe that Joe's concussion took longer to get over than he was willing to sit out. If he had gotten off to a great (normal?) first half before the oblique, would we be even talking about this?

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Excellent piece, Nick.  I wold say both articles cited were attempting to do exactly what it accomplished: Us talking about their writing.  Living in Chicago, I've had to listen to everyone question Jay Cutler and the old NFC title game where he didn't play the second half due to a knee strain.  His manhood was questioned by everyone from athletes to talk show hosts, to little kids in my school.  Had he gone out there and stunk up the joint, they'd have been all over his ass for playing hurt and not thinking of the team.  It's a no win situation when it comes to injuries.....

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It seems like a corner has been turned - a few years ago, the Twins' medical staff was getting blasted for the phrase "rest and rehab." Do people still think that the medical/training staff are under diagnosing injuries? Or is it the opposite now? The Medical Staff is now too quick to say that a player has to sit or needs to go on the DL?

 

 

Ha, yes I was wondering how this conversation took such a u turn.  What happened to blaming the trainer for not keeping these guys healty? 

 

Who knows what's going on here.  One minute we're blaming Ryan and Gardy for criticizing Baker for not playing through what turned out to be an injury that would require TJ surgery, the next we're blaming them for coddeling Mauer. 

 

It's possible after the team misses something like Baker's injury they over-react and play it cautious with the next guy.

 

Or it's possible every situation is different and simply put, you'll never get them all right.

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Not all bruises are created equal, especially when involving a collision. I've had a bone bruise on my foot that kept me from walking right for a couple of weeks and a nasty one on my shin that kept me off my feet for a few days. Missing between 2 and 5 games for a bad bruise isn't unreasonable.

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I had a bone bruise in my foot that kept me from walking right for almost 2 weeks. Had one on my shin that took me out for a few days. It isn't unreasonable to lose some time after a bruise in certain situations, especially where a collision was involved. 2-5 games is hardly unreasonable when you get these.

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Not all bruises are created equal, especially when involving a collision. I've had a bone bruise on my foot that kept me from walking right for a couple of weeks and a nasty one on my shin that kept me off my feet for a few days. Missing between 2 and 5 games for a bad bruise isn't unreasonable.

 

That is a true statement. 

 

But I don't think it is ridiculous or an exageration to say he has missed time with bruises, as the article suggested.  He in fact has missed them on at least four occasions.

 

I guess for me, Cal Ripken played almost 20 years without missing a game. Brett Favre went around ten years in a much more violent sport.  Guys like Cano play every day.  I am guessing a time or two existed when those guys had bruises, even really bad one's.  Those are extreme examples.  But I think as a starting point, some players gut it out through things that Joe Mauer does not.  I think that is a fair and reasonable conclusion.

Edited by tobi0040
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I had a bone bruise in my foot that kept me from walking right for almost 2 weeks. Had one on my shin that took me out for a few days. It isn't unreasonable to lose some time after a bruise in certain situations, especially where a collision was involved. 2-5 games is hardly unreasonable when you get these.

 

I actually think he might have come back too early from that bruised heel and it might have been one instance where a DL stint, while not popular with the fans might have been smart.  It was definitely effecting him, and I have always wondered if he over-compensated and that helped lead to some of the knee issues that derailed him that September and really was the start of what would develop the following year in the bi-lateral leg weakness saga.  I remember him (or one of the coaches) saying he had to overcome a number of bad habits he picked up while playing with the bruised foot.

 

There have been times when I have wondered if Mauer could have returned from an injury sooner, but seeing him get some whopper foul tips etc behind the plate and continue playing, when it comes to bruises, as a catcher I give him the benefit of the doubt that it is not an ordinary bruise that keeps him out of a game.   With all the talk of him being soft, and maybe there are times when he could have played, due to his former position he probably has experience and played with more pain than a lot of his critics.

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I've recent;y discovered that people have vastly differing tolerance for pain.  I shattered my upper arm, had 3 plates and a pin put in and literally felt no pain w/in 3 days of the surgery (i made them take me off morphine and didn't even need tyleno)l.

 

And except for some acid reflux, no pain while hospitalized for 2 weeks.

 

I have never been stoic so this was a revelation -- the doctors (and especially the nurses) were flabbergasted.

 

No one can judge pain levels except the person involved -- they need to be honest so the trainers can judge what can be "played through".

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For those that don't know, Baseball Prospectus keeps incredibly detailed injury information (injury type, dates, days/games missed, etc.) in the "Injury History" section of their player pages.  Sure beats using Google!  Here is Mauer's page, scroll down below the stats to find the injury history:

 

http://www.baseballprospectus.com/card/card.php?id=31759

 

I should add, access to this info is all free -- you don't have to be a subscriber to Prospectus.

Edited by spycake
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I've recent;y discovered that people have vastly differing tolerance for pain.  I shattered my upper arm, had 3 plates and a pin put in and literally felt no pain w/in 3 days of the surgery (i made them take me off morphine and didn't even need tyleno)l.

 

And except for some acid reflux, no pain while hospitalized for 2 weeks.

 

I have never been stoic so this was a revelation -- the doctors (and especially the nurses) were flabbergasted.

 

No one can judge pain levels except the person involved -- they need to be honest so the trainers can judge what can be "played through".

 

 

This might make you the Brett Favre of Twins Daily.

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For those that don't know, Baseball Prospectus keeps incredibly detailed injury information (injury type, dates, days/games missed, etc.) in the "Injury History" section of their player pages.  Sure beats using Google!  Here is Mauer's page, scroll down below the stats to find the injury history:

 

http://www.baseballprospectus.com/card/card.php?id=31759

 

I should add, access to this info is all free -- you don't have to be a subscriber to Prospectus.

 

It is hard to look at the list of injuries and conclude he is a tough it out kind of guy. 

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That is a true statement. 

 

But I don't think it is ridiculous or an exageration to say he has missed time with bruises, as the article suggested.  He in fact has missed them on at least four occasions.

 

I guess for me, Cal Ripken played almost 20 years without missing a game. Brett Favre went around ten years in a much more violent sport.  Guys like Cano play every day.  I am guessing a time or two existed when those guys had bruises, even really bad one's.  Those are extreme examples.  But I think as a starting point, some players gut it out through things that Joe Mauer does not.  I think that is a fair and reasonable conclusion.

 

Toward the end of Ripken's career people were calling him selfish for insisting he be in the lineup when he was clearly not helping the team. Tough,maybe, but that isn't always best.

 

 

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Toward the end of Ripken's career people were calling him selfish for insisting he be in the lineup when he was clearly not helping the team. Tough,maybe, but that isn't always best.

 

That may be, but even if he only had 15 years without  missing a game....that is a far cry.

Edited by tobi0040
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I wonder if being "injury-prone" is related to the aggressiveness with which one plays the game.  I honestly have no sense of whether Ripken went after fielding opportunities with reckless abandon or not.  Buxton may be an example of someone who plays too hard and takes risks.  He gets hurt frequently, it seems.  Don't we really want players who play balls to the wall?  Or not?

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A player needs  to own up to the responsibility to the team first if the team is going to be a winner.  If he is hurt..... he needs to let management know, and they can make a decision together.  To hide it and perform like Nolasco is just selfishness, and not being a team player.  If a player thinks otherwise, they need a drastic mental adjustment.

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On Mauer, I have really mixed feelings about him. He is somewhat unique as a catcher who has been by far the best hitter on the team. While having him behind the plate maximized his value, his bat was essential, so he was used frequently as a DH. Gardenhire protected his best player, seldom playing him behind the plate in day games after night games. Mauer never vocally protested when he wasn't in the lineup. I always had the feeling that Gardy was being ordered to protect Mauer by the front office and did so grudgingly. Beyond that, Joe has had more than his share of long recoveries from somewhat mysterious injuries, all the way back to his rookie year when he seemed to be a week away from playing all the way through the playoffs. I thought his recovery time for the oblique was on the long side and then Joe said that it still bothered him a bit. Maybe the guy just does heal slowly.

 

I understand that a Colabello would hide an injury. I also understand that no player wants to labeled "injury prone" or worse, "soft". Players think they can perform when they really shouldn't even try. Nolasco said that sometimes his injury was minor and sometimes he just couldn't get loose. Sounds suspicious, but I have a shoulder that ranged from merely bothersome to extremely painful, seemingly at random.

 

Other things to consider--If a team is in a pennant race, it makes sense for guys to play. If the race is over, why jeopardize one's career for a few meaningless at-bats or innings? If a player is in the walk year of a contract, they probably have to be dragged out of the lineup. If a guy has a batting average a tick below .300 with a week to go, he is in the lineup until he gets over the barrier.

 

I will settle for players reporting injuries when they happen and for them to know the difference between dinged and injured or perhaps hurt and injured. Players and the management staff need to communicate and figure out what is best for the player and the team.

Edited by stringer bell
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As far as Mauer is concerned, I believe that a fire does burn inside of him to win and to be a big part of the next winning Twins squad.

 

Sure, the guy isn't a ramped up on edge kind of dude and his injuries have been amplified since he signed his big contract coming off an unrepeatable season.

 

Saying that, I really don't know what to expect. Some people grow older a lot more quickly than others. I do believe that every person is genetically different and their physical ability clocks tick to a different time frame.

 

Mauer may be unlucky with ailments and he will break out next season with a .900 OPS season or he may be used up and a 40 year old in a 32 year old body. Who knows?

 

Maybe next season will give us the answer?

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