Each year, hundreds of players from the MLB and other foreign leagues depart from their clubs during spring training to participate in the World Baseball Classic. As a tournament that takes place every four years, the players surely see it as an incredible opportunity to represent their country and play alongside other world-class caliber players from the same nation.
However, their MLB teams simply see it as a month where they don’t have full control over their players, and as a high-intensity environment ripe with opportunity for injury. Spring Training is a time for players to ease back into competitive play. Hitters play a handful of innings each day before minor leaguers replace them, and pitchers rarely exhibit maximum effort in their shortened spring stints.
On the other hand, in the most recent edition of the World Baseball Classic, we’ve already seen pitchers hit velocity marks they’ve never come close to, and relievers be pushed with 2-inning outings and high-leverage appearances on back-to-back days.
The question that is in the mind of every fan and every employee of a major league franchise remains: how big of a risk is participating in the WBC?
To begin to answer this question, we first must acknowledge that we’re working with a unique group of participating players. In order to be selected to compete in the WBC, a player likely meets these two pieces of criteria:
1.Player ended previous season in full health
2.Player has demonstrated a level of performance that justifies selection to national team
These two simple pieces of criteria rule out a significant portion of MLB players. In the 2016 MLB season, there were 31,662 days lost to the disabled list, and that statistic has been steadily rising for the last ten years (Conte Analytics).
The first piece of criteria is the most important for our purposes, as it implies that our sample of players is, generally speaking, healthier than any other random sample of MLB players. That being said, we can’t simply compare players who participated in the WBC to those who didn’t. Instead, we must compare these WBC players against themselves.
The crucial year for injury evaluations is the one immediately succeeding the WBC tournament. Any substantial conclusions that we come to must find that there is a spike in injuries in this season compared to other seasons. To determine this, we chose to compare a player’s “WBC Season” to the 3 years preceding their “WBC Season” and the 3 years succeeding their “WBC Season.”
As an example, Robinson Cano was a participant (and the MVP) in the 2013 WBC. For Cano, we gathered data on his injury history in the 3 years preceding 2013 (2010-2012), 2013 itself, and the 3 years succeeding 2013 (2014-2016). While it’s nearly impossible to take into account every bump and bruise a player sustained each season, tracking a player’s time spent on the DL is easily achievable through prosportstransactions.com.
It is important to note that we did consider the general effects of aging on a player’s likelihood of being injured. This assumption would result in increased DL days post-WBC and decreased DL days pre-WBC. In our research, we operated under the belief that these pre-WBC “healthier” days would be offset by a player’s post-WBC “less healthy” days for a number comparable to the WBC season on its own.
With this strategy in mind, we took to mass data collection for each player who appeared in both the WBC and the MLB that season. We quickly ran into some injuries that surely should not be included in our research, later coined by us as “freak” injuries. An injury would be classified as “freak” if the incident was unrelated to the usual “wear and tear” of baseball. Examples include concussions, bone breaks/fractures, and torn ACLs.
Last, we compared the average “WBC Season DL Days” to an average of the “Non-WBC Season DL Days,” which was calculated as shown below.
Based on that data, the notion that the WBC is just another way for players to get injured holds up. In 2 of the 3 tournaments, the amount of time spent on the DL during a season where the player played in the WBC was greater than the non-WBC season, and overall, more players spent time on the DL during the WBC season than they did in a non-WBC season across all 3 tournaments. We also found that the extra workload affects pitchers more than it does hitters. In the inaugural tournament, participation from current major league players was at its highest, due to the enthusiasm of the players representing their home countries. The 2006 WBC was the outlier of the group since hitters and pitchers spent less time on the DL during the 2006 regular season, with hitters especially being more healthier than average. The DL days for the pitchers were close to even.