As Mike Trout motored into third base during the first inning on Monday night at Angel Stadium, he knew he was in big trouble.
“When I put my head down I thought I got hit by the ball, I thought I got hit by a line drive,” he recalled. “Then I got to the bag, and I said, ‘Man, something’s not right.’”
Trout felt a pop in his right calf and immediately left the game. An MRI on Tuesday revealed the expected results: Major League Baseball’s best player is out for potentially two months, making his presence at the annual All-Star Game, set for July 13 in Denver, questionable at best.
The Mid-Summer Classic, which was relocated from Atlanta in response to restrictive new voting laws passed by the Georgia legislature, can ill afford another setback.
Trout is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. MLB’s 30 teams have already used the injured list 402 times, costing a total of 9,575 days, $187 million of dead salary and counting as the season nears the 45-game mark.
Last year, during the COVID-abbreviated 60-game season, MLB teams suffered through 456 injured players, costing 13,313 days and $257.5 million. So, MLB is already ready to surpass that pace.
Trout, for one, has already cost the Angels $571,773 of his $37.1 million salary for this season because of three days on the IL. Many high-priced players haven’t lived up to their contracts because of injury, underperformance, or both.
The Angels already paid Anthony Rendon $3.7 million of his $28 million salary for two stints on the list because of a left groin strain and left knee contusion. Rendon is now back playing.
Baseball contracts are guaranteed whether a player is active or not, as the Angels also acknowledged when they released veteran Albert Pujols last week. The Angels are paying what remains on his $30 million contract this season, less the prorated portion of the minimum $570,500 the Dodgers assumed when they signed the aging slugger Monday.
Pujols’ problem was not an injury. He’s had a number of those over the years, costing Angels owner Arte Moreno millions, $6.9 million in 2018 alone, when he spent 44 days on the IL. At 41, Pujols suffered from an anemic bat. He’s hitting .198—100 points below his lifetime average of .298 in 21 seasons with the Angels and St. Louis Cardinals.
The Angels said Pujols wanted to play more regularly, but the right-handed hitter, with 667 career homers, 2,114 RBIs and 3,255 hits, said that wasn’t the case.
“My goal the last two years was never to be the everyday first baseman,” Pujols said. “There was a lot of things out there—‘He wanted more playing time, he wanted to play every day’—that never came out of my mouth. I was excited with the playing time I had there. But I also understand that they wanted to go in a different direction, and I respect that. There’s no hard feelings at all.”
But that’s another story.
This season’s rash of injuries has led baseball personnel to wonder what the problem is. Is it the COVID schedule, which caused a stop and start in training last season and a four-month break before a 60-game season was played under uncommon restrictions? Is it trying to stretch back to a 162-game season this year, a schedule insisted upon by the players, who wanted to be paid in full as they are striving toward 85% full vaccination?
Last year, the players lost 67% of their salaries, and their union has recently filed a $500 million grievance against the owners for not acting in better faith to play a longer 2020 season.
On MLB’s behalf, commissioner Rob Manfred said the owners lost $3 billion in revenue playing games in empty stadiums last season and will probably lose at least half as much playing a full season at limited capacity this year.
The Dodgers, for example, are restricted to about 15,000 fans at 56,000-seat Dodger Stadium and have listed 20 “sellouts” at that figure already this season. But those numbers alone show they are taking a bath.
The compilation of injuries doesn’t help matters at all.
“You have to look at the type of injuries, too,” said manager Joe Maddon, who’s had to deal with injuries to Rendon, Trout and 11 other Angels, plus the release of Pujols. “If it’s soft tissue injuries, things that are impacted by the game like sore arms, maybe it’s the schedule….
“But if you foul the ball off your leg or get hit by a pitch, that can happen at any time,” he said. “It has to be determined if some of the injuries can be attributed to the shorter season last year and the ramped up activities this year.”
Trout has his own theory, pointing at long periods on planes and buses as a real problem.
When he was hurt Monday night, he was slashing along at .333/.426/.624 with a 1.090 OPS, a 200 OPS-plus and eight home runs. Those numbers made him a sure American League All-Star for the ninth time and a top candidate for his fourth AL MVP.
Now, all of that is on hold while Trout is idle. His only previous serious injury occurred in 2017, when he tore ligaments in his left thumb sliding head-first into second base and spent 47 days on the IL after surgery, costing Moreno nearly $5 million of that season’s $20.1 million salary.
“It’s a long season, regardless,” Trout said. “We had the 60-game season last year, but the travel—in general everything—it’s a grind, especially being on the West Coast. We have the worst travel in the league. I’m no expert on this, but we flew back from Boston [Sunday], and we landed at LAX at 11 p.m. Then we had to drive another hour to get back to our stadium….
“We go back home and we’re either in a plane or a bus for nine hours, and then we have to get up to play a game the next day,” he said. “It’s a crazy schedule.”
The injuries are by no means limited to the Angels. In New York, the Mets already have had 14 players appear on the IL, costing 364 days and $11.5 million of dead costs, and the Yankees have used the list 12 times, costing 283 days and $10.5 million, including Giancarlo Stanton with his seemingly annual quad strain.
Stanton has already cost the Yankees $1.1 million of his $29 million salary for his seven days on the IL.
The Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks went into a four-game series at Dodger Stadium this week having used the IL a combined 35 times, costing 437 days and $16.8 million.
The Dodgers, who are playing without stars Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager and Dustin May, have a $255.5 million payroll and the depth to overcome 19 lost players, 436 lost days and $12 million. The D-backs, with a $94.6 million payroll, just can’t weather the loss of 15 players, 301 days and $4.8 million on the IL.
Their starting pitching is bare, and the Diamondbacks are scraping the minor leagues for replacements.
Arizona received good news, however, when it learned starter Madison Bumgarner’s sore groin, which limited him to just four innings on Monday, proved to be a minor injury. The veteran left-hander is slated to make his next start, manager Torey Lovullo said.
But starters Zac Gallen, Merrill Kelly, Luke Weaver and Taylor Widener are all out with a variety of shoulder, elbow and groin injuries.
In addition, the offense, sans four veteran players, has produced just four runs on nine hits in losing the first three games at L.A. Of course, facing Dodgers aces Walker Buehler, Julio Urias and Clayton Kershaw had a lot to do with it.
The D-backs had lost 10 of their last 13 games heading into the series finale.
“These are grinding times,” said Lovullo, echoing a sentiment heard throughout MLB. “Everyone sees what’s happening. There’s no doubt about it. But we’ve got to figure a way out of this. Nobody is going to feel sorry for us. We can’t feel sorry for ourselves. We’ve got to get it done.”