No one noticed at the time, but the Pittsburgh Pirates made history when they placed Starling Marté on the 15-day disabled list last October 1, retroactive to September 28. Marté’s complaint — back stiffness — was mundane, but the result wound up being anything but: the sport’s last stint on the 15-day DL, an MLB staple for 50 years.
Two months later, Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement. Among the document’s many small tweaks to the game was a different DL length: Instead of setting the minimum disabled-list stay for a non-concussion injury at 15 days, the new DL lowered the minimum to 10 days for the first time since the old 10-day DL was eliminated in 1984. The 15-day DL was dead; long live the 10-day DL.
The 10-day DL was designed to protect players and provide teams with greater flexibility when it came to fielding full rosters. Just as the 2011 introduction of the 7-day DL stint for concussions had removed most of the pressure for players to return too soon from serious brain injuries, so the 10-day DL would reduce the incentive for teams to play short-handed or for players to pretend they were healthy, play at less than full strength, and risk exacerbating a minor injury that might heal completely in 10 inactive days.
Most observers greeted the news as a positive; no longer would teams in today’s big-bullpen era have to play with even tinier benches because a hitter had a hamstring strain that would be better in, say, eight days, long enough to handicap his club for a week’s worth of games but not necessarily long enough to make it worth losing him for two weeks’ worth of DL time. But there was some concern that the lower barrier to the DL would lead to an increase in DL stints for phantom injuries as a means of skirting roster restrictions.
Although most players in the midst of a taxing six-month season could be said to be suffering from some minor ailment, not every player who’s added to the DL is "injured" in the strictest sense of the word. On an episode of the MLB.com Statcast Podcast last July, Dodgers starter Ross Stripling admitted to having spent a month on the DL while healthy with what was termed "lower body fatigue." After prefacing his confession with "I’m not even really sure what I’m technically allowed to say," Stripling disclosed: "That was nothing but an inning limit. Nothing was hurt. They had to put me on the DL, and I guess a leg injury looks better than an arm injury." As many people pointed out in the wake of the CBA news, the 10-day DL could allow a team with an upcoming off day to disable its fifth starter, skip that starter’s slot or push its other starters back, and gain a bullpen arm in all of the games in which that starter wouldn’t have appeared anyway. "On the surface, it looks like it could be manipulated," Red Sox manager John Farrell said in March.
Naturally, one would expect shorter DL stints to lead to more DL stints. Since we’re almost a month into the restored 10-day DL’s first season, we can take a preliminary look at how this year’s DL behavior has changed (if at all).
Unlike the end of the 15-day DL era, we can’t trace the beginning of the 10-day DL era to a single transaction: This year, according to MLB spokesman Mike Teevan, 79 players broke in the 10-day DL simultaneously with season-opening injuries, going on the inactive list effective March 30. Although injuries don’t occur at exactly the same rate in every season, which makes year-to-year DL usage comparisons imprecise, 158 players had been placed on the 10-day DL through this April 25; through the same date last season, 140 players had been placed on the 15-day DL. (Wednesday brought at least five more 10-day additions, including the Mariners’ Mitch Haniger and Félix Hernández.) Placements on the 60-day DL were also up slightly in that time frame, from 22 last year to 26 this year. According to data provided by athletic trainer Corey Dawkins, who keeps a comprehensive injury database at Baseball Injury Consultants, players who’ve been activated from the 10-day DL thus far have spent an average of 14.6 days out of action.
In other words, DL activity has increased, albeit not by so much that the sport has functioned in a dramatically different way. "We continue to have our Medical Director, Dr. Gary Green, review disabled list placements to ensure that they are appropriate," Teevan says via email. "That was the case before the change to the 10-day DL and remains so now. Clubs are required to submit a standard form of diagnosis to our office. Dr. Green routinely communicates with club medical staff and reviews any factors that [are] part of an injury situation." A vice president of one AL team confirms Teevan’s statement, telling me via email that "documentation is the same and MLB has always checked in if they had any questions about circumstances."
Of course, that suggests that if phantom injuries were feasible before, it’s still possible for teams to pull a Stripling. But none of the executives I surveyed via email told me that they’d noticed such shenanigans becoming more common. Nor would they necessarily mind if they did, since that tactic would be available to all teams. "It’s not uncommon for a player to have a slight ‘strain’ or ‘inflammation’ that miraculously improves after one skipped start," says one NL executive. "But I don’t think that’s a bad thing — since all teams have the same opportunity to use the DL in this fashion, I don’t think any teams will complain [about] everyone having a little more roster flexibility." On the whole, the responses suggested that the 10-day DL is having the intended effect. "The 10-day DL is being used about as expected, not significantly more use but some increased flexibility that should help both players and clubs," one NL GM says.
One common theme to the answers I received, though, is that it might be too soon to assess the 10-day DL’s long-term impact. "I think everyone is still feeling all of this out," says one high-level AL executive. Although no one is unaware of the 10-day DL’s implications, some teams have been slow to adjust their transaction behavior accordingly. The perennially injury-challenged Mets, who played shorthanded last season when Yoenis Céspedes and Juan Lagares were active but unavailable (and were once forced by bench problems to use pitcher Jacob deGrom as a ninth-inning pinch hitter with the bases loaded), have been at it again this year, causing consternation with their apparent reluctance to DL all of their wounded during a recent injury stack. But old habits may already be breaking; through April 12, teams were only two stints ahead of last year’s pace, but from April 13–25, the rates diverged, with 45 this year compared to 29 last year.
There’s another reason it’s probably too soon to pass judgement on the 10-day DL: If we do see stretching of what constitutes an "injury," some of it will likely be done in the name of preventing fatigue. "Fatigue" needn’t be a BS justification for a DL stint; as former Dodgers head athletic trainer and VP of medical services Stan Conte says, "Many people think the 10-day DL will be [used] to rest players with the idea that this will reduce injuries overall, since many of us think fatigue is a cause of injuries. This is especially [true] for starting pitchers." (According to data from the Baseball Prospectus Transaction Browser, 61.3 percent of the players on the 10-day DL this year have been pitchers; 56.0 percent of players who spent any time on the DL last year were pitchers.)
However, since we haven’t hit May yet, it’s too soon for fatigue to be a big problem (or a convincing fake one). "So far, so good," says one former front-office executive. "Will be interesting to see if there are abuses when [the] schedule gets heavy in [the] summer months." The NL executive adds, "I do think as the season progresses, there may be a more liberal use of the DL to skip a start for a pitcher without having to option him." (Players who are out of minor-league options can’t be sent to the minors without being exposed to outright waivers — or, if they’ve accrued enough service time, without giving their consent.) Conte says that he’ll be "looking for those starting pitchers that only spend 10 days on during the middle of the season to see if the rest theory pans out."
It’s likely, though, that DL use won’t get out of control, if only because there’s a built-in cost for teams that want to treat a fifth starter’s roster spot as a parking spot for a carousel of fungible call-ups. Although the players may have ceded some ground in the latest round of CBA talks, the 10-day DL was a win because it effectively expanded rosters, creating more jobs without technically adding a 26th man. As the AL vice president points out, players on the DL continue to receive the same salary, but promoted players make much more in the majors than they do in the minors. And as one assistant GM notes, using the 10-day DL extensively "probably gets the players more total service days and also more total players with [major league] stints." In a world where the Marlins are supposedly selling for $1.3 billion, that’s a meaningless line item for teams, especially since keeping players healthy has value, too. But baseball’s billionaire owners have never been eager to offer minor leaguers a raise.
Through the first few weeks of its life, the 10-day DL remains something of a cipher. But any fears that unintended consequences could undo the good it does seem unfounded so far.