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The Bronx Is Hurting

With Aaron Judge now on the IL, the New York Yankees have 13 players out due to injury. It’s a virtually unprecedented stretch of bad injury luck for an MLB team.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s not every day that something truly shocking happens in baseball. There are thousands of games each year, each pitch photographed and videotaped and tracked on radar to the millimeter and microsecond, so there is really very little new under the sun. But what’s happened to the Yankees over the first three weeks of the season is truly shocking. This past weekend, right fielder Aaron Judge went on the IL with a strained oblique muscle—and I know this isn’t the point, but when a guy as big as Judge pulls a muscle, it has to register on the Richter scale—which gives the Yankees the following injury list, according to Baseball-Reference.

Injured Yankees Players

Player Position Injury Estimated Return
Player Position Injury Estimated Return
Jacoby Ellsbury OF Hip and foot Unknown
Miguel Andújar 3B Torn right labrum End of May
Dellin Betances RP Shoulder impingement Early June
Greg Bird 1B Torn plantar fascia Late May/Early June
Didi Gregorius SS Tommy John surgery Late July
Ben Heller RP Tommy John surgery July
Aaron Hicks OF Stiff back Early May
Aaron Judge OF Strained oblique Late May
Jordan Montgomery SP Tommy John surgery August
Gary Sánchez C Strained calf Wednesday
Luis Severino SP Shoulder and lat July
Giancarlo Stanton OF/DH Biceps strain Early May
Troy Tulowitzki IF Calf strain Early May

That’s 13 players long, which is a huge number of players to put on the injured list at one time, if not unprecedented. They range from players whose absence has been expected since last season, like Montgomery, to others like Hicks and Severino, for whom minor preseason injuries turned into extended layoffs. My Ringer colleague Ben Lindbergh, using data obtained from Baseball Injury Consultants, discovered that the most players one team has had on the IL at one time since 2002—the start of BIC’s IL records—was 16. That distinction is shared by the Dodgers and Athletics in mid-August 2016, and the Rangers in July 2014.

Teams With Most Players on IL Since 2002

Team Most Concurrent IL Players First Day
Team Most Concurrent IL Players First Day
Dodgers 16 8/14/2016
Athletics 16 8/18/2016
Rangers 16 7/2/2014
Angels 15 6/14/2018
Diamondbacks 14 7/12/2004
Red Sox 14 5/20/2012
Marlins 14 6/9/2013
Padres 14 7/4/2002
Blue Jays 14 8/23/2012
Nationals 14 8/10/2006
Braves 13 8/5/2016
Mets 13 8/3/2008
Yankees 13 4/21/2019
Phillies 13 8/20/2007
Rays 13 4/22/2015

The list of teams with at least 13 players on the IL at one time is an interesting mix of playoff clubs, underachievers, and bottom-feeders who never had a chance. The 2016 Dodgers went to the NLCS, while the 2008 Mets blew a lead late in the season and the 2012 Red Sox were coached by Bobby Valentine during his one horrific year in Boston. But the 2004 Diamondbacks lost 111 games despite getting an 8.4 bWAR season from Randy Johnson.

The Yankees stand out for two reasons. The first is that most of the teams with 13 or more players on the IL at once reached their injury peak near midseason, which makes sense—players’ bodies wear down as the season goes on. The Yankees are one of just two teams since 2002 to put 13 players on the IL in April.

The second reason is the quality of players they have on the shelf at once. Like Judge, their list of IL’d players is not only large, but quite productive. If the Yankees could put together the best 10-player lineup (eight position players, DH, starting pitcher), eight of those players, plus another member of their rotation (Montgomery) and their setup man (Betances), are currently on the IL.

Ben not only compiled a list of teams with the most injured players, but sorted that list by the number of FanGraphs WAR those injured players had produced the season before.

Teams With Most WAR on IL at One Time

Team Most WAR on DL on One Day Date
Team Most WAR on DL on One Day Date
Yankees 32.8 4/21/2019
Nationals 21.1 8/15/2017
Marlins 19 8/17/2015
Mets 18.6 7/27/2017
Angels 17.8 5/30/2017
Indians 16.4 4/9/2019
Red Sox 15.4 8/8/2015
Brewers 15.4 7/8/2018
Dodgers 14.6 6/13/2018
Pirates 13.9 6/30/2016
Mariners 13.9 5/10/2017

Before this year, the most previous-season fWAR any team had lost at one time since 2002 was 21.1. In August 2017, the Washington Nationals had Max Scherzer, Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Adam Eaton, Trea Turner, Jayson Werth, and a handful of other players all on the IL at the same time.

The current players on the Yankees’ IL list combined to produce 32.8 fWAR last year, which blows away the previous record. Since 2002, only five other teams—including this year’s Indians, from when Mike Clevinger went on the IL April 9 through Jason Kipnis’s activation on April 15—had even half as much previous-year production on the IL at one time.

The big question going forward is whether these injuries will keep the Yankees out of the playoffs. As is the case with almost every predictive baseball question at this point in the year, it’s too early to tell. But we do have recent templates for a worst-case scenario in New York.

Consider the 2014 Rangers. Texas made the playoffs every year from 2010 to 2012, then won 91 games and lost a one-game playoff for the wild card in 2013 before winning back-to-back division titles in 2015 and 2016. The one break in this string of success was 2014, when Rangers players spent a combined 2,116 days on the IL, the highest total since 2002. That’s more than five times the number of days the Pirates—2014’s least-injured team—lost that season. Prince Fielder played just 42 games, and at one point or another, the Rangers were without Yu Darvish, Derek Holland, Martín Pérez, Matt Harrison, and Neftalí Feliz—their four best starting pitchers and their closer.

Last year’s Angels went through something similar. After heading into the season expecting to contend and making good on that promise with a 13-3 start, the Angels started dropping like flies and soon fell out of the race. They too lost their closer (Keynan Middleton) and almost their entire starting rotation (Tyler Skaggs, Shohei Ohtani, Garrett Richards, JC Ramírez, Matt Shoemaker) plus Mike Trout, Andrelton Simmons, and Zack Cozart for varying periods of time. In mid-June, there were 15 Angels on the IL at once. By season’s end, they were 80-82, in fourth place.

Though some teams are better than others at injury prevention, muscle strains and broken bones aren’t contagious, though they might seem that way to a team that suffers enough of them. During spring training, I asked Angels outfielder Kole Calhoun about how injuries can snowball.

“When it rains, it pours, for sure,” Calhoun said. “When you get guys going down like we’ve had, not just last year but really the last two or three years, we’ve been hit hard with the injury bug, and it’s hurt our pitching staff. It’s just unfortunate because I think every year that we’ve come into camp we’ve put together a pretty dang good squad and injuries are the only thing that, in our mind, could have derailed a possibility of making a run.”

The good news, from a New York perspective, is that we know how previous teams have survived similar injury epidemics, and this year’s Yankees seem to fit the bill. If they end up weathering this run of bad health to make the playoffs, it will be because of their astounding depth.

Yankees management, unwisely, chose not to make serious overtures to this offseason’s top two free agents, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. But while signing another superstar might have mitigated the losses they’ve suffered so far, the Yankees have backfilled their roster with competent big league backups: Tulowitzki and second baseman DJ LeMahieu joined the club in the offseason to provide a stopgap for Gregorius, and on Monday, New York signed Brad Miller to a minor league contract. Miller is hardly a like-for-like replacement for any of the Yankees’ injured stars, but he can play all four infield positions, hit .248/.311/.413 last year, and posted a 30-homer season with the Rays as recently as 2016. Mike Tauchman, a 28-year-old career minor leaguer acquired from Colorado in a March trade, is slugging .538 in 15 games with the Yankees this season.

The Yankees are also benefiting from minor acquisitions they made last year. First baseman Luke Voit can’t do much but hit for power, but he hits for a lot of power, while Gio Urshela can’t hit a lick but he can stand on the left side of the infield and catch just about anything that comes his way.

And it’s not just backups and fringy veterans holding down the fort. The Yankees, who develop pitchers as well as anyone, have been able to plug Domingo Germán and Jonathan Loaisiga into the rotation to cover for Severino and Montgomery. Outfielder Clint Frazier is a 24-year-old former top-five pick who hasn’t staked a claim on regular big league playing time, but that’s more a function of lack of opportunity than lack of talent. Given the opportunity with Stanton on the sidelines, Frazier his hitting .324/.342/.632 with six home runs in 73 PA this year.

Teams that made playoff runs despite serious injury concerns have either had similar depth built in (the 2016 and 2018 Dodgers) or cultivated it by turning over the roster as the season went on (the 2007 Phillies, 2017 Nationals, and 2018 Brewers).

A lineup of Frazier, Voit, Tauchman, Urshela, and Miller can’t replace Gregorius, Judge, Stanton, and Hicks. What such a lineup can do is limit the bleeding in the short term until the starters get healthy. That’s what last year’s Angels and the 2014 Rangers lacked—they just got so banged up there was nobody even passable left to fill holes in the lineup or pitching staff. The Yankees are a pale imitation of what they were supposed to be when camp broke, but they’re still recognizable as a major-league-quality team.

Before the season, FanGraphs had the Yankees as favorites in the AL East, with a 96.8 percent chance of making the playoffs when ZiPS projections came out on March 19. Now, the Yankees are down to 83.4 percent to make the postseason, but they’re still favorites to win the division. Boston’s 6-13 start helped matters, but the Yankees have managed to eke out a 12-10 record even as one starter after another ended up in the hospital.

Sanchez will come back this week, with Hicks and Stanton to follow a week or two later, then Judge, Andújar, and Bird a month after that. If the current Yankees lineup can keep playing roughly .500 ball until then, the injuries that devastated their lineup this spring will end up being a bit of trivia and not the reason for a lost season. But after watching Hicks and Severino suffer multiple setbacks on their road to recovery, the Yankees know better than anyone that we can’t assume that these players will return to full strength when anticipated. Having backups playing .500 ball is a win in the short term, but the Yankees are already pushing the limits of what they can survive.

Thanks to Ben Lindbergh and Jessie Barbour for research assistance.