Injuries cost Major League Baseball teams millions of dollars, wins, their place in the standings and – for one team – a wild-card play-off spot. Putting resources and intent into reversing the trend of the last few years could improve player health, team performance and the front office’s bottom line.
Major League Baseball teams lost an average of 961 man-games due to injuries in 2016. That is the equivalent of nearly 6 players on the payroll but off the field for an entire season. The average player salary in the MLB is just over $4 million. Therefore, teams lost an average of $26 million last year in salaries alone paying injured players who could not play.
Data from Man-Games Lost shows that 24 of Major League Baseball’s 30 teams lost wins above replacement (Lost-WAR) due to injuries. The remaining six teams had a negative Lost-WAR, indicating that they won more games than they would have if those injured players were healthy and available to play.
The 24 teams with a positive Lost-WAR won on average 3.6 fewer games than they otherwise could have. Their Lost-WAR ranged from 0.3 to 11.7, with the Los Angeles Angels, Arizona Diamondbacks, San Diego Padres, St. Louis Cardinals and Texas Rangers paying the highest price in wins.
With the added wins the top five teams (combining the American and National Leagues) would remain the same, but in a different order. Texas’ 11 extra wins would propel them into first place, followed by the Washington Nationals, Chicago Cubs (one of the teams with a negative Lost-WAR: -5.1), Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians.
The St. Louis Cardinals would have the biggest jump up the combined league standings as a result of their Lost-WAR. The Cardinals would improve seven places, from 13th to 6th.
More importantly, though, the added wins would have advanced them to the post-season in 2016. The Cardinals finished one win behind the San Francisco Giants and New York Mets for the National League wild card. With a Lost-WAR of 5.9, St. Louis could have had room to spare over both clubs to secure their playoff berth.
Combining the Man-Games Lost data with salary data from Sporting Intelligence reveals how much more efficiently teams could win if not for the expense of injured players. American League champions Cleveland paid just under $850,000 in salary per win. This was the least of any MLB team, and they accomplished this feat with the fourth-lowest average salary.
At the other end of the scale – unsurprisingly – were the New York Yankees. They had the highest payroll and paid three times as much per win as Cleveland: $2.65 million.
For the 24 teams with a positive Lost-WAR, a win costs an average of 4% more due to those man-games lost to injury. The Angels, Diamondbacks, Padres, Cardinals and Colorado Rockies could accrue the most savings by reducing their Lost-WAR. The first three of those teams pay a premium of over 10% on the cost of each win due to Lost-WAR.
There are no significant correlations between regular season finish and man-games lost across the entire league. Nor was there an apparent relationship between man-games lost and average salary. Overall, teams with high payroll or that are playoff-bound are no better at keeping their players healthy and available than teams on a relative shoestring, or that trail division leaders by double digits. However, teams that do not qualify for the playoffs appear to suffer more due to man-games lost than those in the post-season.
The trend over the last five seasons is not encouraging, either. Major League Baseball lost more man-games due to injury in 2016 than in any season since 2013 (the extent of our review). Last season had the highest single-club number of man-games lost: 1,964, by the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The 2015 and 2016 seasons also had the fewest number of clubs (3) with under 500 man-games lost. In each of the preceding three seasons, at least 12 clubs had fewer than 500 man-games lost. Likewise, in each of these two seasons 13 clubs lost more than 1000 man-games due to injury. Only one club – Texas Rangers – did in 2014, and four in each of 2013 and 2012.
All teams are interested in winning games and saving money. A small reduction in man-games lost to injury could have a noticeable effect in a club’s finances, record and place in the standings.
Some injuries are inevitable and unavoidable. However, the wide range of man-games lost in Major League Baseball shows that most clubs can still improve their injury reduction and mitigation protocols.