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The Wisdom And Folly Of Playing Hurt

Some athletes will laugh and tell you, "If I didn't play hurt, I wouldn't play at all." Not only are injuries part of the game, but grinding it out when you're at less than 100% -- maybe quite a bit less -- is also part of the game.

"Not the wrist, Gags, not the wrist!"
"Not the wrist, Gags, not the wrist!"
Jason Miller

At the same time, when you see that a player is 4 for his last 47 or suddenly hitting singles to left field instead of HRs to right, a shrewd question is often, "What injury is he playing through?" Or "What is he hiding?" And by hiding I mean either from the press or sometimes also from his own manager and trainers.

Even after the fact it's often difficult to know how much injuries played a part in a player's poor performance, because revisionist history can be used to rationalize away the past. For example, Josh Reddick has recently admitted how much his wrist bothered him swinging last year, especially on fastballs. He has suggested that at times in 2013, he waited for something offspeed hoping the pitcher would speed up his bat and bail him out.

Was Reddick's bad wrist a singular culprit in sapping his power from a HR every 19 ABs in 2012 to a HR every 32 ABs in 2013? Or was it a combination of Reddick's relatively poor plate discipline, pitchers figuring him out and pitching him hard away, and a personality that tends to "try too hard" as things unravel only to make matters worse?

After all, in playing through an injury Reddick was in good company. Ask 100 players whose 2013 seasons ranged from great to awful and you'll hear at least 98 of them recite a laundry list of times they felt bad but played anyway. You just wonder how often it would have prudent for a player to sit and truly heal rather than play and perform at 80% health. The latter happens a lot, sure -- so much so that it is considered cause for nothing more than a shrug of the shoulders and a "that's baseball" from the slightly-hobbled player.

I do believe that more slumps are "playing at 80%" related than we think. Major league baseball is just too competitive and cut-throat to be forgiving to players operating at anything but their best. Can't turn on the inside pitch right now? Great, that's exactly where we're going to spot the ball. Can't snap off the curve right now? Then throw the fastball because I'm sitting on it.

As A.J. Griffin pitched through elbow pain last week, the only ones privy to that information were Griffin and the radar gun. As I recall the story, when asked if he was feeling ok by the A's coaching and training staff, Griffin said yes. Asked again, he once again confirmed his health. Asked again, he finally came clean. Careers have been ruined by pitchers throwing hurt as they insisted they felt fine (ask Dan Meyer). Even as you play it cool to the opposition and to the media, why not at least be open to your own trainers? Pride? Machismo? Wishful thinking? Fear?

It happens a lot. Teams sometimes have to trust the radar gun more than their own player's words, because of the two only the radar gun doesn't lie. Have players not learned from their many, many fallen predecessors? Apparently not.

So what you have is a culture where it is expected that players will play through myriad injuries, often when they are far from 100%, and where in fact sometimes they really have to, and even should. And where sometimes by doing so they simply put up terrible numbers and/or even jeopardize their longer-term health. A pitcher can't shut it down every time his arm is sore -- because ask any pitcher and they will explain that their arm is pretty much sore at times throughout every healthy season. A position player can't stop swinging or running every time his wrist or hamstring is sore, either, for pretty much the same reasons.

It's a delicate balance, to be sure. The biggest question I have is: Might the balance off such that instead of missing too much time, players are too prone to playing when they're just healthy enough to take the field but not healthy enough to perform well?