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How effectively are MLB teams utilizing depth against high volume of injuries?

No team has been exempt from MLB’s injury woes, but how are those who have been hit hardest coping in deploying their reserves?

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Minnesota Twins Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Hip impingements, shoulder issues, and an absolute slew of hamstring injuries. Depending on your personal level of clairvoyance, perhaps it was possible to see Major League Baseball’s massive influx of injuries ahead of time. Maybe it wasn’t. Regardless, there’s a clear battle occurring between individual clubs and the respective ability to maintain the health of their players. Some teams have had their early aspirations relatively halted. Others have managed to stave off struggles with the help of their depth. The purpose of this exercise is to examine the latter. Just don’t hurt yourself reading it.

No team has been exempt from battling injuries to a fairly significant degree. Even the division leaders. These are the teams leading each division, as of this writing, the number of players that have spent time on the Injured List, and their total days spent on said IL, via Spotrac:

  • Boston Red Sox (AL East): Nine; 215
  • Chicago White Sox (AL Central): 14; 490
  • Houston Astros (AL West): 24; 777
  • New York Mets (NL East): 22; 846
  • Chicago Cubs (NL Central): 23; 675
  • San Francisco Giants (NL West): 26; 916

Boston is kind of the lone exception in all of this, with the additional caveat of Cleveland (seven players, 242 games), but the league as a whole has had 539 players miss time on the IL to the tune of over 18,000 games lost (it’s also worth noting that Baseball Prospectus has a very helpful Injured List Ledger that provides a visual of the individual players; it is a ‘members only’ kind of deal, however).

Now in the interest of not painting with a broad brush here, not all injuries are created equal. While the White Sox sit toward the bottom of the league in volume, consider the players they’ve lost: Luis Robert, Eloy Jiménez, and Nick Madrigal all for long stretches. Michael Kopech, too. Tim Anderson for a time. Adam Engel finally returned this month, only to make his way back to the IL this week. This has left the Sox to rely on the likes of Jake Lamb (which, if you know remotely anything about me is a very significant and positive development), Danny Mendick, and Leury García all to varying results.

Their crosstown counterparts have had their own brushes with injury, as well. Joc Pederson, Ian Happ, Jake Marisnick, Jason Heyward, Matt Duffy, Nico Hoerner, and David Bote have all been IL’d at various points for the Chicago Cubs, with some of them still present on that list. And that’s just position players. The Los Angeles Dodgers, too. They’ve been without Cody Bellinger for most of the year, while Cory Seager and Max Muncy have missed time. From a fan standpoint, it’s robbed us of individual standouts for stretches, as well. Jazz Chisholm was out for a bit. Mike Trout is still out. Ke’Bryan Hayes. Byron Buxton. Ketel Marte. We could fill a dozen volumes at this point with the folks that have spent time on the shelf.

But the mark of a good team is that you can, at least to a certain extent, compensate for that. You have enough talent on your bench and in your system that you can fill gaps and barely skip a beat. The White Sox had been able to do it, prior to their last week of struggles. The Dodgers have been able to do it for the last several years. The Giants have certainly been able to do it. And on the list goes.

We’re at a point in the season where trade grumblings are beginning to grow, but nobody has hit the panic or subsequent trade button quite yet. So virtually all injuries have been met with responses via their own depth. The following are the five teams who have been hit hardest, both in terms of volume of players on the IL and total days lost (via Spotrac), as well as a brief exploration of how their depth is performing in the wake of it all.

Interestingly enough, though, the five teams listed below that have experienced the direst of injury circumstances in comparison with their fellow Major League clubs are all at varying stages of playoff contention. San Francisco and New York both lead their division, while San Diego and Tampa Bay are right in the mix for the top spot. Even Toronto shouldn’t be overlooked. Bear in mind that the numbers are cumulative, taking into account the entire year.

5. New York Mets (22 players; 846 days)

The Mets lead the National League East despite Noah Syndergaard and Carlos Carrasco not throwing a pitch yet, as well as both Jacob deGrom (who was both IL’d at one point and left consecutive starts early) and Taijuan Walker missing time. Joey Lucchesi is now set to undergo Tommy John Surgery. They’ve also got a handful of relievers either still out or missing stretches to date. And that’s just in the pitching staff. It doesn’t take into account Jeff McNeil, Michael Conforto, and Brandon Nimmo all missing more than a month, with Pete Alonso spending his own stretch on the IL. At present date, the Mets trail only the Padres in their current IL presence, with 13 players residing there.

The Mets have used 13 different starting pitchers this season. Yet their starting staff ranks second in fWAR (8.8), leads the league in ERA (2.64), FIP (3.11), and is fifth in BB/9 (2.58). Obviously, some of that is aided by deGrom’s historic year, and the rest is likely a product of strong years from Marcus Stroman and Taijuan Walker. But with so many injuries to the starting staff, they’ve had to roll out relievers in a starting role. Tommy Hunter has a start. Miguel Castro has two. Robert Gsellman made one before his own injury. So while they’ve held it down in the face of such significant injury, legitimate rotation depth will have to be a priority moving forward.

Especially because in the bullpen, they’ve been fairly fortunate. Trevor May, Edwin Díaz, Aaron Loup, Jeurys Familia, and Castro have all maintained health. Seth Lugo is healthy now. Dellin Betances is on his way. So they have the health here and haven’t had to rely on the depth quite as much beyond what would be expected.

From a position player standpoint, the Mets have relied on the likes of predominantly José Peraza at second, Jonathan Villar at third, and Billy McKinney in right field. Others—Khalil Lee, Cameron Maybin, Brandon Drury, etc.—have been in for a spell, but considering those three are tasked with replacing McNeil, Conforto, and, to maybe a lesser extent, J.D. Davis, it’s a fairly large undertaking. I would be remiss if I left out Luis Guillorme as well.

Going in order, Peraza has primarily led the charge on the defensive side. While he hasn’t provided much on offense (and has run into some horrible luck at a .193 BABIP), his Outs Above Average trails only Tommy Edman (six), and he’s added eight percent to his success rate, which is tied for Nico Hoerner for the highest among second sackers. Villar is actually tied with Francisco Lindor atop the team’s fWAR leaderboard (0.9), providing fairly stable offense (110 wRC+) and probably better defense than what the team would be getting out of Davis at the hot corner. McKinney has actually been a really strong performer for the team since he arrived from Milwaukee (128 wRC+ and a .254 ISO), while Guillorme has been an absolute menace for opposing pitchers with a walk rate over 22 percent.

Given—and I cannot state this enough—that it’s the Mets, this had the ability to go sideways very quickly. But their pitching depth has survived and their bench has come through in perhaps unexpected ways. In the gauntlet that is the NL East, they’ve managed to stay afloat despite their myriad injuries.

4. Tampa Bay Rays (22 players; 890 days)

The Rays have actually gotten a little bit healthier, falling into the middle-of-the-pack in their current IL presence (nine). But this is just standard operating procedure for them at this point. Plug and play. Most notable is the fact that the majority of their injuries have come on the mound. But in typical Tampa fashion (and I say this not in necessarily an admirable manner given some of the overarching issues with that “fashion”) they’ve managed.

The Rays have used 27 different pitchers so far this season, with 11 of those starting games at one point or another. Tampa still ranks eighth in pitcher fWAR (8.7), seventh in ERA (3.45), and fifth in FIP (3.64). While their strikeout rate isn’t quite elite (9.39/9), their walk rate is second-best in the bigs (2.68). They’re obviously going to have to compensate for a much larger recent loss in Tyler Glasnow, but the Rays being able to scrounge up any arm they can find and make it work isn’t surprising at this point.

On the position side, they’ve lost Ji-Man Choi for almost two months, Kevin Kiermaier for three weeks, as well as a couple of others (Francisco Mejía and Brett Phillips) for shorter spells. Again, given how they typically manage their roster, the Rays have relied more on versatility than anything. Joey Wendle (2.1 fWAR) has played 54 games at third, but also 16 at shortstop. Yandy Díaz (0.8 fWAR) has appeared in 50 games at first and 18 at third. Munster native (I’d like to take this opportunity to shout out some of my family in NW Indiana) Mike Brosseau has logged 10 games at first, 21 at second, and 22 at third, as well as a pair of appearances on either outfield corner.

This is a rather unique situation, as it’s not so much replacing guys rather than repositioning them. And they’ve been relatively okay on the position player front to begin with. Plus, Wander Franco’s arrival could mean his entrenchment somewhere on the infield (third base, probably) and allow that versatility to continue to be plentiful in Tampa.

3. Toronto Blue Jays (28 players; 899 days)

A massive lingering question about the Jays coming into the season was their pitching. And the health of the staff has done them no favors here. Kirby Yates is out for the year after undergoing Tommy John, Robbie Ray missed a stretch, Nate Pearson is back on the IL after missing 38 days earlier this year, and Julian Merryweather looked primed to break out before an oblique injury sent him to the IL in April. Tyler Chatwood, Jordan Romano, Ryan Borucki, and Rafael Dolis have missed stretches as well. It’s just...messy. Of the 28 players who have hit the IL, 18 have been pitchers, totaling 505 of the 899 days missed. Toronto has had 27 players appear on the mound, with a baker’s dozen of them starting at least a game.

It’s all panned out kind of you’d expect. In matters of fWAR, the Blue Jays’ 2.6 as a staff ranks 28th in the league, and they’re middle-of-the-pack in virtually everything else. Thirteen of the 27 pitchers that have appeared have an ERA over 5.00 and 11 of them have provided negative fWAR values. I suppose the difference here, as opposed to some of the other teams on this list, is that the staff that was expected to start the year wasn’t that strong to begin with, having fallen into much of the same areas regarding ranking as they did in 2020. So while it’s unfortunate that nobody that fits the bill as “depth” has really been able to latch onto an opportunity, they’re also kind of filling in the same way as anybody they’re replacing.

On the offensive side, the volume of injury isn’t there, but the significance is. George Springer has appeared in five games. Cavan Biggio missed almost three weeks. Same with Teoscar Hernández. That’s why Santiago Espinal and Joe Panik have combined for 213 plate appearances. Neither has added a lot to the lineup, with Espinal coming in at a wRC+ of 93 and an ISO of .078 (but also playing solid defense at primarily third base) and Panik contributing figures of 85 and .112 there.

The Jays aren’t a particularly deep team in any respect. Offensively, they’re fine and buoyed by the likes of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, and Marcus Semien. Beyond a couple of their Tier 2 guys, though, any significant injury could bounce them entirely. And the pitching staff is just chaotic. But in a year in which they were kind of expected to be on the fringes of contention anyway, how much of an upgrade should we really expect?

2. San Francisco Giants (26 players; 916 days)

At one point or another, the Giants have been without Alex Wood, Johnny Cueto, and Logan Webb from their starting rotation. But they’ve made it work, without having to overly rely on their depth. Outside of their starting five that includes that trio, Kevin Gausman, and Anthony DeSclafani, they’ve only needed to cover 12 total starts, and six of those were taken by Aaron Sanchez (who himself ended up on the IL). Actually, in general, San Francisco’s staff has managed to avoid major injury. Aside from a few shorter IL stints—José Álvarez, Jarlin García, and Caleb Baragar—much of the cycling has been typical of a big-league bullpen. Reyes Moronta stands as the only long-term injury here. In comparison to some of the other contending squads, they’ve been fortunate here.

And largely anyone they’ve plugged in has been very good, as they sit in the top five of virtually every pitching category. It certainly helps when you’re putting the ball on the ground at a high rate (47.5 percent leads the league), not giving up hard contact (29.4 percent is also the best in the league), and performing at a top 10 defensive level.

That the players they’ve had to place behind the staff are playing well enough to continue to support their pitchers is impressive, given the high rate of injuries there. They’ve lost Mike Yastrzemski to the IL twice, Alex Dickerson twice, and Brandon Belt once (potentially twice), with Tommy La Stella and Evan Longoria still residing on the list. Donovan Solano and Wilmer Flores have also missed a healthy dose of time with calf and hamstring issues, respectively.

As such, they’ve had to rely heavily on the likes of Flores (186 PA), Austin Slater (170 PA) Mauricio Dubón (163 PA), Mike Tauchman (157 PA), LaMonte Wade Jr. (94 PA), and Jason Vosler (58 PA), among others. Every single one of those players has been at least replacement level by fWAR. Some of them (Tauchman, Slater) are aided by their defense. Others (Wade, Flores, Darin Ruf) have provided above-average offense by way of wRC+. Their ability to get at least average performance from their depth is why they’ve managed to remain atop the extremely competitive NL West.

This shouldn’t be a surprise, though. The Giants have been a bastion of organizational stability for however many years now. If they can get meaningful contributions from Darin Ruf in the year 2021, it really tells you all you need to know.

1. San Diego Padres (23 players; 1,134 days)

I wrote recently on the Padres’ success despite myriad injuries to the likes of Fernando Tatís Jr., Trent Grisham, and Austin Nola (and Covid-IL stints for Wil Myers and Eric Hosmer) only for the Dads to briefly fall flat on their face for a stretch (and since recover with a seven-game win streak that included a sweep of the Dodgers). In that, though, I noted the versatility, in addition to their depth, as a reason for their success. They bear some resemblance to the Rays there, at least as far as position players go.

Ha-Seong Kim and Jurickson Profar would be garnering playing time in any context, given their ability to move around the diamond. But how much would Tucupita Marcano, Jorge Mateo, Brian O’Grady, Webster Rivas, Patrick Kivlehan, John Andreoli, or Ivan Castillo? Likely not unless the Padres have had the injury issues that they have. Especially because the results haven’t been terrific.

Mateo (80 PA), Marcano (50 PA), O’Grady (44 PA), and Rivas (36 PA) are the only ones that have garnered remotely meaningful playing time. Both Mateo and O’Grady have been exactly at replacement level in the small sample, while Rivas has been very slightly above (0.1) and Marcano slightly below (-0.3). Moving forward, Mateo is likely the only one who could end up seeing consistent time at this level given his speed and versatility. Even healthy, though, the bench isn’t particularly inspiring on the offensive side. Both Profar (74 wRC+, .058 ISO) and Kim (80 wRC+, .154 ISO) have struggled with the bat. Kim at least has excellent defense working in his favor.

As potent as the Padres’ lineup is when healthy, continuing to fight off the injury bug could prove difficult in the matter of run production, given what we’ve seen from the alternatives to date.

But it’s really the pitching that we can attribute to the over 1,000 games that have been lost by San Diego thus far. Mike Clevinger, Adrián Morejón, Michel Báez, José Castillo, and Keone Kela are all Tommy John victims. Dinelson Lamet has missed time twice. Matt Strahm has yet to pitch in a game this season. Dan Altavilla and Taylor Williams have been unavailable virtually the entire year. Chris Paddack has missed time. So has Pierce Johnson. Drew Pomeranz is still out. That’s an obscene list for a team that was already facing questions as to how well their pitching would hold up in a division race with the Dodgers, let alone what San Francisco has turned in.

The staff has held up surprisingly well, though. They’re eighth in pitching fWAR (9.0) while featuring the league’s best cumulative ERA (3.09) and seventh in FIP (3.70). They also feature the league’s third-highest K/9 (10.19) and rank eighth in BB/9 (3.08). The starting staff has largely held up, with Yu Darvish, Blake Snell (to a lesser extent), and Joe Musgrove anchoring the group. Meanwhile, Chris Paddack is showing improvement. Ryan Weathers has filled in admirably, while Lamet has been very good when healthy. So the starting group is less of a concern when it comes to depth.

More important is the fact that they have the league’s second-best bullpen ERA (2.80) and ninth-best FIP (3.84). Their 46.3 GB% ranks sixth in the league, while also sitting in the top 10 in both K/9 (9.95) and BB/9 (3.28). They’re giving up hard contact at a fairly decent rate (31.7), but with that GB rate, a high CSW% (30.0 percent tops the league), and even an average contact rate, they’ve obviously survived.

So the depth here—by which I mean names like Pierce Johnson (when healthy), Nabil Crismatt, Miguel Díaz, Nick Ramirez, and Aaron Northcraft, among others—has largely succeeded. While they still have a few anchor pieces in there—Emilio Pagán, Mark Melancon, Craig Stammen, and Tim Hill—the fact that they’ve been able to perform in the upper tier of pitching staffs with such a high volume of arms speaks much more to their ability to compensate for injuries on the pitching side than for those in the field.

As a pessimist, things likely aren’t going to get any easier on the injury front moving forward. The longer this season goes, the more trouble teams could run into. Pitcher workloads are already being managed carefully, but the sheer number of lower-body, muscular injuries for position players especially are highly disconcerting. In any case, there are clearly teams that are managing even without some of their starting lineup or some key arms. Others haven’t been quite as fortunate. It’s going to impact how teams hold together as we head into the second half of the season, and it’s especially going to impact the moves we see made over the next couple of months.

*Games played by position via Baseball Reference
**League rankings via FanGraphs

Randy Holt is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @RandyHolt42.