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Will Freeman’s wrist injury linger?

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We already know that Freddie Freeman is going to miss eight to twelve weeks with his wrist injury. The real question: will this affect his productivity going forward?

Crib Point Magpies v Sorrento Sharks Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images

If you asked me what the saddest part of Freddie Freeman’s wrist fracture is, I’d be torn between two thoughts. First, it’s not having the joy of watching Freeman maul baseballs every day for the next two or three months. That’s a huge loss. Second, though, it’s that this may have been Freeman’s career year, and the wrist injury has put a serious dent in his ability to have an MVP-caliber, top-all-time season. These are both losses, to be sure, but they’re unlikely to linger in my mind: Freeman will return (and it will be awesome), and each Opening Day brings another chance for him to wage another campaign against National League pitching and bring it to its knees.

But, if you asked me what else perturbs me about his injury, beyond just him being absent for a big chunk of the 2017 season, I’d say that the possibility that the ailment lingers and saps his effectiveness on a going-forward basis looms pretty large. The conventional wisdom is that many hand and wrist injuries are tricky, because they can negatively impact a hitter’s power production when he returns to the lineup. Given that his increased slugging output was a big reason why Freeman’s stats resembled a Beast Mode cheat in a videogame, that is indeed somewhat concerning.

I am, by no means, a doctor, and I can’t see the future, so I have no way of knowing whether the wrist injury will affect Freeman, at all, when he’s over it and once again in the Atlanta lineup. But, what I can do is look at similar wrist injuries in recent history, and attempt to discern what’s happened to player production as a result of those injuries.


Methodology

To do this, I used the same injury database from Baseball Heat Maps that I drew upon when examining the Braves’ injury history more broadly. This dataset covers the 2010-2016 period, and provides a short description of injuries suffered. Specifically, I found:

  • 100 different wrist injuries requiring a Disabled List stint for a position player from 2010 through 2016.
  • Of these, I excluded any injuries that weren’t similar to Freeman’s wrist fracture — all sprains, strains, soreness, contusions, inflammation, and so on. That left just 28 instances, down from 100, which is actually a fairly low, manageable number.
  • From there, I further sorted out any injuries that resulted in only short stints on the Disabled List. Since Freeman is expected to miss between eight and twelve weeks, I threw out anything that caused a player to miss fewer than 50 days of the season. However, if the injury kept the player out of commission in a way that dovetailed with either the end or beginning of the season, I left it in. This kicked nine other instances out of my sample: for example, Danny Espinosa tried playing through a minor wrist fracture in 2013, was eventually put on the Disabled List, and then sent to AAA to work out his issues after the stint, and was not included in the sample.
  • This left 19 potentially-relevant wrist injuries to work with. Of the 19, 11 either resulted in the player spending Opening Day on the disabled list, or ending the season out of action.
  • From there, I sorted the wrist injuries into two categories. Only eight were clearly and distinctly identified as wrist fractures; the remainder were vaguely noted as either “broken wrists,” “wrist injuries,” or “wrist surgery.” Freeman is not having surgery on his wrist, but these felt reasonable to include to me as comparable issues.
  • The final results: eight wrist fractures, and 11 other wrist injuries to examine.

For each injury, I looked at two measures of offensive production. The first, and most obvious, is wRC+, which just aggregates how productive the hitter was, overall, and indexes to a scale where 100 is average, 110 means 10 percent more productive than league average, 80 means 20 percent less productive than league average, and so on. The second is ISO, which is essentially just a hitter’s slugging percentage minus their batting average, and captures the extent to which they hit for power (because singles don’t count at all in this measure). Again, the conventional wisdom is that wrist injuries may have negative, lingering effects on power production, and ISO seems like a reasonable way of testing this hypothesis.

I looked at two periods. The first was “calendar year before the injury” versus “calendar year after return from the injury.” The second was “career to date before the injury” versus “career to date after return from the injury.”

As far as expectations, if there was a definite pattern in wrist injuries affecting offensive production, I’d expect to see a drop in wRC+ and especially in ISO immediately before and after the injury, and to have these effects drop off as the player gains more distance from the injury.


Results

A sample size of eight wrist fractures, and 11 other wrist injuries, is hardly expansive. But, we work with what we have. The results are below.

Just some quick housekeeping:

  • The top array of players are the ones with fractures; the bottom array are the “other” wrist injuries.
  • The blue highlighting on “days missed” indicates that the injury period ran through the beginning or end of the season.
  • The red and green highlights are not really statistically-defined, they’re just instances where I thought an increase or decrease in wRC+ or ISO in the before-and-after period was notable or interesting.
  • You should be able to click the table to get a much bigger version.

As you can probably figure from the above, the results fall largely into one of three categories:

Nothing doing: Beckham, Valaika, Franco (?), Maybin, Springer, Encarnacion, Crawford, Gentry, Bautista, and Werth

About half of the players examined did not exhibit any notable trends following their wrist injuries one way or another.

Gordon Beckham hit better, but had a slight power decrease. Chris Valaika took a long time to get back to the majors after his injury, and did not experience a change in production, but did have a bit less pop. Cameron Maybin hit better both immediately after his wrist injury, and also in a longer-term sense, and his power declined more after a year removed from his injury than immediately after. George Springer’s results are fairly similar: no real change around the injury, and a bit less power further out. Edwin Encarnacion was not slowed at all, posting better numbers. Carl Crawford hit better immediately after, and then had a power decline later. Jose Bautista experienced a bit of a power decline immediately after, but not particularly noticeable and it definitely did not linger. Jayson Werth’s power output increased immediately after.

Craig Gentry had almost no PAs before his injury, so he can almost be tossed out entirely due to insufficient data. The only guy that’s maybe really questionable here is Maikel Franco. Franco hit really well (around a 130 wRC+) for about three months in 2015, but then suffered his wrist fracture and had a disappointing 2016 with a wRC+ in the 90s and an ISO drop of about .050. He’s hit even worse, with a further ISO drop, in 2017 so far, in part due to a bad BABIP despite improving peripherals. In general, I was not able to find coverage suggesting that the wrist injury was responsible for Franco’s poor 2016 performance. Even if it were, the other players here generally refute the idea that this type of injury is absolutely and totally destined to linger and sap a hitter’s power and/or production.

Maybe worse: Middlebrooks, Olt, Iannetta, and Mathis

Each of these four players did have noticeably worse production following the wrist injury, but it’s unclear whether the injury itself was to blame.

Will Middlebrooks came kind of out of nowhere to hit 15 home runs with a .220 ISO in about 300 PAs in 2012, but missed the last two months of that season with a fractured wrist. His peripherals, power output, quality of contact, and pretty much everything trended severely afterwards thereafter, rendering him essentially a half-season wonder who seems fairly unlikely to make a major league impact anymore for any team.

Mike Olt has had all sorts of contact problems as a major leaguer, but it’s hard to dissociate his early-2015 wrist injury from any changes in approach he had to make when he returned to improve upon his terrible peripherals, his poor contact quality, and his tendency to hit too many weak fly balls.

Chris Iannetta experienced a power dropoff following his return from a wrist injury, but that also coincided with moving from the power-bolstering confines of Coors Field to Angels Stadium. Meanwhile, Jeff Mathis has always been a terrible hitter and a somewhat inexplicable roster barnacle, and while it’s possible that a wrist injury did impact his already-awful offensive production, it’s a little hard to notice given that his hitting was already so poor that the difference was somewhat meaningless, in that his output went from “basically none” to “even more none.”

With each of these guys, it’s possible that a wrist injury played into some diminishing offensive production, especially with regard to power. But, it’s not a slam dunk case for any one of them except maybe Mathis, and Mathis’ offensive baseline is already so low that it’s hard to draw any parallels between him and Freddie Freeman, other than the fact that they’re both carbon-based lifeforms.

Small samples and other stuff: Morales, Lavarnway, Altherr, Fuld, and DeRosa

If you don’t know who Jose Morales is, I don’t blame you. The switch-hitting catcher got all of about 250 PAs for the Twins and Rockies before drifting gracefully out of the major leagues. He did hit worse after his wrist injury, but he was also running a near-.400 BABIP before it, and again, we’re talking 250 total PAs here. Next.

Former Brave Ryan Lavarnway is in a similar boat, with only 400 total major league PAs so far. A .350 BABIP in 77 PAs gave him a reasonable 100 wRC+ immediately before the injury, but he’s been a fairly terrible hitter both before and after those PAs, with a wRC+ in the 40-50 range.

Sam Fuld hasn’t gotten regular playing time much, but definitely had better stats before his 2012 wrist injury than after. However, his 2014 looked reasonably like his pre-injury 2011, so it’s hard to say anything one way or another, especially since Fuld’s production then bounced back to “really bad” in 2015, and he hasn’t been in a major league game since.

Mark DeRosa, another former Brave, was already 35 when he hurt his wrist, the oldest player appearing in this exercise. You could say that the wrist injury hastened his exeunt from MLB, especially due to the way it tanked his power numbers, but he was also old, getting older, and losing the fielding ability that made him a good utility guy. The wrist injury may have been a slowly-advancing coffin nail for him, but again, that’s not super-comparable to the situation Freeman will find himself in when he returns.

Aaron Altherr is possibly the biggest enigma on this list. He put up a great quarter-season in 2015 with a reasonable BABIP and HR/FB that included a .250ish ISO and a 125 wRC+. Further research suggests that his injury was a torn tendon sheath in his wrist (no idea how that compares to a fractured wrist, not even going to speculate), but after missing the first four months of 2016 with this issue, the rest of his season featured an elevated strikeout rate, an aversion to fly balls, and a terrible ISO and wRC+ combination (under .100 and 64, respectively) despite no real change in his HR/FB or BABIP. To start this season, Altherr has been murdering the ball: he’s improved his peripherals again, and has an unsustainable BABIP and and HR/FB, but looks much more like his 2015 version than the post-injury 2016 variant. Probably not super-comparable to Freeman for multiple reasons, but not an array of data to throw out just yet.


Anyway, put all these things together and you get essentially the averages in the table. The broad takeaways are probably that wrist injuries potentially comparable to Freeman’s don’t tend to have any immediate or lingering issues on a hitter’s overall offensive production, as measured by wRC+. They may have a slight effect on power production, but this is somewhat speculative and driven by a bunch of hitters who aren’t the kind of lineup mainstays with strong power production that are comparable to Freeman himself.

Some combination of George Springer, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, and Jayson Werth are probably the best comparisons to Freeman, and especially Springer at that. These players did not really experience any systematic declines in offense or power after their injuries.

So, if history is anything to go on, Freddie Freeman will be just fine when he returns. Phew.

(Side note: By “just fine,” I don’t think it’s safe to say that he’s going to pick up right where he left off and continue his 204 wRC+, .490 wOBA, .407 ISO rampage. A wRC+ in the 140s, a wOBA approaching .400, and an ISO below .250 seems like the safer bet. But, even returning from his wrist injury, would you bet against Freddie Freeman continuing to pound major league pitching? I’m not sure I would, but repeating a wRC+ in the 200s seems like a tall order for anyone.)