About a week ago, I was listening to my daily dose of the Just Baseball podcast, which you can find all their information on their website here. During one of their episodes, they prompted a question about Oblique Injuries and that there seemed to be more of them during this year’s spring training.
Aram Leighton and Jack McMullen, the co-hosts of that day’s show, then tasked any of their “crazy fans” to see if they could dig up more information on oblique injuries throughout the past few years. Special thanks to those two and the entire Just Baseball crew for inspiring this article.
As one of those crazy fans and long-time stat nerds, I knew that I had to go digging across Fangraphs and CBS Sports injury reports and surf the net for data on the frequency of oblique injuries since 2021. This ended up culminating in the Twitter thread I created below:
In order to find out who had what kind of injuries, specifically looking by oblique, I used CBS’ MLB Injury Report to look at this season’s injuries. I combined this by looking at Frangraphs’ Injury Report, which has reports of all injuries since 2020, and since 2020 didn’t have spring training due to Covid-19. I used 2021 and 2022 as additional samples.
With a sample of two years against this year’s data, I feel that these injuries are adequately represented through sample size. Since I was just looking at Spring Training, I only took injuries into account for 2021 and 2022 before the opening days of those respective seasons.
What is an Oblique Strain?
Before we get into the numbers, let’s get some background information on what exactly an oblique strain is and how it can affect a player. Obliques are a core part of the Abdominal Muscles and are able to control bodily rotation, which in baseball, heavily affects both hitting and pitching.
Think of a batter using his entire body through his sides to generate enough torque to hit a ball up to 115 MPH, like the photo of Mitch Haniger above. Pitchers have to do the same in order to generate high velocities using their bodies alone. Although a lot of the pressure comes from their elbow and forearm, their obliques are still a vital component of the muscular machine.
MLB.com also explains how important the oblique muscle is for the sport since “it is the most activated core muscle during hitting and throwing.”
Getting Into the Numbers
Here are the players who sustained oblique injuries during the past three Spring Training Camps, also listing which players were injured each year:
2021 – 6 Players:
Note: Rowan Wick sustained a high-grade oblique injury in September 2020 and didn’t come back until August 2021
2022- 5 Players:
Note: Lucas Giolito sustained an oblique injury on Opening Day and was placed on the IL a few days later
2023 – 13 Players (so far):
At the time I’m writing this article, it is exactly one week until Opening Day. There’s still room for these injuries to balloon, and there were even two more after I published my initial thread on Twitter.
Even without that extra week, the number of Oblique Injuries sustained by players this year is more than both 2021 and 2022 Spring Training combined, those two totaling up to 11 and 2023’s at 13. Mind-boggling numbers, considering that this year is the first full spring training since 2019 due to 2021’s remnant Covid protocols and 2022’s lockout.
Digging Deeper: Studying Glasnow, Soto, and Haniger’s Injuries
Tyler Glasnow has pitched a total of 94.2 innings over the past two years and has never pitched more than 111 innings during a single season, with those numbers achieved five years ago in 2018. Glasnow spent the majority of last season recovering from Tommy John Surgery and made just two starts in September, followed by a high-stress playoff start.
Tyler Glasnow might just be one of the highest-upside pitchers in the game, but his career has unfortunately been littered with injuries. Posting elite spin rates, getting insane extension off the mound, and throwing one of the best curveballs in baseball, Glasnow transformed into an ace once the Rays Pitching Lab got a hold of his talent. The 6’8 star seemed to blossom alongside his luscious locks.
The hype among the Rays faithful coming into camp was immeasurable, considering a potential front two of the Rays Rotation would have two phenoms: Tyler Glasnow and Shane McClanahan.
Those hopes were dashed last month when Glasnow sustained a moderate Grade 2 strain to his oblique muscle, which would have a timetable of 6-8 weeks of recovery. Rays manager Kevin Cash called it “Typical soreness” when interviewed by the Tampa Bay Times on Tuesday, February 28.
With Glasnow out for Opening Day, all baseball fans can do is hope for him to recover. It will be a treat to watch him on the mound next season once he’s healthy.
Juan Soto is arguably the best hitter of my generation. At just age 23, only three years older than myself, Soto has been in the league for parts of five seasons. During these five seasons, Juan Soto has never had an On-Base-Percentage lower than .400, with his lowest sitting at .401 from last season.
Soto joined the twelve other members of the “Oblique Club” last Sunday after returning to the Padres after his time in the World Baseball Classic. The Friars manager Bob Melvin is optimistic about Soto’s return, especially since it was declared a mild strain:
After recovering from a calf injury this offseason, Soto’s oblique strain is another setback for the phenom, but it shouldn’t hold him back from many, if any, major league games this season. He likely won’t be playing in Spring Training again, but seeing his performance in the WBC, he seems quite ready to take on Major League teams this April.
Mitch Haniger was a key acquisition this past offseason for the San Francisco Giants after the team missed out on top Free Agents Aaron Judge and Carlos Correa. Haniger had been a critical piece for the Seattle Mariners before signing with the Giants, but did miss a large portion of 2022 out with a high-ankle sprain, but was good in his limited time for the M’s.
Haniger suffered a mild Grade 1 strain early in the Spring and even started the process of getting back on track with his recovery by hitting and throwing this Tuesday. Haniger should be on track to make the Giants’ Opening Day Roster but could be kept off for a few days to extend his recovery.
The former Mariners Outfielder sustained an oblique injury much earlier in his career, way back in 2017. After Haniger sustained the injury, he told the San Francisco branch of NBC sports, “It’s not even close [to the previous one]. It’s way less severe,” which gives me a lot of hope he’ll be able to come back ready to go for 2023.
Conclusions and the Future
Without access to insider MLB information, it’s hard for me to come to a conclusion as to why all of these oblique injuries are happening at a nearly alarming rate. The players injured this year featured no-repeat players from the previous two years, and the injury frequency of players listed varied widely, from Glasnow’s glass body to Soto’s consistent seasons with 150-plus games.
With few common throughlines, the only variable I see that’s changed is the length of Spring Training and the preceding offseasons. 2023 is the first full offseason with no hiccups since 2018 into 2019.
Covid-19 and its aftermath affected both 2020 and 2021. Accounting for this extra variable, nothing could be taken for granted among players. With protocols still in effect before the 2021 season, there might have been a lot more caution taken across MLB.
The lockout that caused players to have little-to-no communication with their teams and the subsequent shortened Spring could have hampered the transparency of some injuries or masked certain injuries, creating potential holes in the data.
Thus, with a full spring and offseason to prepare for the 2023 season, that could give more time for players to sustain injuries.
But at this rate? More than double each of the previous years?
On top of that, it doesn’t entirely make sense why players would get hurt more while in constant contact with their teams, including not having to skirt around tens of protocols every practice.
Over the next few seasons, I’ll be keeping a watchful eye on Oblique Strains across MLB, and with Frangraphs now keeping much more detailed records of injuries past 2019. I’ll have even more data to compare this season to.
My question that started this article remains: Will 2023 be the year of the Oblique strain? For right now, it seems to be. However, only more time and more data will tell if 2023 is truly the year that the Oblique strain took over Spring Training.