Friday, February 22, 2013

Phil Hughes And The Art Of Not Being Labeled Injury-Prone

Phil Hughes has been given a lot of different titles and descriptive identifiers in his professional career.  From "can't miss" and "surefire" to "uncertain" and "inconsistent," he's pretty much run the gamut of labels given to top prospects in his still short Major League career.  One thing he hasn't been called, however, is injury-prone, which comes as a bit of a surprise given his long track record of injuries, the latest of which could put him out of early spring action for a couple weeks.

(Click to enlarge.  Courtesy of Baseball Prospectus)

Take a gander there.  That's not a short list by any measure, basically one injury for every year Hughes has pitched in the Majors.  For most guys, that's enough to get the label slapped on them after just 3 or 4 years, but Hughes has spent 6 pitching at the Major League level and has still yet to have his injury problems questioned as much as his offspeed pitch selection, fastball command, or future ceiling.  How can that be?

For starters, a couple of Hughes' early injuries were freak situations.  The pulled hammy in '07 came in the game in which Hughes was throwing a no-hitter through 6+ against the Rangers, just a case of bad luck.  And there was no indication that anything was wrong with Hughes before he suffered the strained oblique/cracked rib in '08.  He had gotten through the last 2 full MiL seasons without issue after herniating a disc in his back in 2004, and then didn't suffer any injuries in the next 2 years, so it was easy to pass off the hamstring and oblique as blips on the radar.

The timing of Hughes' injuries has also been a factor in him avoiding the "injury-prone" tag.  His original back injury in '04 happened in September, after the GCL season had ended, and didn't result in any missed game time.  The shoulder problems in 2011 were present all through Spring Training and the early part of the regular season, and were attributed to poor conditioning and a tough recovery from the previous season's high workload.  Now that I think about it, I don't even really remember Hughes' shoulder ever being referred to as "injured" that year.  When he came back, Hughes missed a few days with back soreness at the end of the season, and then suffered another back strain that caused him to leave his playoff start early last year, again with no missed game time.

The latest disc issue in Hughes' back also happened early in ST, in enough time for Hughes to recover and be able to start the regular season on schedule.  Early reports after the diagnosis have him recovering well and feeling better, but with a history of back problems and a longer than you'd like to see injury ledger, should this latest injury be of more concern?

Hughes is still young, which could be another reason he hasn't been saddled with the label, but he's got a lot of physical mileage on his 26-year-old body.  He's missed between 1.5 and 2 years' worth of games due to injury since breaking into the Majors, time that could have been very helpful to his development.  For better or worse, Hughes has managed to avoid being tagged as an injury-prone player.  But if this latest back issue is the start of another problematic season for him health-wise, it might be time to slap the tag on him.

No comments: