One of the most inescapable realities in any professional sport is that athletes are going to get hurt. For baseball, a 162-game schedule combined with limited chances in each game for a player to make an impact leads to a high frequency of all-out plays. Sprinting to first base, diving for flyballs, and standing firm in the face of 100mph fastballs are commonplace— as are the injuries that can result from each of those actions.
The effects of injuries on a player’s career are, naturally, high variance. This winter’s top two free agents, for example, have been dogged by injuries throughout their careers to the general indifference of bidders. More often, however, it appears that injuries turn All-Stars into afterthoughts or dash a player’s shot at a breakout year altogether. No matter the severity of an injury, fans, players, and front offices can all generally agree on one thing: injuries are annoying.
With few players ever immune from the injury bug, a number of stars entered the 2021 season looking to correct some health trends from previous seasons. The sheer number of stars looking to prove their health at the beginning of 2021 may be larger than many remember, as 2020’s pandemic-shortened season did little to showcase player health. After all, even if a player played in all 60 games that season, would it be enough to shed the “injury prone” label if they were hurt often in 2018 and 2019? Another issue with the 2020 season was how it disrupted player conditioning, leading to a higher rate of injuries than the average season (per research compiled by Chet Gutwein of FanGraphs).
Determining which players were worthy of the “injury prone” label coming into the season (and accordingly, who shirked that distinction after a mostly healthy 2021 campaign) is a subjective activity. Still, we can put some parameters on our search to narrow the list of players who actually needed to prove they can stay on the field and produce.
For starters, we can look at players who dealt with injuries over the past three seasons prior to 2021; out of a possible 384 games we’ll say any player who missed more than 100 of those games carried noteworthy injury questions in recent years. That pool can then be whittled down further to include players who ultimately proved healthy in 2021— we’ll set the bar there at 2/3 of games played, or 108 games, to indicate a player was twice as healthy as not. Lastly, a player had to be good in 2021 in order to quiet doubters, so the following list of players will only include players who produced at an above average level in 2021, with a wRC+ north of 100.
To recap, this list of players missed at least 100 games between 2018-2020, but played in 2/3 of their team’s regular season games at an above average level in 2021. Players like Yordan Alvarez, who technically meet the above criteria but did not debut until 2019, will be excluded on the basis of having too small a sample size to draw health trends from. Likewise, players like Ian Happ who only meet the above criteria due to minor league demotions or some other non-injury related reason will not be included on the list.
- Kris Bryant (Missed 101 games between 2018-2020; Played 144 games, posted 123 wRC+ in 2021)
Bryant may seem like an odd entrant on this list, but questions existed after he sported a .644 OPS in 34 games during the shortened season. A shoulder injury limited Bryant to 102 games and just 13 home runs in 2018.
- Justin Turner (Missed 104 games between 2018-2020; Played 151 games, posted 127 wRC+ in 2021)
Turner matched a career high in games played last season, a welcome sight after a myriad of maladies in recent years allowed him to land on this list. Entering his age-37 season, Turner seems like a prime candidate to stay fresh at the DH position if/when it becomes universal.
- C.J. Cron (Missed 106 games between 2018-2020; Played 142 games, posted 127 wRC+ in 2021)
Knee surgery and a 13-game showing in 2020 are the driving reason for Cron’s inclusion here. This layoff made Cron’s career year in Colorado all the more surprising, as his jump to the NL saw him blow most of his previous bests out of the water.
- Joey Gallo (Missed 109 games between 2018-2020; Played 153 games, posted 123 wRC+ in 2021)
Another oddball entrant on the list, Gallo missed the bulk of his time during his 2019 All-Star campaign owing to a second half wrist injury. A .679 OPS showing across 57 games in 2020 did little to quell concerns that Gallo was back to his 40-homer days, but a 38-homer campaign with the Rangers and Yankees in 2021 may have done the trick.
- Andrew McCutchen (Missed 113 games between 2018-2020; Played 144 games, posted 107 wRC+ in 2021)
The former-MVP has largely been the pinnacle of health, but a torn ACL in 2019 led to over 100 lost games in that season alone. McCutchen has seen better days on both sides of the ball, but entering his age-35 season he again seems as solid a bet as anyone to provide durability and solid production.
- Kevin Kiermaier (Missed 118 games between 2018-2020; Played 122 games, posted 101 wRC+ in 2021)
Kiermaier is one of those players who seems like a walking injury-risk, a stigma perhaps upheld by the fact that Tampa Bay has yet to trade him. To his credit however, Kiermaier just had one of the better offensive campaigns of his career, showing solid health and sterling-as-always defense as well.
- AJ Pollock (Missed 130 games between 2018-2020; Played 117 games, posted 137 wRC+ in 2021)
On a star-studded Dodgers roster Pollock quietly played in 117 games last season, a number he hadn’t eclipsed since his otherworldly 2015 campaign. The Dodgers have weened Pollock off of center field duty in recent years, which may again help him stay healthy entering his age-34 season.
- Carlos Correa (Missed 141 games between 2018-2020; Played 148 games, posted 134 wRC+ in 2021)
Baseball’s top remaining free agent found an optimal time to stick on the field and produce. Correa’s elite 2021 season came on the heels of three seasons that were each plagued with underperformance or IL time.
- Aaron Judge (Missed 144 games between 2018-2020; Played 148 games, posted 148 wRC+ in 2021)
Wrist, oblique, and calf injuries sapped Judge of playing time from 2018-2020, but there wasn’t any rust last season. Judge played in 148 games last year, a total he hasn’t reached since his Rookie of the Year-winning 2017 campaign, and remains as fearsome an at-bat for opposing teams as ever.
- Josh Donaldson (Missed 149 games between 2018-2020; Played 135 games, posted 124 wRC+ in 2021)
Donaldson has alternated healthy seasons with injury-riddled ones as of late, though he’s made his presence felt in recent odd-year seasons.
- Miguel Sano (Missed 155 games between 2018-2020; Played 135 games, posted 110 wRC+ in 2021)
A few minor league demotions contributed to that missed game total, though injuries have still kept Sano out of 100+ Major League games, making him eligible for this list. Sano’s 135 games played represent a career-high, even if the rest of his 2021 rate stats seem modest compared to years past.
- Mitch Haniger (Missed 164 games between 2018-2020; Played 157 games, posted 120 wRC+ in 2021)
Surgeries kept Haniger from taking the field at all in 2020, a year after missing most of 2019’s season to injury. Haniger filled up the stat sheet in 2021 though, matching his personal best of 157 games played while hitting 39 home runs and reaching the century mark in both runs scored and RBIs.
- Giancarlo Stanton (Missed 184 games between 2018-2020; Played 139 games, posted 137 wRC+ in 2021)
It had been a few years since Stanton was regularly healthy in pinstripes, as he played in just 41 regular season games from 2019-2020. Stanton was in such good form last season however, that he was able to stay healthy even with irregular outfield reps.
- Tyler Naquin (Missed 194 games between 2018-2020; Played 127 games, posted 110 wRC+ in 2021)
Injuries took the shine off what had the potential to be a strong Cleveland tenure, thanks to a solid rookie season in 2016. While he was probably miscast as a centerfielder, Naquin offered solid production across a career-high 127 games for the Reds last season.
- Salvador Perez (Missed 218 games between 2018-2020; Played 161 games, posted 127 wRC+ in 2021)
An elbow injury wiped out all of Perez’s 2019 campaign, while eye issues limited his follow-up season. That Perez was able to bop 48 home runs and play 161 games— 124 of which came from behind the dish— was remarkable, and may spell a return to form for a catcher who logged huge games played totals up to 2018.
The above players still carry some level of risk heading into the eventually-going-to-happen 2022 season, as all athletes do. With largely healthy and productive 2021 seasons in the books though it’s hard to argue this group didn’t elevate their stocks, providing at least some extra cause for optimism that they can stay on the field when baseball resumes.
But what do you think, did any other hitter inspire enough confidence in 2021 for you to feel good about healthier days ahead? Let us know in the comments!