The roster of professional baseball players who either suffered or are still sidelined by oblique or core muscle strains suffered in spring training or early in the regular season could fill two starting lineups.
And the obliques, a broad, flat band of muscle that connects to the pelvis and helps to rotate the hips, have claimed some high-profile players including Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria, Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Corey Hart and San Francisco Giants closer Brian Wilson.
According to research by Stan Conte, head trainer for the Los Angeles Dodgers who had three players affected by the injury this spring, 14 players have gone on the disabled list with core or oblique injuries this season.
“One theory I have is that players are transferring more quickly from the offseason to spring training games and to more competitive regular-season games, and the muscles aren’t holding up to the increased strain and force the players are putting on them in competition,” Conte told The New York Times.
The oblique problems are not isolated to players swinging a bat. After all, Hart injured his oblique in a throwing drill.
Washington Nationals team physician Dr. Bruce Thomas of Melbourne, Fla., who also has worked with Olympic and collegiate athletes, attributes the injuries to several factors.
“You’re sure to see it early in the year quite a bit,” said Thomas . “You see it a lot too with guys coming off other injuries, they’re just resuming play. Cooler weather, a lot of times when guys go north we’ll see sort of a rash of obliques when they go from spring training ... it’s quite a bit cooler.
“You’ve got a violent acceleration rotational force and the obliques on the one side will sort of help get that motion going. On the other side, you’re the brakes. What winds up happening almost universally the brakes get a little tear, or a little a strain, a pull, whatever you want to call it, a stretch.
“It happens with throwing and batting.”
What makes the injuries so vital in baseball is they involve the one area of the body a player must have in working order to function.
“Virtually everything you do on a baseball field involves trunk rotation,” Thomas said. “What’s happening is that’s where it initiates and where it stops. They (obliques) are sort of like the pulley system. They move the whole torso. I tell the guys right away: ‘No. 1 is it’s going to be a long time. No. 2, you’re not going to get much sympathy. It’s not like you have a cast on your arm. You’re walking around, you can do 90 percent of things just fine but the things you can’t do without pain are the things you need to do which is high-speed acceleration and de-acceleration of the rotation of your trunk.’ “
And while today’s baseball players arrive for spring training fit and believing they are ready to play, just the fact that they are in shape might be betraying them in the end.
“Guys are, in general, bigger and stronger and it’s just more force against the same old bony structure,” Thomas said. “So those muscles are going to peel off or pull in the mid portion of the muscle.”
Rehabilitating an oblique injury through rest, various forms of therapy such as ultrasound, ice and stimulation, and later strengthening, takes time and care since the consequences of coming back too soon can be costly.
“They’re generally pretty frustrating,” Thomas said. “I can think of some pitchers in the past with these early in the season and they didn’t really get them back for six, eight, 10 weeks. Sometimes it’s one of the things where more is not better and if you try to come back fast you wind up missing a lot more time.”
Jeff Tam, who appeared in 251 Major League games over six seasons as a right-handed pitcher, knows that first hand.
“If it’s not 100 percent healed, you’re going to do it again for sure,” said Tam, who suffered three oblique injuries while pitching for the New York Mets, Toronto Blue Jays and Oakland A’s.
And that’s not something a player wants to do for obvious reasons.
“It felt like somebody stuck a knife in my ribs, literally like an ice pick. Just a sharp, sharp pain,” Tam said. “If you’re just extra tired that day or maybe there was a slight strain that you didn’t feel or know about, it’s just that one pitch or one swing and it will drop you to your knees.
“If you have to cough or anything, it is excruciating, just sharp pain.”
LIST OF PLAYERS WITH OBLIQUE STRAINS IN 2011:
Atlanta Braves: Pitcher Jair Jurrjens, right oblique strain.
Baltimore Orioles: Shortstop J.J. Hardy, left oblique strain.
Baltimore Orioles: Pitcher Brian Matusz, rib cage strain.
Cincinnati Reds: Outfielder Fred Lewis, right oblique strain.
Cleveland Indians: Third baseman Jared Goedert, right oblique strain.
Houston Astros: Pitcher J.A. Happ, right oblique strain.
Los Angeles Angels: Shortstop Erick Aybar, left oblique strain.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Angels: Third baseman Freddy Sandoval, left oblique strain.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Pitcher Jon Garland, left oblique strain.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Catcher Dioner Navarro, right oblique strain.
Milwaukee Brewers: Outfielder Corey Hart, left oblique strain.
Milwaukee Brewers: Pitcher Sergio Mitre, oblique strain. (Mitre was with the New York Yankees at the time of the injury.)
New York Mets: Outfielder Jason Bay, left rib cage strain.
New York Yankees: Pitcher Joba Chamberlain, strained left oblique.
New York Yankees: Centerfielder Curtis Granderson, oblique strain.
San Francisco Giants: Pitcher Brian Wilson, left oblique strain.
Tampa Bay Rays: Third baseman Evan Longoria, left oblique strain.
Washington Nationals: Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, abdominal strain.