Iron Men: Prince Fielder, Justin Verlander lead list of baseball's most durable players
Jose Abreu and Gio Gonzalez were placed on the disabled list on Sunday; on Saturday, it was Andrew Cashner. On Friday, Reds star Joey Votto didn't travel with the team because of what an MRI revealed to be a quadriceps strain that may yet land him on the DL. On Thursday, Ben Zobrist hit the DL. On Wednesday, it was Carlos Beltran, Travis d'Arnaud and Colby Rasmus. On Tuesday, it was Martin Perez and Matt Harrison, and on Monday, Aramis Ramirez and Omar Infante, among others. I could keep going with Jose Fernandez, Matt Wieters, Brandon Belt and beyond. Every day of this baseball season seems to bring another injury to another key player. As I wrote on Sunday, it's enough to make you flinch before checking the baseball headlines.
To calm the nerves, I wanted to take a look some of the game's most durable players, the stars who have avoided injury or at least the disabled list in their careers, or who have simply put up season after season of 150-plus games or 30-plus starts. That list was going to be headed by the game's active iron man, Prince Fielder, who boasted the longest consecutive games streak in the majors heading into the weekend. Then, on Saturday, that streak was snapped at 547 games by a herniated disc in Fielder's neck. The longest consecutive-games streak in the majors is now a mere 266 and belongs to Hunter Pence, who started it when he was traded to the Giants on July 31, 2012.
With the Rangers off on Monday and Fielder, who has been playing with stiffness in his neck since last season, having received a nerve-root injection on Saturday, there's still a chance that he will avoid the disabled list. I'm going to cling to that hope and keep Fielder atop my list of the game's most durable stars. Still, his injury is a reminder of just how fragile durability can be.
1. Prince Fielder, 1B, Rangers
Fielder leads the majors in games played since his rookie season of 2006, playing in 1,325 games over that span and averaging 160 games per season from 2006 through '13. He played in at least 157 games in each of those seasons and, of course, had that streak of 547 consecutive games from Sept. 14, 2010 through this past Friday. Even more impressive, Fielder missed just one game in the 2010 season (due to the flu) and had actually played in 874 of 875 games dating back to Sept. 4, 2008 before his neck caused him to miss both of the Rangers' contests over the weekend.
2. Robinson Cano, 2B, Mariners
Cano ranks second only to Fielder in games played since 2007, participating in 1,162 contests over that span and playing between 159 and 161 games every year from 2007 through '13. He has also started every single one of the Mariners' games this season. Unlike Fielder, however, he has not avoided the disabled list throughout his career — he missed 35 games with a thigh strain in 2006.
Given the fact that Gonzalez had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder after the 2010 season and hasn't really been the same hitter since, his presence on this list might come as a surprise. But Gonzalez has never been on the disabled list in his career and has played just seven fewer games than Fielder since 2006, his first year with the Padres, ranking second in the majors in games played in the eight-plus seasons since. Gonzalez averaged 159 games played per season from 2006 through '13 and has played in all but one of the Dodgers' games this season.
The hip, abdominal and groin strains that limited Cabrera to 148 games last season broke his streak of nine consecutive seasons with 150 or more games played, but he never went on the disabled list. If he had, it would have been his first trip to the DL. Cabrera never missed more than three consecutive games last year and since 2004 ranks second in games played behind only Ichiro Suzuki, whose status as a part-time player this season (he has started just 14 of the Yankees' 43 games) disqualifies him from this list. From 2004 to '13, a full 10 seasons, Cabrera averaged 157 games, five times playing in at least 160 games, including 161 in both 2011 and '12, the former figure leading the American League that year. This year, he has started all 39 of the Tigers' games, and despite his slow start, during which he said he had not recovered his core strength in the wake of offseason surgery, he has now hit .389/.412/.663 with six home runs in his last 23 games.
5. Hunter Pence, RF, Giants
The man with the game's longest active iron-man streak (the last 216 games of which were starts), Pence ranks fourth in most games played since 2008, his first full major league season, behind only Fielder, Cano and Gonzalez. Like Cano, Pence did hit the disabled list once early in his career: As a rookie in 2007, he missed 27 games with fractured right wrist. Pence suffered that injury when he slid into second base feet-first, which only goes to show there is no way to protect even durable players from getting hurt.
Even before Fielder's consecutive-games streak was snapped, the most impressive durability streak in baseball belonged to Buehrle, who has made 30 or more starts and pitched 200 or more innings in each of the last 13 seasons and is well on pace to make it 14 this year. To put that in context, just 16 pitchers in baseball history have had 14 such seasons in their entire careers, never mind consecutively, and every single one of them is in the Hall of Fame. Only seven of those pitchers had 14 consecutive seasons with 200 or more innings pitched; Steve Carlton would have made it eight if not for the 1981 strike. Buehrle will be the eighth if he stays healthy and effective this season.
2. Justin Verlander, RHP, Tigers
Verlander has made 30 or more starts in all eight of his full major league seasons and has thrown 200 or more innings in each of the last seven. Like his teammate and fellow award winner Cabrera, not even offseason surgery could dent his durability: Verlander had surgery to repair a core muscle in January, but was nonetheless started on Opening Day, turning in a quality start in a Tigers win. Since 2006, only CC Sabathia has thrown more innings than Verlander, who averaged 220 frames from 2006 to 2013, and Sabathia just hit the disabled list last week for the fourth time in three seasons and isn't expected back until July. Verlander, like Buehrle, has never been on the DL.
3. Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners
Like Verlander, Hernandez's first full major league season was 2006, and he has thrown just three fewer innings than Verlander since. He's made at least 31 starts in each of the last eight seasons and thrown at least 200 innings in each of the last six, averaging 226 innings per season over the latter span. That said, Hernandez suffered an oblique strain last September that would have sent him to the disabled list if not for the month's expanded rosters and he hit the DL twice early in his career, in 2007 due to a strained flexor mass in his pitching elbow and in 2008 because of a sprained ankle. Hernandez's elbow also raised some red flags in a physical this February, prompting the Mariners to put protective language in his new seven-year, $175 million extension. Still, Seattle did not renegotiate the basic terms of that contract and Hernandez has shown no ill-effects this season — he is currently tied for second in innings pitched in the American League.
Shields has had seven straight seasons of 31 or more starts and 200 or more innings pitched and has thrown more innings than Hernandez since 2007, ranking third in the majors in innings pitched over that span, behind Sabathia and Verlander. He has averaged 223 innings pitched in those last seven seasons and also ranks in the top-five in both complete games and shutouts over that span, with Sabathia and the retired Roy Halladay being two of the other four men on those lists (Hernandez and Cliff Lee are the other two). Shields has never been on the disabled list in his major league career; the only day-to-day injuries listed for him in Baseball Prospectus' injury history are two contusions from comebackers that cost him no time and a thigh cramp that forced him to miss one start in 2006. He did, however, miss the entire 2002 season due to shoulder surgery while in the low minors.
5. Bronson Arroyo, RHP, Diamondbacks
I might be stretching the definition of the word "star" here, but Arroyo did make the All-Star team in 2006 and his durability deserves mention. Arroyo has made 32 or more starts in each of the last nine seasons and fell just one inning shy in 2011 of having 200 innings pitched in each of those seasons. He missed most of spring training this year with a slipped disc in his back, but when the bell rang for the regular season, he answered it, starting the Diamondbacks' sixth game and taking each of his turns on schedule since. He is 3-0 in May with just one earned run allowed (and one unearned) in 23 1/3 innings.