Label or No, Jorge Soler’s Injury Issues More Than Just a Series of Flukes

Joe Maddon doesn’t want the “injury-prone” label applied to Jorge Soler, so I’ll go ahead and take it off. And by so doing, I’ll leave behind a stencil that I will use to tattoo a warning label on the guy’s forehead.

A lot of injuries bad luck. Chris Coghlan tore his meniscus while delivering a pie to the face of teammate Wes Helms after a walk-off hit; Kyle Schwarber’s leg got rolled under Dexter Fowler when the latter was avoiding certain death from a collision; Sammy Sosa sneezed too hard. These are flukes and generally aren’t precipitated by another injury or series of them.

Then you’ve got problems that come from repetitive motion and overuse, like the shoulder and elbow issues that have long plagued baseball. But what about the guys who just can’t seem to stay healthy, the athletes for whom a cot in the convalescent center is permanently reserved?

After his latest trip to DL, it’s nigh impossible not to put Jorge Soler in that camp. I was reluctant to do so at first, preferring instead to chalk the string of injuries up to the guy simply being snakebit. That’s not to say that he was born under a bad sign or anything, just that he’s fallen prey to wrong place, wrong time circumstances more often than most. Then I started to look more closely at the injuries.

During his minor-league tenure, Soler suffered a left calf strain, left and right hamstring strains, and a stress fracture in his left tibia. Since he’s been called up to Chicago, the burly outfielder has missed time with a sprained left ankle, strained left oblique, and now a strained left hamstring. Huh, it looks like there’s a bit of a pattern developing here.

If you’ve ever suffered an injury, particularly if you’ve tried to push yourself back from it too soon, you’ve no doubt experienced a variety of ancillary issues. The human body is, after all, nothing if not a compensation machine. Even if you’ve not gone through any significant break, tear, or strain, it’s easy to see how altering your body’s natural mechanics to accommodate one weakness could eventually lead to another.

It would be one thing if those compensatory issues showed themselves right away, but all too often they’re latent time bombs that tick away in hidden silence. You don’t notice anything’s amiss until you take an awkward cut or round first base at just the right angle. Then — pop! — you’re back on the shelf with a new malady.

But what if it’s more than just your body accounting for or being weakened by a previous issue? What if your actual genetic code has been engaged in physiological subterfuge from the time you were being knitted together in the womb?

Sounds a little crazy, but that’s exactly what a growing body of research in sports medicine is suggesting. As Ian McMahan wrote for The Atlantic last year, certain variations in the genes could leave some people predisposed to various injuries.

Within the field of sports-injury genetics, some studies have focused on variations in the genes that control the production of collagen, the main component of tendons and ligaments. Collagen proteins also form the backbone of tissues and bones, but in some people, structural differences in these proteins may leave the body’s structures weaker or unable to repair themselves properly after injury. In a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2009, South African researchers found that specific variations of a collagen gene named COL1A1 were under-represented in a group of recreational athletes who had suffered traumatic ACL injuries. Those who had torn their ACL were four times as likely as the uninjured study subjects to have a blood relative who had suffered the same injury, suggesting that genetics are at least partially responsible for the strength of the ligament.

Just imagine the potential this knowledge could have in terms of injury prevention, which is really the El Dorado of the sports medicine world. While no amount of information can actually stop a collision or funky step, it can help develop a road map that minimizes risk and aids in recovery. That’s a bigger topic, though, and one that deserves its own dedicated space. Back to Jorge Soler.

Is his inability to stay healthy the result of compensation for previous injuries or could it be a matter of genetics?

“It could be either,” says Will Carroll, managing editor at FanDuel and leading media authority on sports medicine. “There are patterns here that stay on the same side and other that cross as the body compensates. It could be something like a movement issue or bad shoes or something from childhood like Marquis Grissom. What counts is that [Cubs director of medical administration] Mark O’Neal can’t figure out what the root cause is and stop it, or can’t get Soler to make the necessary changes. Given how good O’Neal and the staff is, I’d put it more on Soler.”

Maddon seemed to echo that sentiment when he spoke to the media Tuesday following the news of Soler’s DL designation and Albert Almora’s subsequent call-up.

“I just think as he learns how to take care of it and keeps getting stronger,” the Cubs skipper said, “(He needs to learn) how to maintain it better.”

Listen, I get Maddon wanting to avoid putting a dreaded label on Soler. “Injury-prone” definitely has a pejorative taint to it and certainly isn’t going to help a player’s value in any manner. At the end of the day, though, it’s impossible to turn a blind eye to the fact that this dude has been hurt pretty frequently. And often in the same region, or at least the same side of his body.

The Cubs are obviously even more aware of this than any of us, and they will undoubtedly do everything they can to ensure that Soler not only heals properly from this most recent setback, but that he avoids similar issues moving forward. It’s a tall task, to be sure, but one that could be the difference between a player realizing his potential and being another verse in the sad song about what might have been.

So what do you think: are Soler’s issues bad luck, bad genes, both, or neither?

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