MLB's few remaining iron men defy load management mandates: 'Why would I not be playing?'

NORTH PORT, Fla. – It remains one of baseball’s highly-respected traits, even if optimization has rendered it nearly obsolete.

After all, playing 162 games with few breaks in between can’t be sustainable, right? With a bottomless array of hard-throwing pitchers coming at you from every angle, playing the matchup game must occasionally benefit every player, no?

Aren’t loads meant to be managed, sleep tracked scientifically, all of it incongruent with a game scheduled nearly every day for more than half a year?

Matt Olson begs to differ.

“We get paid a lot of money to play this game,” says the Atlanta Braves All-Star first baseman, entering the third year of a $168 million contract. “You owe it to the team and the fans and your teammates to go out there and be able to play every day.

“Injuries and stuff willing, obviously.”

Olson is one of just two players to play all 162 games at least three times since 2018, bucking a trend more than two decades in the making. A modern stew of heavily platooning players to maximize matchups mixed with a dash of sports science has created a load management culture in Major League Baseball.

Matt Olson has played 162 games in each of his two seasons with Atlanta.
Matt Olson has played 162 games in each of his two seasons with Atlanta.

And while baseball rarely borrows from the NBA lexicon, the industry has largely adopted its stance that playing every game is detrimental to the bigger picture.

Yet a diminishing faction holds fast to the notion that posting – the silent act of availability – is actually the game’s sixth tool.

“It’s hard to win to begin with,” says Alex Anthopoulos, the Braves’ executive vice president and architect of a budding dynasty that’s won six consecutive National League East titles.

“And if your players aren’t available, your replacements aren’t going to be nearly as good.”

Acquire and retain excellent players – and then let them play. So simple, right?

Yet so few teams and players make it reality.

Platoon, or post?

In the quarter-century since Cal Ripken Jr. finally took a day off, ending his record streak of consecutive games at 2,632, one thing hasn’t changed: The ultimate iron men are extremely rare.

In 1998, five players played all 162 games, just one more than the four who went pole-to-pole in 2023. Drop the standard a bit, though, and there’s a large dropoff: Fifty-one players played at least 155 games in 1998, a workload that amounts to roughly one missed game per month.

In 2023, just 31 players hit the 155 mark, even in an era with the universal DH and four additional off days on the schedule beginning in 2018.

To post, or not to post? Talent, organizational mindset and clubhouse culture all answer that question.

Take Atlanta. The organization has assembled – and Anthopoulos, via frequent contract extensions, retained – significant talent. It makes sense to play stars like NL MVP Ronald Acuña Jr. and Olson – who finished fourth in MVP voting – as much as possible.

But it extends beyond the All-Star talents.

In 2023, eight Braves played at least 138 games. By contrast, just one San Francisco Giant reached that mark. Even when the Giants won 107 games in 2021, just three players played that many games, with club president Farhan Zaidi’s frequent platooning paying off with a franchise record in wins.

Yet retaining that formula can be elusive, and the Giants slipped to .500 and worse the past two seasons before firing manager Gabe Kapler.

Atlanta has had just three managers since 1991, when its streak of 14 consecutive division titles began an era of numbing consistency – forged by reliability. In his 12-year Braves career, Gold Glove center fielder Andruw Jones never played fewer than 153 games. Hall of Fame third baseman Chipper Jones played in 97% of Atlanta’s games from 1995-2003.

“It’s been like that for a long time,” says manager Brian Snitker, entering his 48th year as a player, coach or manager in the Braves system. “Andruw didn’t even come out of the blowouts. He wanted to play every inning of every game. (Catcher Brian) McCann would get pissed off when I wouldn’t play him on the Sunday afternoon games after the Saturday night ones.

“I talk to guys and try to give them days off and they want to play. I think that’s why they do well. I don’t buy the tired thing. I don’t buy the load management. They train for that.

“They’re going to stub their toe enough to where they need two or three days off, and in the end you’ve got about 158 games or so, which to me is what a normal major league workload should be.”

Acuña was coming off a subpar 2022 after recovering from ACL reconstruction surgery, and the Braves were wary of his workload in ’23. But Snitker said that only fed Acuña’s desire to play every day and he did – for 147 consecutive games, finally taking a breather in mid-September, on his way to a 41-homer, 73-steal barrage over 159 games.

“I love how we do it. We got our guys. Talented group,” says Olson. “And if you’re healthy, you’re going to be playing, whether you’re 30 for your last 40 or 0 for your last 40.

“It’s one of my favorite things about here.”

Opponents have noticed.

J.T. Realmuto joined the Phillies ahead of the 2019 season.
J.T. Realmuto joined the Phillies ahead of the 2019 season.

Crouch potato

Though their playoff dreams have died each of the past two seasons in four-game NLDS losses to Philadelphia, it’s safe to say the Braves have left an impression on the Phillies.

From the days of the Jones boys, through 162-game stalwarts Dansby Swanson and Freddie Freeman to this current group, Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto has noticed how at year’s end, it’s expected that four or five Atlanta players will top the games played list.

He says the Phillies aim to infringe on that group.

“There’s something to posting, there’s something to being there for your teammates, even when you don’t feel your best, getting on the field and producing,” says Realmuto, traded to the Phillies before the 2019 season. “At the end of the day, this is an entertainment sport, fans come to watch us play. Some kid paid his money to come watch you play, because you’re his favorite player, and if you take a day off every single week, somebody’s going to be disappointed.

“In this locker room, there’s just a certain mentality where we enjoy being there with each other, we want to go to battle together and guys don’t like taking days off.”

Despite injuries to Bryce Harper and Rhys Hoskins last season, five Phillies played between 145 and 160 games last year, led by Kyle Schwarber (160) and Nick Castellanos (157). Realmuto, meanwhile, is carving out his own ironman niche behind the dish.

For the third time in the past four full seasons, he caught 133 games, tied for fifth-most since 2016 and the only catcher posting multiple seasons with that distinction.

“As a catcher, they’re always thinking of my load management,” says Realmuto, a three-time All-Star. “It’s a conversation every single year. They find it productive. But older-school players like myself don’t necessarily love it.”

Yet Realmuto isn’t just chewing glass and blindly crouching behind the plate; he leans heavily on the Phillies’ training staff to concoct workout and nutrition plans to maximize his ability to get out there.

Realmuto turns 33 this month yet feels knowing himself allows him to maintain this pace into the latter half of his career.

“It’s gotten less difficult, which is shocking to say,” he says. “But the last couple years, I’ve felt better in August and September than I have in years prior, only because I’m starting to learn my body more, and know how to train and how to keep my body at peak physical condition late in the season.”

Marcus Semien celebrates his home run in Game 5 of the 2023 World Series.
Marcus Semien celebrates his home run in Game 5 of the 2023 World Series.

‘Why would I not be playing?’

Baseball is filled with intangible beliefs that certain behavior is transmittable; how many times have we heard that hitting, for one, is contagious?

The same may apply to simply playing.

When Braves catcher Sean Murphy was a rookie, his teammates included Olson and shortstop Marcus Semien, who made the concept of a day off seem almost pointless.

“He would always say, ‘Look, I’m here. I’m playing. I’m at the ballpark. Why would I not be playing?'" remembers Murphy.

And so the young catcher followed suit, playing in 148 games in his first full season and catching 116. Olson would outdo Semien in 2018, completing his first 162-game season to Semien’s 159.

Yet the master would go on to make history in 2023.

Now a Texas Ranger, Semien would play in all 162 regular season games and then, with the expanded playoffs, 17 more in the postseason. Batting leadoff, he racked up 835 plate appearances, most ever in a single season, regular and playoffs.

“You have a lineup, you think, ‘OK, so and so needs a day off.’ But never him,” says manager Bruce Bochy, who won his fourth World Series title in his first year in Arlington. “It’s one thing playing every day, but playing like he does every day.

“There’s no letup. How he runs the bases. His approach. The way he prepares. It never changes. Very few guys have the ability to do what he does.”

Semien is so routine-oriented that all his movements seem deliberate, in service of retaining energy for the three or so hours he’s to perform that night. It’s probably no coincidence that the least-productive seasons of his career – 2020 and 2022 – came after a global pandemic and an MLB lockout shattered his groove.

The lockout began days after Semien signed his seven-year, $175 million contract with the Rangers, which meant he had a professional home but was barred from visiting it all winter and spring. With a full offseason to reestablish his routine, Semien produced an MVP-caliber season in 2023, and led the Rangers to their first World Series championship.

“I just love playing. I play,” says Semien, who in 2019 played 162 games at shortstop before shifting to second base in Toronto and Texas. “You look at what Corey [Seager] did last year, how he accumulated his stats with less games, I need all I can get to get mine."

Still, Semien produced a team-high 7.4 WAR, hitting 29 home runs and 40 doubles to Seager’s 33 and 42 in a 119-game campaign shortened by injury. Seager added six postseason home runs, producing a 1.133 OPS in 17 games.

“I do love the grit of players that like to play every day. I just think you may get a fresher player if he’s resting every now and then,” says Houston Astros GM Dana Brown. “The guy who goes out and grinds through it, sometimes they’re playing a little hurt, a little banged up, a little fatigued. If you could somehow get these guys some days off – I don’t think anyone’s going to break Cal Ripken’s record.

“Before you know it, you’re going to be fresher. And then your production might go up. After all, we’re not machines.”

Fair enough. Yet we ought not forget Semien’s 835th and final plate appearance of the year – a two-run, ninth-inning home run that iced the Rangers’ 5-0 victory in Game 5 of the World Series.

Perhaps the Rangers receive their championship rings even if Semien cashes in some PTO along the way. Yet there’s no denying Semien’s example leaves an impact.

“It’s why you play the game,” says Bochy. “We’ve lost a little bit of that, and I get it, because load management is an important part of the game - keeping guys fresh, cutting back risk of injury.

“But he’s awfully special."

Contributing: Bob Nightengale

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB 2024: Baseball's few iron men defy load management mandates