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June 30, 2010

One-Hoppers

The In-Jury is Out

by Ben Lindbergh

On Monday night, Joel Zumaya broke his elbow on a mound in Minneapolis. If you missed it, you can watch the video here, though it’s not a pretty sight. Zumaya wasn’t struck by a screaming liner or stampeded by a charging runner, nor did he fall awkwardly while landing mid-motion or diving to field a bunt. In a way, what happened would have been far less gruesome if it had stemmed from an external stimulus, something obvious to which we could apportion blame. Instead, Zumaya broke down doing exactly what his job description called for, something he’d done without incident 7 times already that night, and almost 600 times on the season: he threw a pitch. What’s more, the fateful delivery didn’t carom crazily off the backstop or sail into the stands, advertising its author’s distress; it hit 99 on the gun, and finished too close to the corner for Delmon Young to take on 3-2, but too far inside for him to keep fair. The only sign of something amiss in this otherwise routine tableaux was the expression of agony on Zumaya's face, and the positioning of his left hand as it gingerly cradled his right elbow.

It’s easy to forget that pitching isn’t something that our bodies are intended to do; really, it’s more like baseball’s version of Russian roulette. As Jim Leyland remarked after the game, “Every pitcher that's ever pitched a game is one pitch away from his last one.” I won’t regale you with the unabridged tale of Zumaya’s injury odyssey (I’ll let Jason Beck do it for me) but suffice it to say that Zumaya’s ordnance appears to be equipped with either a surfeit of bullets or a shortage of chambers. Whether some infinitesimally altered element of Zumaya’s eighth delivery of the night placed undue strain on one particular portion of the kinetic chain, or whether repeated use had weakened that part to the point that any pitch could have served as the tipping point, the result was yet another season-ending ailment.

Zumaya’s ability to throw fastballs that touch triple digits makes him a physical freak, but not quite freakish enough to do so without damaging himself in the process. We’ve also heard that word—“freak,” or something similar—crop up in reference to debilitating injuries in the past. Zumaya was quick to point out that his latest injury was “a freak thing again.” Nick Johnson’s broken leg was a “freak accident.” Milton Bradley’s torn ACL was “bizarre.” Chris Snelling’s sore hand was “unlucky, rather than unhealthy.” Maybe we’ve been using the wrong adjectives to describe these events.

At some point before I’d acquired much service time (certainly before I’d earned my 10-and-5 rights), I owned an action figure whose arm refused to stay attached. History suggests that it was a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle; if so, it could only have been Donatello, the first choice of the discerning TMNT devotee (and likely the most sabermetrically inclined of the quartet). I Super-Glued the wayward limb repeatedly, convincing myself each time that I’d ensured an amputation-free future. Of course, my reconstructive work never held, and before long, I’d find myself scrubbing for another operation.

My mistake lay not in my surgical technique, but in believing that Donatello could be restored. I convinced myself that the culprit couldn’t have been a weak point in the toy's design, a flaw that developed during its manufacturing process, or even excessive use. No, I thought of each relapse as a freak occurrence and blamed myself for not taking better care. When I forecasted Donatello’s future, I regressed to the mean of an unblemished action figure, rather than that of one which had already shown itself to be defective.

Even the most injury-prone of players is anything but fragile. The least experienced members of major-league rosters have been throwing balls and swinging bats since shortly after leaving their cradles, and no player could have made it to the majors saddled with the recuperative powers of Elijah Price. Of course, in health as in all things, talent is unequally distributed. We tend to think of poor health as something that can be surmounted more easily than poor performance, and perhaps, on the whole, it is. In certain instances, however, an injury bug is every bit as imposing an obstacle to lasting success as sub-par contact skills, control, or velocity. We pay lip service to the importance of a clean medical record, mindful of Will Carroll's mantra that “health is a skill,” but presented with the opportunity to acquire an injury-plagued star and hope for a clean bill of health, how many of us would jump at the chance to secure a less talented, but more dependable, alternative?

Why should we be hesitant to give injuries their due? Perhaps our reluctance stems from the fact that we have a reasonably firm grasp of projecting statistical performance but can conclude relatively little about whether a given player will spend large chunks of his season on the disabled list, even if he’s frequented the 15-day in the past. We can say with a fair degree of confidence that a past-his-prime player with an established record of below-average play won’t suddenly ascend to the upper echelon of performance, but for a talented player who just can’t seem to stay on the field—well, this could be the year that his “luck” finally turns.

Maybe it’s the fact that staying healthy just seems so simple. Few fans are deluded enough to believe that they could hit major-league pitching, but avoiding serious injury seems like something well within even our grasps. Of course, major leaguers don’t spend their work hours sitting quietly in cubicles or corner offices, where threats to life and limb are scarce. Maybe it’s because we’d rather not think of someone’s tendons, ligaments, or bones being inherently weaker than anyone else’s, afraid of the implications for our own well-being. Whatever the reason, poor health seems like it should be easier to shrug off than poor production.

In some cases, a spotty injury history might make a player undervalued, allowing a team less wary of (or more informed about) his health to swoop in and exploit an inefficiency. In others, a low value might be the most appropriate appraisal. Prior to this season, I believed that an investment in Nick Johnson (who came at a discount because he was already marked “as-is”) looked like it fit the former description. Several months later, and with another dismaying data point added to Nick the Stick’s resume, I’m more inclined to believe that it was the latter all along. There’s little harm in a non-roster invite or a minor-league deal, but as long as roster sizes and payrolls (yes, even the Yankees’) remain limited, relying on a delicate player to do the job of a durable one can inflict considerable harm.

We shouldn’t be too quick to condemn a player to the “injury prone” pile. Through chance alone, we would expect some players to suffer more than their fair share of injuries, without any underlying deficit in “true talent” durability. It seems unlikely, for various reasons, but Zumaya could be one of the unlucky ones; with or without detailed biometric data, it’s impossible to say for sure. So how should a team like the Tigers handle his triage? They could consult with experts and devote an abundance of bytes to analyzing his issues, as I once did. They could make minute or massive mechanical changes, running the risk of compromising his performance in the process. Or they could simply do nothing, and hope for the best. Every option should be explored, but in the end, it may not matter. Expecting the worst, and investing accordingly, might prove the wisest course.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

Related Content:  The Process,  Health

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