July 19, 2011
Painting the Black
Fragile in Florida?
In early June, Dick Vitale walked across a local Florida radio station’s building on his way to who knows where. While Vitale’s modern relevance is as a spastic college basketball analyst for ESPN, he also owns Rays season tickets and pays a fair amount of lip service to the team throughout the season via his media platform. On this day, Vitale spotted Rays owner Stuart Sternberg in the midst of an interview. Forgoing any sense of protocol or respect for the sanctity of another’s interview, Vitale’s inner fan sprung into action as he shouted towards Sternberg something to the effect of, “You gotta bring Desmond Jennings up, baby!”
Few prospects have been hyped as much as Jennings. Not in the quick helium sense—i.e. rising from the ground to the prospect mountain top after a hot week—but more like a slow and steady injection of nectar to prospect enthusiasts. Jennings has been a staple on Kevin Goldstein’s top prospect lists dating back to 2007; if nothing else, his stock has remained stable, at least according to Kevin, who has had him ranked as one of the top four prospects in the Rays system in each edition of the list, going so far as to name the speedy outfielder the organization’s brightest prospect in 2010.
Prospect infatuation fades quickly, and there comes a time when prolonged talk about a prospect’s potential falls on deaf ears. The people are growing restless for Jennings. No longer are they willing to dream about sweet tomorrows, about the wicked range Jennings offers in center, or about the advanced plate approach and developing power. No, dreams no longer suffice. They want to wake up—they want to experience Jennings and the beauty of his promise for themselves.
The Rays put the Jennings experience on hold when they signed Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez to staff left field and designated hitter over the winter. Even when Ramirez retired a week into the season, Jennings remained in Triple-A Durham, playing in the outfield next to Justin Ruggiano and Brandon Guyer. A power ranking of those three, in terms of talent and likelihood to produce in the majors, would have Jennings at the top both for now and for the future, and yet he remains the only one of the three without a trip to the majors this season.
Sternberg did reply to Vitale’s pseudo-question/demand by saying Jennings would be up “in a few weeks.” This was, again, in early June, and the timetable provided overlapped with baseball-business-based projections about when Jennings would arrive. Part of the Rays manifesto is to extract as much time and cheap labor from their players as possible. Often, this means delaying promotions until their players meet various developmental goals and timing debut dates to coincide with the passing of the Super Two eligibility period. Those dates tend to land in mid-June; however, since Jennings entered 2011 with more than 30 days of service time, he was ensured an arrival date sometime in July, regardless of what he or the Rays did in the interim.
All along, the All-Star break looked like a practical entry point. It would give the Rays the ability to evaluate their chances of contending, survey the trade market for Damon and B.J. Upton, and give Jennings a little extra development time in Triple-A. Within days of the target date, Jennings squared around to bunt. The pitch came a little quicker than he anticipated, and the ball ricocheted off his hand. At first, it appeared that Jennings would miss a game, take the break off, and return without issue, but then a broken bone was discovered, and a few days off turned into a prognosis of a few weeks, although he returned to the lineup over the weekend as the team’s designated hitter.
The latest injury appears freak in nature but continues a pattern of Jennings missing time with seemingly minor injuries. With nothing else to talk about, the conversation amongst Rays fans began to focus on Jennings and whether the one they’ve been waiting on is nothing more than an injury-prone tease. Over a year ago, Ben Lindbergh wrote succinctly about the stigma of fragility, stating, “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.”
Are Rays fans being too quick to describe Jennings as brittle, or is the prospect honeymoon over, even without Jennings having thrown the bouquet?
Those unfamiliar with this man of many injuries might benefit from an orientation of sorts. Drafted in 2006, Jennings first missed time in late 2007, sitting out 32 days with an undisclosed injury. He lost more than 120 days in 2008 to lower back issues, and then played the 2009 season without issue. In 2010, a combination of left arm issues—wrist, elbow, and shoulder—stranded Jennings on the bench for 47 days.
One of the easiest ways to evaluate whether a major-league player has stayed healthy is by checking out the games played column of his stat box. In the minors, though, promotions and demotions complicate things, not to mention managers who are instructed to get everyone into the lineup throughout the season. Remember, development is of primary importance in the minors, while winning is secondary. Because of this, evaluating the severity of injuries can be tricky. Teams have no reason to take an aggressive stance by making their prospects play through nagging injuries if it would hinder potential development.
Jennings split the 2009 season between Double- and Triple-A. He played in 100 games for Montgomery before moving up and playing 32 more with Durham. Had Jennings been faithful to a single team, his total of 132 games would have led either one and placed near the top of the respective league leaderboards. Playing in 132 games might not seem like much—that would mean an appearance in 81 percent of a big-league team’s games—but because the minor-league season is shorter, it equates to 94 percent of the games available to a player in Triple-A.
The 2010 and 2011 seasons have seen Jennings toil away in Durham. Should he remain a Bull for any length of time upon his return, then Jennings has a legitimate chance of cracking 1,000 career plate appearances at the level. In 2010, Jennings played in 109 games and tallied 458 plate appearances. There is a catch, though, as the playoff-bound Rays promoted Jennings to the majors on September 1. From that point on, the Bulls played six additional regular-season games. It’s unfair to give Jennings credit for the 17 big-league games he appeared in and then compare him to Triple-A players who had no such opportunity, but it also feels unfair to compare his totals to those players when he received a promotion. The happy medium is to assume Jennings would have started those six games, giving him 115 on the season—or two appearances shy of leading the team.
This season, as Jennings opens the second half on the disabled list, he enters with the second-most games played on the Bulls, trailing the team leader by a game. If Jennings misses additional time, the gap will grow, but he still figures to be within shouting distance at season’s end should he remain with Durham for much longer. If asked to draw a conclusion based on the last three seasons of data, you would either think of Jennings as a moderately healthy player or regard the Bulls as a team that constantly employs high-injury risks, thus making him look more fit by comparison.
Luckily, thanks to the research done by Corey Dawkins and the querying abilities of Dan Turkenkopf and Rob McQuown, there is no reason to stop there. By splitting Jennings’ career into two segments—post-2007 and post-2009—a feel can be acquired for whether his reputation for being susceptible to injury is legitimate or just a residual remainder of a lost 2008 season, amplified by frustration about his not being up yet.
Starting with the post-2007 data, players with comparable amounts of missed days and plate appearances include Orlando Hudson and Travis Hafner—two guys who feel fairly injury-prone. From there, the list moves on to players who have split time between the majors and minors but lack the brand-name appeal of the O-Dog and Pronk: Chris Dickerson, Jeff Bianchi, Diory Hernandez, Fernando Perez, Chris Nelson, Freddy Sandoval, Craig Gentry, and Carlos Triunfel. All in all, not an inspiring list.
Now it’s time to focus on the post-2009 comparables. The decision to cut 2008 and 2009 from the data is simple: Jennings missed most of 2008 and almost none of 2009, so what the data from those seasons shows us is the two extremes of health. With 2010 and 2011 under consideration, Jennings has missed fewer days than Justin Upton, Brandon Crawford, Jonathan Lucroy, Stephen Drew, Luke Scott, Victor Martinez, and Marco Scutaro. Jennings has missed as many days as J.D. Drew, Derek Norris, Lucas Duda, and Dexter Fowler, and is within a few days of Delmon Young, Jesus Montero, Martin Prado, Todd Helton, and Josh Reddick.
Few to none of those players, with the exception of the elder Drew, are known for owning unreliable bodies. Is Jennings somehow different? Is suffering a variety of minor injuries a worse crime than suffering a major one? Perhaps the random intervals of inactivity are more memorable than one long stretch, wherein the injury and the player become something of an afterthought to the team’s day-to-day operations.
Whatever the reasoning, the numbers seem to indicate that Jennings should be healthy enough to help the Rays out whenever they call him up. Given what we know about Jennings’ talents, Vitale should soon be enjoying the presence of one of the game’s finer diaper dandies.