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March 4, 2003
Under The Knife
A Day in the Life
The second most frequent question I get after "What the [bleep] is wrong with Nick Johnson?" is "How do you do what you do?" My friend Robert Herzog called me on my radio show last year and really grilled me. He's a friend now, but it was really an annoying question at the time. My answer then was "lots of phone calls and a lot of perseverance." True, yes, but not really a full answer.
It took four years of working as a student athletic trainer on all sports, including baseball. It took medical training. It took the creativity to diagnose something from afar. It's at times like a giant puzzle; I get enough pieces to put things together, but I don't have the box cover to go off of and there are always pieces missing.
It takes getting the trust of trainers, team doctors, and team officials. A lot of people ask where I get my information. Like any writer, I'm not going to give up my sources--and if I did, the information flow would shut off faster than a Randy Johnson fastball. There have been teams that have lied to me, pushed rumors, or even asked me to hold back a detail while they're working on a deal.
It takes knowing who to ask which questions. I have a great team of advisors that fill in the blanks for me. I'm not a physical therapist, a surgeon, or a practicing athletic trainer, but I have people who I can call and get good answers to the questions I have. Often, we'll convene and figure the most confusing things out. I've lost the physical therapist I worked with last year due to really interesting (but good) circumstances, and I wish her well--so if anyone has a strong sports background, a physical therapy degree, and doesn't mind calls at all hours, you have my contact information.
It takes every bit of the 800 cell minutes I have available. I average 20 calls a day, more if I'm doing some "phoners" for radio. Adding in the work I do for Baseball Prospectus Radio pumps the volume of calls up as well. My Samsung has the numbers for every baseball team, most minor league teams, and assorted other people whom I need to speak with on a regular basis. I briefly lost my phone a couple weeks ago and went a panic before finding it again.
With that being said, I welcome you to a typical Tuesday. Try to keep up.
2:35 a.m.: Boot up the computer and call up the "injury" group. Eighteen websites that I trust, mostly out-of-town newspapers, Rotowire, and ESPN.com pop up. After 20 minutes of reading, I have four new injuries to follow up on and two phone calls added to the to-do list.
3:00 a.m.: Read email. I have 16 from last week's Team Health Reports and a couple regarding articles from further back. It takes about two minutes per email. Some are simple thank yous, others take longer. Lots of questions about Nick Johnson. I need to do more research into DeQuervain's syndrome.
3:35 a.m.: Done with research on DeQuervain's. I'm now pretty confused. The symptoms read right, but there's a new disorder, Intersection syndrome, that also fits the profile. Both of these have probably already been tested for, but the Yankees of course don't give that info out. I call the voice mail of one of the orthopaedists who explains these things to me, and I'll call the Yankees later.
4:00 a.m.: I've spent 20 minutes digging through last year's notes on the Expos. The Expos kind of flew under my radar last season, except for the brief time Cliff Floyd was in town. Back to the net to research their injury histories.
4:05 a.m.: Rotowire just rules. I was too cheap to subscribe last year and probably cost myself about an hour a day. If I could just search by injury...wait, that would probably put me out of a job!
4:10 a.m.: The new Robert Bradley starts playing on the MP3 player and I realize it's time for the first caffeine delivery of the day. A nice soy chai will be good. How did we live before microwaves?
4:12 a.m.: An email comes in from a source on the East Coast letting me know that Jon Lieber's talking about throwing off a mound. That puts him on the same rehab schedule as Kris Benson. Two implies something of a pattern: Is Dr. Andrews doing something differently? Who else had this type of surgery recently, and how does this affect their timelines? The Reds and Jays might be helped most by this. Looks like Brian Tollberg might also be on this timeline.
4:20 a.m.: Tollberg isn't on my list of Tommy John patients. This is bothersome. I'm starting the work on an article with Joe Sheehan for pinpointing the timeline for Tommy John and the return to effectiveness. Again, the lack of an injury database is the biggest problem in my job.
4:53 a.m.: The last 15 minutes were spent starting the introduction to this and sipping on the chai. I'm still an hour from sunrise and I'll likely have the intro done by then. Add in the piece I'm working on with Nate Silver on the Injury Nexus, and the Expos THR, and I'll likely get three, perhaps four articles done today.
5:10 a.m.: After another 15 minutes spent honing the Expos THR ratings, I'm going to check the weather. More snow is due in tomorrow and I've got to figure out what to do with my car. On the way home from a meeting last night, my right front tire blew out. Luckily, I was about a block from a tire store--not bad luck there. Time for some TiVo.
6:02 a.m.: CSI: Miami is done. My wrist feels better. Yes, injury analysts have the occupational hazard of carpal tunnel. Call it Nick Johnson research syndrome. It's time for the first pot of coffee today. Real Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee. A friend brought it back from Negril for me and I get giddy just seeing the bag. Yes, I'm an addict.
6:13 a.m.: Is it creeping anyone else out that Steve Bechler's widow is named Kiley? Too coincidental for my tastes. She's evidently going to sue the makers of Xenadrine. In the ESPN article, there's this sentence:
"Yes, ephedra was one of the significant elements" in Bechler's death, Perper told The Post on Monday. He cited other factors as well, including an enlarged heart, slight hypertension, a liver abnormality and borderline high blood pressure."Umm, slight hypertension and borderline high-blood pressure? Does it surprise anyone that I have a harder time explaining something like a torn labrum when synonyms slip past an ESPN editor? After writing the Bechler article and speaking with Greg Rakestraw--my executive producer and pal from radio who uses Xenadrine in his amazingly successful weight loss program--I'm torn. Proper usage is one thing, but something so easily abused is another. I'll continue to be unsure for now.
6:24 a.m.: The last 10 minutes were spent looking at PECOTA cards for the Expos. OK, I had to take a quick glance at some guys I'm looking at for my fantasy draft. These cards are the most addictive things since crack.
7:11 a.m.: Thirty minutes more of email and then a call with a source. I'm not a morning person, but I have to be available for those in the world who are. I slide in 10 minutes of show prep for some interviews for BPR for the time when the source had to go actually do his job--you can guess what that job is by the time the source arrives in the office. I get good, if distressing info on a story I hope never happens.
7:13 a.m.: The first pot of coffee should have been an hour ago, but I got sidetracked. It's on now.
7:19 a.m.: The hot tub is still nicely warm, despite the outdoor temp of Zero. Sometime today, someone in Arizona will tell me how hot it is and I will snap.
7:56 a.m.: Enough watching the Weather Channel, it's back to work and a third cup of coffee.
8:20 a.m.: My occasional brother shows up, for once while the sun's up. We head down to the tire place to see what the damage is. I'm $140 lighter, my Volvo has four functioning tires again, but I'm stuck eating McMuffins and listening to Mike & Mike for an hour. Milt Pappas came on unexpectedly and piped up with: "We all took speed. Pete Rose was on the red juice." I'll assume red juice was speed. I wonder why he singled out Rose.
10:10 a.m.: It took a bit longer than expected, but a stop at Starbucks made me feel a bit better. Did I mention I made six phone calls during the time I was out? I'm trying to run down someone who will talk about ephedra on the record for this week's BPR. Everyone will talk off the record, but on a show beamed out nationwide? Much tougher.
10:40 a.m.: Not only will team-related people not talk, even the supplement industry won't. The three largest companies declined to speak publicly about ephedra or even the use of supplements in baseball. Something tells me they think I was going to attack them. Honestly, I'm neutral on the issue, so I'm headed for the scientist route. More phone calls ahead.
10:50 a.m.: I'm spending a lot of time on hold and surfing the web. At least I found out that the new Radiohead album will be out in June. Another email check and someone else asks about V-Loss. This is as good a time to explain that as any. Last year, I began looking at high pitch counts and didn't like the consistency of what I saw. Pitchers like Randy Johnson and Livan Hernandez could go 130 pitches with no ill effects--seemingly--while others would pop a ligament even when kept under the "magic 100." In looking around for a better measure, it kept coming back to two things--when a pitcher is fatigued his mechanics break down, and when mechanics break down, pitchers get injured.
Still, it didn't appear that pitch counts by themselves--with no context--were an accurate measure of fatigue. While I couldn't measure biomechanics without sophisticated and expensive equipment, I began to wonder if velocity was any sort of tip-off. Using the best source of data around, I was able to determine in a very poorly constructed study that there was something to losing velocity and fatigue. I was able to ascertain that the magic number was about 4% loss of velocity. Pitching after that loss of velocity led to a pronounced uptick in injury. I originally discussed this in an article attacking pitch counts, then tried devising a metric called Established Stamina. As I learned more and had people who understood statistics much better than I did, I found that I needed more and better data, which is tough to find. "V-Loss" became my shorthand for that pending work. I still believe strongly that velocity is as good a measure as pitch counts for measuring pitcher abuse. I won't say it's better until I have the data to back me up.
11:20 a.m.: Hold sucks. There should be a law about hold music. There should be some choice. "Press one for something that doesn't suck."
Email check. Answered four more reader mails, including one about APBA baseball. I have no idea what the rules are for that.
11:40 a.m.: Power nap...set the alarm for 15 minutes.
12:09 p.m.: One snooze later, I'm back. Need more coffee, so pot No. 2 goes on. I should call Joel at the station and get one going there. Better, I should just go to the station! I'm off.
12:45 p.m.: McAuley's late. The former voice of the Akron Aeros will be my sidekick for BPR, and is running the board for the scheduled interview today. Rakestraw's ordered pizza, so at least I won't starve. Six more calls to make sure everyone's in place. I'm recording three interviews--Gary Huckabay from BP, Kevin Goldstein from TheProspectReport.com, and Rob Neyer of ESPN.
12:55 p.m.: Tomorrow's interview with a general manager just flaked. If this was a live show, I'd be a lot more worried, but I have enough time to pull someone else in. It's just going to take more calls--five more, to be exact. Anyone want to pay my cell phone bill this month? In the end, it's worth it. Theo Epstein of the Red Sox steps up and will be the featured guest.
12:58 p.m.: The calls start coming in and we record the interviews. I normally come in with a list of about three topics that I want to discuss. My radio hero, Greg Rakestraw told me that the host's job is to make the guests look smart. While I want to get the good solid answers, I'm not there to embarrass anyone by putting them on the spot. I don't mind taking someone off their guard--like asking Rob Neyer to make an outlandish prediction or asking Theo Epstein if he gets groupies--but I'm never going to attack someone. More reason for Bud Selig to come on the show.
2:12 p.m.: Interviews finish and I'm in the editing room with Scott McAuley. He's cutting up sound from mini-disc to WAV format to set it up for the satellite feed. I'm taking calls on how both Rick Ankiel and Livan Hernandez are pitching almost sidearm this spring. I'm going to need to speak to someone in Arizona, where they've actively sought out sidearmers, and see if there's anything to this. Another couple calls later, I'm speaking to [someone you'd know] and not only is Arizona on the cutting edge with sidearmers, they're having Greg Swindell learn a knuckler. There's no real evidence that sidearming is any less stressful, but there are no good studies on the matter that I can find. I also don't see sidearmers breaking down, but this is a very small sample size we're looking at.
3:10 p.m.: Sound cut up and I'm getting traffic reports for SportsDesk, the local radio show I do occasionally. All we need for BPR is the Theo Epstein interview, which is tomorrow, and to push it all together with the network commercials. Working with McAuley is priceless. I spend my time trying to find things that will launch him into a rant. Talking about the Cleveland Browns is always one good way. Calling C.C. Sabathia fat is another.
3:35 p.m.: I'm out the door of the studio and look, my car wasn't towed. I have THE worst luck. Towed in Indy, towed in Chicago before the last Pizza Feed. It's nasty. Two calls in the 10-minute drive to home. Worse, it's snowing.
4:10 p.m.: Eric Milton's knee is looking like a problem. I had a pretty famous feud with the Twins last year and tried to boycott them. Until the playoffs, I didn't watch one game of theirs other than to watch injuries. Their treatment of longtime trainer and Friend of UTK Dick Martin was abysmal. I'm over it now, though honestly I don't think they suffered much for my boycott. Milton's knee should have been taken care of long ago. The Twins will say that he rushed back because he's such a competitor, but risking the wrath of a bored, rehabbing Milton is bad 'in the room.' Milton's knee should have been monitored more closely and the surgery he's likely to have now (Note: Remember this is from last Tuesday) could have been done in January--even mid-February might have had him back by Opening Day.
4.22 p.m.: I check voice mail and there are three calls, one of which I return immediately. One of my UTK advisors--a surgeon--called to discuss DeQuervain's syndrome with me. It's got a real easy test, so he thinks the Yanks would have tested for it and the bone scan gives us a hint that they're not thinking it's ligaments.
5:00 p.m.: A trainer checks in and he also disagrees with my Johnson diagnosis. I was so psyched about that one. It keeps me in check. I'd say I can normally tell about half the time just right off the bat, another 25% with some research, and with 10% I'm lucky to have good sources. Yes, that means that 15% are just unknown. As my sources get better and as we learn more about injury patterns, histories, tendencies, and teams, we'll be able to lower that margin of error even more.
5:10 p.m.: The Yankees finally return my call and HIPAA rears it's ugly head. The Yankees were one of the first teams to pull the rabbit out of the hat last year, but it didn't stick. There's no clear consensus on what the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act means for teams, but the privacy rules are typical big-government Byzantine. We know medical records should be private and I have no argument with this. I certainly don't want the specifics of my medical history given out by my doctor. However, the fact remains that baseball players are not only athletes, but entertainers, and with that comes a loss of privacy. I simply think that teams should be responsible in their information management. People like ESPN's crew or myself will get the information--it's a matter of how it's presented. The smart teams will learn to give the media what it needs and use them to present the team well. The dumb teams will stonewall and act shocked when the information leaks anyway. It's another stark contrast between how different teams work. The media should not be the enemy.
5:25 p.m.: Here's a good question from the email. "What's the worst injury someone can have?" There's not a lot of context here, G.B. I mean, one could argue that heatstroke has been pretty bad this week. For pitchers, I'd say the words one doesn't want to hear is "torn labrum"; for hitters, "undiagnosed wrist pain." 'Worst' depends on a lot of factors--it depends on position, age, and opportunity. Even the smallest injury can be terrible if you get Wally Pipped or tagged as a Quad-A player.
5:55 p.m.: My agent, Pat Arter, calls. Yes, I have an agent, which is both cool and scary all at the same time. He's been instrumental in moving me to BP, in making the radio show come together perfectly, and in helping me maintain my sanity. He's working on something very interesting that I wish I could share with you, but Gary Huckabay's rule is we don't talk until the ink is dry. Everyone should have an agent--especially one like Pat.
6:05 p.m.: Back to writing. I have nothing witty to say about most of these players. There should be something funny about a guy named "Endy" or "Cepicky" but there's not. Failing funny, I'll just have to make sure there are more facts. I need some research on salary levels so that I can show how important it is to keep your players healthy from a purely economic point of view.
6:10 p.m.: Need a break. The last thing anyone wants to see is "Will Carroll is on the 15-day with carpal tunnel." If I can get some more subscribers, maybe I'll get one of those talk and type thingies. Does anyone use one of those?
6:22 p.m.: I'll need a quick read through on the Expos THR, but for the most part it's done. There's nothing really surprising in here, but the lack of depth is what's standing out the most. One big injury could just crush this team like almost no other. The difference in depth is what separates so-called 'big' and 'small' markets.
6:35 p.m.: Ninety percent of my success is because of sources. The other 10 percent is some combination of luck, good timing, having several people find my column and recommend it, and I like to think some writing talent. A sure FAQ is "How do you get all the information you get?" I think you've noticed I do a lot of calling. As I became better known, I was able to talk to more people. Each call didn't start with an explanation of who I was. I gained the trust of several people who gave me the thumbs-up to others. Trainers realized I 'spoke their language' and was willing to cover them when no one else did. Yes, it's possible to cold-call a team and find information, but almost no one will talk to you until you develop some credibility. I started with some inside contacts and I doubt that I could have succeeded without those. By the end of 2002, my sources were infinitely better and my information got better as well. Better info led to better reports. This season, with the BP credibility attached, it's going to be a quantum leap forward, barring some sort of HIPAA meltdown.
6:50 p.m.: Salt Lake City--Hello! It's time for a phoner discussing Trevor Hoffman. Once again, I reiterate that I think he'll end up having surgery and that it's been a bad year for SUNS. There's not really a common element, but with all of them going down so close together, the "viral" element of injuries is coming up again. Much of it is just perception and the mind's desire to see patterns, but sometimes I wonder.
It's just another instance where an injury database would be key. Pitch counts became a major part of the discussion and since I've been on this station before, they were a bit taken aback that I'd backed off my "pitch counts don't matter" stance. The fact is, I always said that with a firm grasp on the hyperbole. Pitch counts aren't perfect and need a lot of context and statistical massaging to work well, but right now, it's the best measure. PAP^3 is the gold standard and the only one that's been tested. V-Loss may be easier, but as I said before, the problem is in the collection of data. I think a good middle step will be discerning the "cost" of throwing a breaking ball versus that of a fastball. After that, we can move on to mechanics.
7:10 p.m.: Is it good or bad when your editor is a fan? When it's Jonah Keri, it's great. One of the big weaknesses of UTK last year was that the whole operation was--except on Saturdays--me, myself, and I. I had a webmaster (who was great) but what I really needed was an editor. I made some hysterical errors, like dogging the Mets for having a player like Carlos Baerga...when he'd moved on to the Red Sox. Between Jonah and Ryan Wilkins, they've made my THRs so much better. It's not that they re-write, but that they distill and force me to challenge myself through the writing process. [Ed. Note: Your check's in the mail, Will. Thanks. --RW/JK]
7:30 p.m.: Dinner. Sometimes I get so busy I forget I'm hungry. Another cup of coffee and some hot and sour soup will keep me going.
7:33 p.m.: I always think I'm done with a piece and then go back. My novel has been like that for years now. I can always go back and find something to change, to add, to take out. The only way to be done with something is to publish it and let it go out into the world. Writing about the Expos is no different. People need to know more about Rocky Biddle's arm. Yes, that means more phone calls.
7:55 p.m.: Info in hand, I'm a bit surprised. Biddle is one of few that has made anything approaching a successful comeback from labrum surgery. If there's a type that could, it might be his--a middling pitcher with no dominant pitch, but decent control. While his ratios are nothing special, Biddle has been able to challenge hitters and let his defense do the work. The White Sox have a low Balls In Play average. I still don't fully understand Voros McCracken's DIPS work, but what I know still doesn't explain why the White Sox weren't better. Oddly, it looks like the Devil Rays pitchers also had good BIPa, but it sure didn't help them much.
8:10 p.m.: Quick phone call with Joe Sheehan. I owe this gig to Joe, as much as he'll deny it. Meeting him in Nashville was a highlight, but I never imagined he'd be nice enough to hang out and play the new party game "Isn't that..." and stare at GMs' wives and one certain gorgeous baseball official with me. OK, it was just me doing that, Sophia; Joe was the designated driver and kept the rest of us in line. Anyone who hasn't had the chance to go to the Winter Meetings really should. It's fun to see everyone, to watch everyone bother Peter Gammons every time he tries to walk anywhere and still realize he's nicer than anyone would imagine, and to be surrounded by baseball minds. It's also fun to see all the college kids, fresh-faced with new suits on, digging for jobs. There's probably the next Theo Epstein somewhere in the bunch. Next year's meetings are in New Orleans, so look for me. I'll be at the bar.
8:20 p.m.: It's not the first time today that I've cracked open the Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia. Lee Sinins' amazing tool had completely replaced my old heavy copy of Total Baseball. I can remember my first Total Baseball in 1991, digging through it like a gold miner. Some of the stats were lost on me and it took another five or six years before OBP really entered into my consciousness. If only I'd known, I might have hit better than .206/.310/.360. Of course, with a quick click in the SBE, I can tell you that Billy Beane's career line was .219/.246/.296. I guess he caught on late too. If you don't already have a copy of the SBE, buy it. It's almost as addictive as PECOTA cards.
8:33 p.m.: Crap. I knew I forgot something. I do some writing for the Indiana Firebirds, our local Arena Football team. If you've never been to an Arena game, try it. It's cheap and fun--everything the NFL isn't. I have about half an hour to put together a quick article for the website. I have no topic in mind, so I fall back on injuries. Our QB had an open dislocation last week and he's out. What's an open dislocation? Simple--his joint dislocated and one of the bones of his index finger popped through the skin. Is it any surprise he might miss some time? We have a good backup who I'm supposed to meet on Thursday, so all isn't lost. Really, go see an Arena game.
9:10 p.m.: One of the neatest things about being "inside" BP is the access to some of the greatest minds in baseball. Short of being in a front office, I don't know of any better collection of baseball thinkers anywhere. And I mean a good front office, not Tampa Bay. (OK, I should stop taking shots at Tampa, but it's so easy. Here's a suggestion for Naimoli, et al. They need a Devil's Advocate. They need a new thinker. Maybe they won't listen to him/her, but just getting the opinion in on some moves would improve the thought processes that we all question so highly. Mr. Naimoli, my contact info is at the bottom. You don't want to hire me--you've already got Jim Andrews on staff--but I can get you in touch with the right people.) There's an internal BP email list with some of the most insightful discussion I've seen. One email just made me completely question the way I've looked at a major player. Unfortunately, the THR on that team was nearly a month ago. I'll note that one for the "THR: Second Look" column.
9:45 p.m.: Wow. I just got the Injury Nexus article from Nate Silver. It's due to run tomorrow and the conclusions are stunning. To move the so-called Nexus (Isn't "Red Light District" so much cooler sounding?) down by four years changes not just how some of the THRs went, but how baseball will think about young pitchers. The age-24 low point is extremely interesting. Nate's making another advance in baseball research, and I'm grateful to be involved. I'm going to need to redo a couple things in the Expos THR (again) and add a lot of names to look at again based on this completely new info.
10:30 p.m.: I've finished my last-minute corrections and changes to the Nexus article and I still have time to go out to the hot tub. My back's been sore all day, so this is my time to relax and read my copy of BP 2003 while I'm soaking. Naturally, two calls come in while I'm in there. It's still the best 15 minutes of the day, or at least the most relaxing.
10:45 p.m.: A must-do each day is a check to NetShrine.com. I have a forum there where I posted the UTKs when I was independent, and I still hang out there from time to time. It's one of the most intelligent and civil baseball sites I've ever found...fun too. Lee Sinins is over there too, but it's the 'regular' folks who keep everything lively. Unlike some other sites, there's no nonsense, very little noise, very little spam. Steve Lombardi does one heck of a job with it. Twenty-one posts tonight, which seems high. There's a lot of talk about Hoffman.
11:01 p.m.: My eyes are starting to close and it's really too late to prop them open with some more Blue Mountain. The news is on in the background. My nightly routine is check the TiVo to make sure I can watch SportsCenter in the morning on high speed, then check both phones, three email accounts, and to update the Day-Timer and Palm. There are 31 emails suddenly, and some of them demand answering. Sleep's still a little ways off--I need to talk about Nick Johnson more.
11:18 p.m.: The weather is continued cold, continued crappy. With Angela Buchman's weather done, I can finally get to bed. Yes, it was a long, busy day, but by 4:00 a.m. tomorrow, it starts again. No, I'm not complaining at all. A year ago, I'd never have envisioned that I could do this for a living--that I would talk to people in front offices every day, or that Theo Epstein would say, "Yo, Will, what's up?"
I'm not Jack Bauer.
I'm not trading my life.
This was just one day of it. See you tomorrow.
Some quick hits on today's significant events:
Note: Several of you wrote in asking for some sort of Injury List, where I'd list players, injury comments, etc. It's something we're looking into. MLB.com has a nice injury list--that site's not bad for things like Gameday, the Audio Feeds, and their transactions--and Rotowire does news better than anyone, so check those out for now.