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February 19, 2003
From The Mailbag
Rick Peterson, Assorted Injuries, and the Devil Rays
I just read your interview with A's pitching coach Rick Peterson, and I must say that I am very impressed with Mr. Peterson's awareness of the relationship between a pitcher's mechanics and his health. If more coaches gave as much thought to the health of their pitchers as Mr. Peterson does to the A's pitching staff, perhaps tragic arm injuries might not be as common as they are now. It is very refreshing to see how some intelligence and new approaches are applied to the field of baseball. As a big A's fan, I guess can rest assured that The Big Three are in good hands with Peterson.
I've done interviews with Mike Marshall and Tommy John that touched on these subjects. I'm planning to talk to several other pitching coaches along these same lines, while asking different pitching-related questions as well. BP has a very strong interest in a lot of the topics you mention--subjects like injury prevention, pitch counts, mechanics, and four-man vs. five-man rotations. In the meantime, I'm gathering suggestions for future Q&As as I go.
As for Peterson, I'll say this: He's smarter than most, but by no means an aberration. There are plenty of smart people in baseball, if you know where to look.
OK, I need to ask you the question that has been bugging me for a while... what, exactly, is the labrum? What is its relationship to the rotator cuff? A few years ago, you always used to hear about rotator cuff injuries and how they were the deadly ones, now labrums are being talked about in the same way. Is this because we are now using a more precise term, and the labrum is part of the rotator cuff, or is it a change in injury patterns?
When in doubt, check Johns Hopkins. They have the best info out there in the easiest-to-use format.
What's happening is we're learning more. Twenty years ago an ACL or elbow was deadly. Now it's cuff and labrum. We're making progress with both, but neither is exactly the "automatic" that Tommy John is.
We also have much better imaging tools. As MRIs become common, we can see more. If PET scanners get used more, you'll see more precise surgical procedures and hopefully better results.
I have a question for you about Jon Rauch. A usually reliable source told me that Rauch did not actually have a torn labrum but a shoulder impingement. I've always seen the injury reported as a torn labrum.
An impingement means... OK, the rotator cuff muscles go through a hole in the shoulder (if I'm oversimplifying I apologize). If the hole is too small (it happens--it's a genetic condition) or if something causes the muscle to swell (like tendonitis), then it rubs and causes small tears or worse, more swelling. Basically they go in and drill the hole bigger.
Rauch had a torn labrum. Actually a SLAP lesion, which I explain in more detail in this year's book. Rauch may well have also had an impingement--it's pretty common to have both.
"(Damian) Jackson's a good fielder at second, he's an underrated masher against lefties, and tactically, you can use him to pinch-run for (Todd) Walker (or anybody) in the later innings and then keep him in the lineup for his glove."
I can't disagree more strongly. First, let's take a closer look at the numbers, instead of using a meaningless statoid like OPS to judge offensive performance:
Walker vs. Lefties -------------------- 2002 .278/.315/.373 2001 .269/.288/.407 2000 .357/.400/.643 (in fewer than 20 PAs, so a meaningless sample) 1999 .178/.231/.257
In other words, a good body of evidence that he can't hit lefties.
Jackson vs. Lefties -------------------- 2002 .217/.309/.283 2001 .319/.392/.416 2000 .223/.358/.298 1999 .188/.275/.282
What that tells is that Jackson's performance has been all over the place, but that he's also had the only two useful seasons (2000 and 2001) of the eight we can easily look at from ESPN.com's superb data set.
As for Zone Rating, it's a number which conveys very little in a system that is little more than a joke, even to those who invented it. I would not rely upon it for anything. In the end, before cashing out, neither did STATS, since they haphazardly introduced "Ultimate Zone Rating," a repudiation of their previous dingleberry.
Instead, I'd recommend relying on Clay Davenport's defensive metrics or Tom Tippett's defensive modeling in Diamond-Mind before I'd give ZR a moment's thought, never mind the limited sample size issues that arise in turning to it in Merloni's defense. Check out Jackson's player card here on Baseball Prospectus, for example, and you'll see that he's been an above-average glove at second three of the last four years; Merloni looks like a slightly better shortstop, and a slightly worse second baseman, but again, there are sample size issues with trying to say anything substantive about his glovework. Your point about his offensive value is well taken, but again, we're not talking about a ton of playing time from which to derive many conclusions.
Merloni's status as Nomar's sidekick will invariably help his chances, but I would generally agree that it will be interesting to see if the Sox can keep both Merloni and Jackson on the Opening Day roster.
Regarding your excoriation of the Yankees' signing of Todd Zeile, I think you've missed what his role probably will be--to wit, replacing Ron Coomer. Like Coomer, Zeile can play third base and first base. Unlike Coomer, he can do both well, and can also serve as an emergency backup catcher in case something happens to both Posada and Widger. His 778 OPS is also superior to Coomer's 662, even if Zeile's is Coors-induced. Neither will set the world on fire, but if he's used as the backup corner infielder for when Ventura needs a rest against a lefthander or if both Giambi and Johnson find themselves on the DL (not an unreasonable possibility), Zeile will be a good pickup, especially since Torre and Ventura both like him (which certainly doesn't hurt).
Well, I just don't really see it. Yes, Coomer couldn't play third and had little offensive value. But improving on Coomer isn't the name of the game, getting a quality player is. The question is, is Zeile that player? If you look at his player card here on BP.com, you'll see he hasn't been an effective glove at third, and he's been adequate at best at first. His primary offensive value should be to mash lefties and spot for Ventura, Johnson or Giambi, but Zeile hit 274/372/404 against them last year, nice but not exactly stellar (to his credit, he was significantly better against lefties in 2001 and 2000). He'll probably be decent enough in a supporting role, but his limitations are pretty severe.
I guess my point is why spend a million or more to acquire a player who couldn't slug .450 playing half his games in Coors? Guys like Tom Evans, Casey Blake, Kevin Orie, Scott Seabol, Mike Coolbaugh, or even Chris Truby could do this. You can pay them close to the minimum, and discard them if they flopped, instead of paying five times as much to land Zeile. And while I can accept that Zeile offers notional value as somebody you could play more often if any of Ventura, Johnson or Giambi get hurt, if that happened, Zeile would be an adequate patch at best, not a solution in what should be a more competitive AL East this year.
As for catching, he hasn't caught in a dozen years. I wouldn't read too much into his being available as the team's emergency catcher any more than I would call Spam a food because you can cook it. Given Torre's tactical rigidity in some situations, the odds of Zeile catching are pretty remote.
After reading your comments about the Devils Ray's signing of Rey Ordonez and Travis Lee, I have read your site for the last time! Don't you think the Devil Rays know damn well that the two of them aren't going to provide much offense and anything that they do is a bonus? Since you obviously don't know, they were signed for their defense, to make the routine plays and to help a pitching staff that can claim to only have one definite starter in Joe Kennedy with Major League experience. Of course they're stopgaps, that's why they weren't signed to long-term contracts. Mr. Piniella said it himself in that he plans to give any and all pitchers an opportunity in 2003 regardless of the level they pitched at in '02, so the organization will have a good idea of what legitimate major league pitchers they have and don't have and then will go from there. And to connect the dots for you, Ordonez and Lee were brought aboard to help with their pitcher's confidence and development.