September 27, 2012
The Injuries That Decided Divisions
Driven by deep data sets, sophisticated technology, and collaboration between skilled statistical and scouting staffs, major-league teams have become increasingly adept at projecting player performance. In some respects, assembling a roster is the easy part of building a winning team. The hard part is making sure that roster remains intact. Speaking at Internet Week in New York earlier this year, Athletics General Manager Billy Beane stressed the importance of predicting and preventing injuries:
The biggest indicator now—for a sports team—of whether you’re going to be successful or not is whether or not you stay healthy. The health of baseball players, the health of football players, is going to be a better predictor of a team’s performance. And the guy who gets his arms around that is going to be the wealthiest man in the world.
It’s easy to see why Beane—who has spent the last 15 years trying to make the most of Oakland’s modest payrolls—would ascribe such importance to health. According to BP’s injury database, 20 teams have spent $10 million or more on injured players this season, led by the Red Sox at $49 million. As a group, major-league teams have spent over $3 billion on player payrolls this season, and almost 16 percent of that total—roughly $480 million—has gone to players who were unavailable due to injury. The percentage is even higher if you exclude players with major-league contracts who aren’t on 25-man rosters and released players still being paid by their former teams. That’s a lot of cash that could have gone to good use elsewhere.
Of course, the impact of injuries goes beyond the bottom line. It’s also felt on the field: when starters are injured, more playing time goes to less talented replacement players, and team performance suffers. But a team’s financial and on-field fates are intertwined. The more prospects a team loses to career-ending injuries, the more it has to pay for free agents to fill holes. The more time a team’s established starters miss, the more it has to spend on the players who take their places. And the less success a team has in the standings, the more its attendance will suffer, the smaller its season-ticket base will be, and the less revenue it can expect to receive from merchandise sales and broadcast contracts. The ramifications from those missed opportunities to make money are often felt far in the future. The less money a team takes in now, the less it can afford to pay players later, which can lead to even harder times ahead.
Until Beane’s “wealthiest man in the world” discovers the secret to preserving players, teams will have to accept that some seasons hinge on who stays healthy. This season is no exception. Here are a couple divisions that could have looked different had injuries not intervened.
Given the distance in the standings between the Red Sox and Rays, Boston’s injuries probably only partially explain their current fourth-place position. However, injuries could prove decisive for the teams toward the top of the division. The Yankees have lost roughly 6.6 WARP due to injuries to position players Brett Gardner, Alex Rodriguez, and Mark Teixeira, among others, as well as prominent pitchers CC Sabathia, Mariano Rivera, and Andy Pettitte—and that’s without counting the potential contributions of Michael Pineda, who suffered a season-ending injury in spring training and was never on the active roster. Had the Yankees enjoyed better health, they might have a larger lead over the Orioles than 1.5 games. Then again, the Yankees have by far the oldest team in baseball, so they may have been lucky not to have dealt with more injuries than they did.