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July 21, 2003
Under The Knife
NL Mid-Season Health Report
Going through the data and talking to sources brings up an interesting quirk. There are often differences cited between the AL and NL, but never such a gap in injury statistics. The AL is healthier by a large margin--if I quoted the number, you'd be stunned--and there's no reason that jumps out. Some have long thought that the DH slot could keep some players off the DL, allowing someone to hit while not completely healthy, say Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols or Edgar Martinez. There's no great "health gap" in any other year since adoption of the rule, so I'm loathe to assign credit or blame. There's no changes in player patterns, medical staffs, or park effect to explain it, so in retrospect, finding that answer will be the greatest challenge and potential lesson for medheads in the second half. That said, it could be mere fluke and the NL could get really healthy for a couple months, but I don't think so.
Remember that I grade the teams based on a couple factors--overall health compared to both league and team averages, ability to get players back ahead of schedule, lost time to DL, and effect of injuries on team results. These are not terribly scientific and should not be used for wagering. In no instance am I assigning blame; instead, I merely hope to allow comparison and quantify effect. They're not worth arguing over.
The key to the Braves team health in 2003 is not the absence of injuries, but the absence of key injuries. The loss of Paul Byrd came early enough to address with available options like Horacio Ramirez. Instead, keeping Javy Lopez happy and healthy, Chipper Jones in a minimum of pain, and Mazzone nudgings to Mike Hampton's delivery have kept the team envisioned in the minds of Cox and Schuerholz on the field. The focus of the second half will be on fatigue management. Javy Lopez gets a day off per rotation so he's not the greatest concern. There's some evidence that Greg Maddux is losing some stamina, but he's not someone I'd want to bet against despite his advancing age. Grade: A-
As everyone in baseball searches for "what's wrong" with the Phillies, allow me to point out that they are essentially injury free. None of what ails Larry Bowa's team is the result of ailments. The pitching staff has some worry spots, most notably Randy Wolf and Brandon Duckworth, but Joe Kerrigan has been a stabilizing force for this young staff. There's blame to go around for sure, but none of it should fall at the door to the training room. Grade: A
Of all the things that money can buy--and by this, I of course mean the Yankees--it mostly buys depth. Given the money to work with, every team becomes a potential farm club and no player completely out of bounds. The Expos took some of the leftovers from the New York pitching table, the remnants of an almost forgotten hero, the crumbs that came in an ill-fated round turn, and the talented skeleton's left in Brad Arnsberg's closet and fashioned something they painted to look like a major league rotation. Something like that was bound to break, so the best result was breaking the pieces that had the least value and keeping something healthy for a trip to a town to be named later. Orlando Hernandez was free and worth every penny. The loss of Tony Armas Jr. has increased the load on younger pitchers like Claudio Vargas as well as a pitcher that doesn't need anything resembling extra work, Javier Vazquez. For this staff, having a human innings sponge--Livan Hernandez--makes sense. The back injury of Vladimir Guerrero was unexpected and at the mid-point, it looks like the injury closely mirrors the 2002 injury and rehabilitation of Ivan Rodriguez. Grade: C-
I wish I could take this space to try and find someone to explain to me why the Marlins think they're contenders. That tangent aside, no discussion of the health of the Fish can start anywhere but in the abysmal handling of pitchers by the team. The pitching staff aside, the team has been reasonably healthy with only minor and expected strains, sprains, and fatigue. Ivan Rodriguez has been notably without a problem. Still, praising the health of the position players comes out something like the old saw of "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?" Shooting yourself in the foot shouldn't draw praise for missing the toes. Grade: D
Mike Piazza and Mo Vaughn have contributed very little to a team that was to be dominated by two bats. Vaughn's almost-certain career-ending knee problems weren't exactly something that came out of the blue, and risking your most valuable player behind the plate is a debatable strategy given the options. As the team is deconstructed over the course of the next months, it is the Mets inattention to the value of injury information that will make the rebuilding process even more difficult. While some might quibble with the glowing assessments from the Mets, Jose Reyes remains a speedy player with a bad hamstring. The pitching staff remains aged, infirm, and overpaid. While I can look back at the Mets' first half and say it can't get much worse, there's a voice in the back of my head saying "Oh yes, it can." Grade: F
The Astro's biggest concern is not Roy Oswalt's troublesome groin, but the strain placed on the rest of the staff and especially the bullpen by their lack of an anchor. Averaging less than six innings per start, the rotation (and Jimy Williams) has taxed a talented pen to what looks to be the cusp of collapse. In the field, the team has been healthy, keeping their older players healthy and not placing the same burden on the younger players to overproduce. Jeff Kent seems to have one thing a year, so getting his wrist problems corrected is a definite plus considering the minimal time lost. Given the parity of mediocrity in the division, the relative health of the winning team remains a decisive factor. Grade: B-
Last year, I became convinced that there must be voodoo in effect somewhere in Busch Stadium. Perhaps there was an unknown Egyptian tomb opened near the bullpen or a black cat constantly crossing the path of the team, but while one year can be a fluke (see: Angels 2002), two years is often a pattern. Matt Morris is injured, but returns to the mound again and again; J.D. Drew looks to be on the Mark McGwire career path minus those pesky monster stat lines; Scott Rolen's back wasn't cured by grass; Fernando Vina has been a non-factor; and the team's best player, Albert Pujols, is one throw away from joining Rick Ankiel as Tommy John rehab partners. In fact, there's not a position without an injury concern on the lineup card. The positives are hard to find, other than managing to get Jason Isringhausen back when Robb Nen and Trevor Hoffman were lost for the season. A team this talented should be running away with the pennant; you know why they aren't. Grade: D
While Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, and the rest of the Cubs pitchers have been healthy, all the earmarks of fatigue are found in their stat lines. The ability of Baker and Rothschild to keep these pitchers rested and healthy may determine the course of the Cubs season. Sammy Sosa dealt with both a cracked toenail and a nearly cracked skull while dealing with a cracked bat scandal as well. Corey Patterson was on his way to a breakout season before a traumatic, unpreventable knee injury. On the brighter side, Moises Alou has been healthy, no insignificant task for Dave Tumbas and Sandy Krum given his history. If numbers like 120, XXX, and ZZZ are the tale of the second half, the Cubs could stay with the Astros and Cardinals. Grade: C+
Bookended by yet another set of injuries to Ken Griffey Jr., the Reds have a slight perception bias towards injury prone. Only the traumatic shoulder injury to Austin Kearns should be considered unexpected. Barry Larkin got hurt? There's something that won't make the breaking news wire. Russ Branyan isn't fully healthy? Gee whiz, who woulda thunk it? In fact, not much of the Reds problems can be blamed on the medical staff. The pitchers--including an 'ace' that is a converted closer--have been relatively healthy. Never mistake ineffectiveness or lack of talent for concealed injuries. Grade: C
There is a myth in sports that younger players are significantly healthier, but like most baseball myths, we know better. Finding a balance between garnering game experience for the next winning team while making sure that they'll be healthy enough to be on the field for those upcoming campaigns is tough. The Pirates do a pretty good job of finding this balance despite a rebuilding program that's essentially been in effect in various flavors since Barry Bonds went west. If the pitchers continue on this path, the team should be OK. Traumatic injuries to Brian Giles and Pokey Reese have caused some problems, but Giles made a very timely return with no lingering effect. Health is one of very few things the Pirates don't seem to have to worry about this season. Grade: B
I've never been so tempted to quote Bill James. (Muffled voices as my editors tell me I cannot pass on a team.) The Brewers are as interesting to watch from an injury standpoint as they are between the lines. Some of this is a positive. Roger Caplinger and his staff have kept the significant players healthy, returning Geoff Jenkins to health that allowed him to earn an All-Star berth and Ben Sheets to have only a minimum of problems with his constantly balky back. Let's not forget (though we may try) that Alex Sanchez returned from a gruesome ankle injury and that the injury is not at fault for his ineffectiveness. The Brewers have had more than an average number of small injuries, but some of these, such as the "injury" to Ruben Quevedo, might have other explanations. Grade: B
If asked, Stan Conte will say that 2003 is among his worst years as a trainer. With five players currently on the DL, Conte's training room is often more crowded that the Bay Bridge at rush hour. From the mysterious injuries to pitchers Kirk Rueter and Kurt Ainsworth, to the struggles with getting Robb Nen back on the mound, the quirks of injuries obscure the important results. Despite age and multiple nagging injuries, Barry Bonds is in the lineup almost every day. Ray Durham returned from an ankle injury well before expectations. Andres Galarraga and Jason Schmidt have been all but injury-free. At midseason, Conte and Barney Nugent can look at the standings and know that they're responsible for much of the lead the Giants hold. Grade: B+
Bobby Valentine was not alone in counting the Diamondbacks out when they lost their pair of aces, Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, to injury for much of the first half. PAP has predicted a breakdown for Johnson now for years, but apparently it was KAP (knee abuse points) that we should have been monitoring. The on-field transition from old to young can place significant stress on a team, overtaxing young players, but the D'backs have managed to avoid that sandtrap. (Yes, I've been watching the British Open.) Things may be looking up for the second half, but this is not a team that seems less injury-prone suddenly. Grade: C-
On the bright side, no Dodger had oozing abdominal wounds this spring, there has been a reduction in the incidence of skull fractures, and Chan Ho Park is someone else's expensive problem. The loss of Brian Jordan might have been seen--or even prevented--at the end of last season when his patellar tendonitis failed to be cured by surgery. Whether the surgery failed or whether it allowed him to play a few more months than he should have is unknown. The loss of his bat caused a wholesale outfield change, which may or may not work out but was certainly unplanned. Keeping Kevin Brown mostly healthy deserves praise, as does the health of the pitching staff. And it's not really fair to count an injury to Darren Dreifort against the Dodgers staff; ticking time-bombs have the tendency to go off no matter what team they're on. Grade: C-
Of all the factors that have been discussed in trying to figure out the Colorado conundrum, injuries and fatigue have largely been ignored. I'm not here to start a discussion I can't finish, but I think it's largely irrelevant for baseball. Aerobic capacity is not an issue and there's no anecdotal evidence to suggest that recovery time has been a problem for players and pitchers. For the Rockies, the health equations start with keeping their fragile but effective stars on the field and end with figuring out how to keep a pitching staff as effective as possible given the conditions. Both Todd Helton and Larry Walker have made it to this point in the season with more than the expected problems, but working around injuries to Shawn Chacon have proved less effective. The standings should offer plenty of opportunities for rest as the Rockies front office hopes for an answer to the Mile High Mystery in 2004. Grade: B
Not much has gone right for the Padres from the start of the season. The team would likely have been bad even with the services of Trevor Hoffman and Phil Nevin, but it would be interesting to know what difference they might have made. Instead, the Pads have been forced to accelerate some of their prospects, weeding out players who can't stay healthy like Eric Cyr and those who will be part of the next winning Padres team, like Xavier Nady. Hoffman is the most interesting case, clearly causing a crisis of confidence for the Pads in close games, yet again and again, the studies have shown the ineffectiveness of this strategy. As yet, the psychological effect of an injury cannot be measured, but it's far from zero. Grade: C-