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May 23, 2014

Overthinking It

How to Prevent Future Prince Fielders

by Ben Lindbergh

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As Daniel Rathman noted in today’s edition of What You Need to Know, Thursday was a rough one for the Rangers, despite their 9-2 victory over Detroit. Heading into the day, Texas had already established a sizeable lead on the next-closest team in terms of games missed due to injury, which had limited a club that the Baseball Prospectus staff (though not PECOTA) had picked to win the AL West to a fourth-place, sub-.500 start.


Games Missed


Salary Lost (Millions)

Total Salary (Millions)

% Salary Lost











































Red Sox


















And then the Rangers learned that both Prince Fielder and Jurickson Profar, the two players for whom general manager Jon Daniels created regular roles in his lineup when he made the Ian Kinsler trade with the Tigers, were likely to miss the rest of the season. Even though they won and the Athletics lost, and even though PECOTA is probably overly pessimistic about Profar, the Rangers’ Playoff Odds fell from 15.6 percent (2.8 percent division title) on Thursday morning to 5.0 percent (1.0 percent division title) today as a result of the ensuing changes to their depth chart.

With PECOTA projecting the Rangers to win at a .443 clip going forward, the calls for Daniels to set his sights on next season and trade veterans such as Adrian Beltre appear to be drowning out the conflicting cries for him to put the team’s insurance savings toward signing Kendrys Morales or acquiring another veteran via trade. As Daniels said, “I haven’t ever been part of something like this…never across the board to this degree,” acknowledging that “there is a limit to how many premium innings you can replace and how many premium offensive players you can replace.”

Since Fielder’s season-ending surgery to repair a herniated disk in his neck might be the final nail in the Rangers’ coffin, it’s tempting to wonder whether they could have avoided having it hammered home. Daniels noted that Fielder began to experience stiffness and discomfort in his neck last season without ever telling the Tigers, and he didn’t tell Texas until fairly recently, when the symptoms became more severe. Daniels believes that the weakness in Fielder’s left arm caused by the injury was the source of the slugger’s power problems, and now the same ailment is responsible for his extended in-season absence.

If Fielder had told the Tigers about the problem late last season (which might have prevented the trade) or even informed the Rangers after they acquired him in November, perhaps the symptoms could have been managed more effectively, or the surgery avoided. If not, he could have had the surgery sooner and been back by Opening Day (or shortly after). Instead, he’s sitting out the part of the year in which he’s paid to produce.

Fielder’s reticence—whether it stemmed from fear or from a lack of concern—isn’t unusual. Within the last week, Miami’s Jose Fernandez and Boston’s Felix Doubront also admitted to being less than forthcoming with their respective teams regarding their recent injuries. On today’s episode of Effectively Wild, Sam Miller and I discussed at length why players are often reluctant to notify their teams when they’re experiencing discomfort, how clubs could do a better job of persuading them to disclose potentially serious injuries, whether a more transparent approach would have its own pitfalls, and whether teams should act under the assumption that their players are concealing problems and conduct medical exams accordingly. (Skip to 21:15 for the injury talk.)

What I want to highlight here, however, is former major leaguer (and current Fox Sports analyst) Gabe Kapler’s response when I asked him about his own experience with weighing whether to come clean to a trainer about an injury.

"As with anything related to drive, team loyalty, etc., player behavior and inevitably club behavior is highly variable,” Kapler said. “Therefore, so is the solution to the issue at hand, the lack of injury disclosure.” However, he did share the variables he considered in similar situations throughout his own career:

1. Pain tolerance and how much my performance was suffering as a result.
2. Needs of club in the moment.
3. Possibility that the injured area would become more severe and what the long view was based on my personal risk assessment.
4. Time of season.
5. Current status with the team, e.g., would I lose a starting job? Would a long rehab assignment be necessary?
6. Personal mental fatigue. Would a DL stint allow regeneration of energy?
7. Would the decision to be placed on the DL be taken out of my hands if I disclosed the injury?
8. Contract status.

So that’s what the manager/coach/trainer who’s trying to access a players’ innermost thoughts is up against. I said on the podcast that if I were running a team, I’d do everything I could to encourage my players to be honest about injuries. “Everything I could” would include having an answer for all eight of Gabe’s variables, many of which would appear on every player’s list. So here’s how I’d address each concern:

  1. We know that no player ever truly feels fresh after the season starts. There’s always some part of you that’s in pain, so it’s easy to convince yourself that the latest twinge or pinch isn’t anything out of the ordinary. It probably isn’t, but why worry unnecessarily or, worse, grit and gut your way from "day to day" to “disabled”? You worked incredibly hard and beat out intense competition to get here. No one will question your mental or physical toughness if you ask for help or need to take a day off. You may not even know how much your performance has slipped.

  2. Don’t try to do the manager’s or the general manager’s job. Your responsibility is to show up prepared to play, not to study the depth chart. If something is preventing you from playing at full strength, we need to know about it so that we can make the most informed decision about what’s best for the team. It may be that you at 70 percent is better than the alternative, and if so, we’ll keep running you out there, as long as we don’t think you’re doing further damage. However, if you don’t keep us apprised and we find out only whenever the problem snowballs to the point that you can’t pretend you’re not in pain, you’ll be putting us in a very tough spot. Remember: in most cases, your needs and our needs are very closely aligned. Not only do we like you and want to see you succeed on a personal level, but we’ve invested a lot of time and money in you, and we want to get the greatest return. Keeping you healthy and on the field benefits both of us.

  3. You know, I had a friend who used to do his own risk assessment. You know what he’s doing now? He’s dead. Dammit, Jim, you’re a baseball player, not a doctor. You have access to free, high-quality healthcare, so don’t make decisions with WedMD. Walk down the hall (you know, the one where you go when you want to avoid pesky reporters) and talk to the trainer. He or she will tell you whether you’re putting yourself at greater risk by continuing to play. Even if you are and have to take time off, it’s better to find out early than to wait and suffer the same fate as Fielder.

  4. If you tweak something early in the season and we catch it quickly, we can patch you up in plenty of time for the pennant race. Let it linger, and it might take a turn for the worse when we need you the most. And if you’re keeping up appearances because you think it’s too important a time to take a day off, think again: the more must-win the game, the more vital it is that we know what lineup gives us the best chance to outscore our opponent. Sometimes the way to be a team player is to let a teammate take your spot. We don’t want you gritting your teeth and trying not to hobble on your way to the plate in the playoffs. Odds are that you’re not going to be Kirk Gibson. You’re going to be out.

  5. If you’re fighting for a roster spot, you won’t do yourself any favors by playing through pain. If you’re struggling because you’re not healthy, we’ll understand that your stats don’t reflect your true talent, and we’ll want to see what you can do when you make a complete recovery. If we don’t know you’re hurt, we’ll think you’re struggling because you’re bad at baseball. Which sounds worse, from a career perspective? (Hint: being bad at baseball is often incurable.)

  6. A smart sabermetrician (and all-around great guy) once found that there are tangible costs to fatigue (and he wasn’t the only one). The ironman act is appreciated, but it could be counterproductive. Healing takes time that might not fit into a 162-game schedule.

  7. Don’t worry: you don’t surrender any say in your treatment when you tell us what’s wrong. Your input is the most important part of the process—as valuable as any MRI. You’re not going to go on the disabled list unless you’re disabled. And if you are, you shouldn’t be active anyway, for the reasons we’ve already discussed.

  8. Good news: you play in a league that gives players guaranteed contracts. If you’re locked up long term (like Fielder), you won’t lose a penny if you have to miss time. And if you’re still angling for a big payday, you won’t want to hurt your stats and scare teams off by playing at less than 100 percent or suffering a more serious injury.

As my mother told me once twice way, way too many times, “Control the expenses you can control, because there are so many you can’t control.” The same principle applies to injuries. Many physical problems aren’t predictable or preventable, which makes it particularly important for teams to avoid those that are. For that, though, they need the next Prince Fielder to adopt a different philosophy: “If you feel something, say something.”

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

Related Content:  Texas Rangers,  Injuries,  Prince Fielder,  Health,  Gabe Kapler

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Premium Article The Call-Up: Corey Kne... (05/23)
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