June 29, 2016
Outta Left Field
Have the Dodgers Solved Injuries Or Are They Just Chatty?
The Los Angeles Dodgers have a $250 million payroll, at least six former or current general managers stashed away in their front office, and one of the deepest staffs of numbers crunchers in the game. When they decided to tackle one of baseball’s most perplexing mysteries—The Injury—under Andrew Friedman’s watch, it wasn’t particularly surprising. In fact, the Dodgers might possess the perfect combination of dollars and smarts to best pursue an injury elixir; their front office depth chart includes a whopping 12 different baseball operations analysts—behind only Friedman’s old team in Tampa Bay—and a 12-person medical staff. The A’s, by comparison, have just a handful of full-time analysts on staff, and when prodded about the injury issue—in a seven-year-old New York Times article, coincidentally about Stan Conte and the Dodgers—Billy Beane responded, “I just don’t have the money to let someone spend all year looking into this.”
Teams only have so many resources to devote to analytics, and every minute spent on injury research is one that could be spent on the draft or on aging curves or on figuring out what to do with terabytes of Statcast data. While some teams—like the A’s, perhaps—have struggled divvying up limited resources, the Dodgers have enough money to hire multiple people to study injuries while hiring more people to study the people studying injuries. That’s what they’ve done, apparently, beefing up their front office with the partial goal of getting a better handle on player health. The resulting strategy has featured the Dodgers acquiring extreme injury risks, guys like Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson, stacking bargain-bin depth pieces next to established stars like Clayton Kershaw and Adrian Gonzalez.
We believed, briefly at least, that the Dodgers were onto something. Maybe they had data that said McCarthy was a good candidate to string together a stretch of 200-plus inning seasons; or that Anderson, under LA’s care, would avoid another lengthy trip to the disabled list; or that Brandon Beachy was the perfect post-Tommy John rehab project. Then again, when that plan came crashing down to earth—McCarthy went down to TJ, Anderson to a bulging disk, and Beachy to poor performance and lingering elbow issues—we weren’t surprised. Injuries are hard to predict, after all, even for a smart team devoting an atypical amount of time trying to predict and prevent them.
More curious than the Dodgers’ plan is the way they’ve gone about it. Most major-league teams are extremely secretive about what, exactly, they’re working on. Ask any GM or baseball exec. about the specifics of what’s going on in the front office and the best answers you’re likely to find are made-for-media talking points—that is, of course, if they say anything at all. “Well, we want to gather all the information we can” or “we look at scouting and statistics as complementary pieces; the key is figuring out how to synthesize them to drive decision-making.” And good luck trying to get anything out of the analysts knee-deep in data—the Josh Kalks, Joe P. Sheehans, and Mike Fasts—if you can even locate an avenue by which to contact them.
What’s been puzzling about the Dodgers, then, is just how public they’ve been about their interest in injuries. No, Pedro Moura’s never published any algorithms in the Orange County Register, but he did write one of the many articles detailing the Dodgers’ quest to cure baseball’s injury bug. In a different OC Register piece from earlier this year, Dodgers GM Farhan Zaidi initially delivered some standard GM-speak, noting that the Dodgers and their opponents are “pretty tight-lipped not only about what they’re doing but even what they’re looking at.” But, some 236 words later, Zaidi kept talking about health and injuries, this time mentioning LA’s attempt to gain a competitive advantage in the burgeoning field. We’ve also learned, in other articles and a book (The Arm by Jeff Passan), that the Dodgers have hired forearm expert Dr. James Buffi; that they’ve aligned with Kitman Labs, a company that works to “reduce player injuries and optimize athlete performance”; that they brought a biomechanics expert, Brent Pourciau, to spring training in 2015 to analyze video of pitchers; and that they’ve joined other major-league teams in a five-year study on Tommy John surgery.
Maybe all the ruckus over the Dodgers’ newfound approach to injuries is just for show, and maybe they just want us—and, more importantly, their competition—to believe that they’re on the cutting edge of injury research. Why else would they be so noisy about it? It’s possible that LA has already done enough behind-the-scenes work to reach the same conclusion of most public analysis: That predicting injuries, especially for pitchers, is mostly a fool’s errand. Sure, we know that past injuries are a good predictor of future injuries, that high velocity pitchers tend to break down more frequently than their soft-tossing counterparts, and that subtle changes in PITCHf/x data can help diagnose an injury in real-time. But we don’t have the precise tools or confidence to really understand how it all applies to a given player—let’s call him “Zack Greinke”—how velocities and workloads and medical histories and mechanics synch together, particularly when $200 million-plus is on the line. And we haven’t even really discussed position players yet.
So the Dodgers’ front office concocted a plan to best spend its gobs of available money by leaning on small-market roots. Andrew Friedman and Farhan Zaidi came to LA from Tampa Bay and Oakland, respectively, and neither are accustomed to targeting first-tier free agents. Over the past two years, 25 players have signed for more money than the Dodgers’ top free agent acquisition(s) (both McCarthy and Scott Kazmir received $48 million deals), not counting Hector Olivera. Instead of signing super-obvious stars like Max Scherzer or David Price, the Dodgers went for depth and used leftover cash on the international market, nabbing the likes of Olivera and Yasiel Sierra for a combined $92.5 million while breaking international amateur signing bonus records. It just so happens that most of the Dodgers’ pickups—McCarthy, Anderson, Beachy, Kazmir, Yasmani Grandal, even Olivera—came pre-equipped with injury red flags firmly attached, allowing LA to add quantity without trotting out a payroll north of $300 million.
To put a bow on their strategy—which boiled down to signing a bunch of injury risks and crossing their fingers—the Dodgers leaked enough information to the press to make it look like they were about to solve baseball’s injury epidemic, their hope being that the rest of the league would dive headfirst into a rabbit hole of similar research. In theory, the Dodgers (manically laughing, of course) would get a head start on the next frontier—be it pitch sequencing or developing successful prospects or ergonomic cleat design—while the rest of the league slogged through the murky waters of injury research, using precious front office resources in an area where biomechanics experts, doctors, internet gurus, and big data often fall short to the whims of the UCL.
Or maybe not. There’s a good chance that injury research is the next frontier, and that the Dodgers—rich, progressive, smart, a little too chatty—really are leading the charge. It’s possible that the Dodgers thought they could turn the Andersons of the world into sturdy examples of optimal ballplayer health, and that they’ve simply been hit by a rash of bad luck. But if the Dodgers haven’t cracked the injury code yet, maybe they’ve discovered baseball’s newest market inefficiency: misleading the competition into analyzing the wrong stuff.