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April 14, 2006

Under The Knife

Memes

by Will Carroll

There are two memes working their way around baseball right now that need to be addressed. First is the preposterous notion that ten days of data tells us we haven't solved the steroid problem with the new testing, or that something like Hawk Harrelson's "first hour" baseball theory could explain a problem so multivariate as the cause of home runs. Harrelson, a White Sox announcer, believes that the makers of baseballs get tired of tying baseballs after one hour on the job and that baseball is using only those tightly-wound first-hour balls.

The research done by Jay Jaffe in "The Juice" does show that the makeup of baseballs is a small but significant part of the home run increase. But there are many factors in the homer increase--weather, smaller parks, maple bats, less pitching, expansion dilution, and, yes, performance enhancers. It's far too simplistic to pick out any one and say "yep, there it is." Baseball is a complex game, one that could be affected by such things as the strength of the hands that stitch the ball or the butterfly flapping its wings outside the Rawlings factory that leads to the stiff wind blowing straight out of Wrigley. Baseball is so enjoyable because we just don't know; it's the most complex series of tangible and intangible variables found on green grass.

The other meme is that pitchers who participated in the World Baseball Classic are now feeling the effects. Yes, Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, and Esteban Loaiza have seen poor results and reduced velocity this season. Jake Peavy has had one good outing and one bad. Dontrelle Willis, who looked terrible in the Classic, looks pretty good now that he's in teal. I haven't taken the time to break down the first few starts for all of the starters from the WBC because we're too early in the season to see anything other than noise. You've heard it from Joe Sheehan and others: it's early. We don't know. Maybe there's something to it or maybe not. Watch the games, enjoy the games, and keep watching to see when there's a fact or two to back up the theories.

Powered by a quick glimpse at the new Sortable Stats, on to the injuries:

  • The big thing about pitchers is that there's no small thing. Keep this in mind as we discuss Brandon Backe. Backe struggled through spring training with a sore lower back, and once that was cleared up--with a cortisone injection late in March--Backe got his velocity back and looked pretty good. Perhaps the quick return of his velocity--coupled with his lost conditioning--contributed to Thursday's injury. Backe was throwing in the low 90s and quickly went to the mid-80s. He grabbed at his forearm and got a mound visit by the coaching and training staff, but was allowed to stay in the game. He continued to lose velocity before he was removed the following inning. Backe was diagnosed with an elbow sprain, but there is no immediate plan for imaging. The Astros are hoping Backe's arm will respond to conservative treatment, with Phil Garner even hoping that Backe won't miss a start. That's unlikely. Backe, a converted outfielder, is the latest in a long line of conversions that end up injured. We'll know more about the severity of the injury by Saturday, but for now, watch him very closely.
  • Apparently, Randy Johnson didn't think his shoulder stiffness was a baseball decision. Johnson was lifted from his start after five innings and 87 pitches, something that has less to do with his shoulder and more to do with his knees. When Johnson's knees are pain-free (or, more likely, pain-reduced) in the effective period of his Synvisc injections, his mechanics are smooth. While I do not know when Johnson had his last series of injections, his mechanics in tonight's game implied that he was due for a new series of Synvisc. If you want a key, watch the chest of his jersey. When he's right, the jersey pops out as he's about to release the ball. When he's not, his delivery is much more of a long arc that stresses--you guessed it--the shoulder. Johnson's quick hook was a baseball decision; the Yankees can't afford to stress his arm in this condition if they intend to win. It would be interesting to know when Johnson's last series of injections was to gauge whether or not the lubrication is having a shorter period of effectiveness.
  • Can an injury explain why everyone's All-American, Jeremy Hermida, has started slowly? Possibly. Hermida has a moderate strain of his hip flexor, an injury that is often described as painful and hobbling. For a mobile outfielder, this problem becomes even more problematic and for a hitter who is often described as "picture perfect," taking that base away really changes the picture. The hip flexor strain is one that often causes a funny, yet serious reaction; I've heard many athletes say "I didn't even know I had a muscle there." It's an important one and one of the least maintained muscles in the body.
  • The A's are always among the league leaders in pitching injuries--meaning they don't have many. When we look back at the very basic data, Jay Witasick will look like an injured pitcher, even though his ankle sprain has little to do with his pitching. Even so, the A's have largely avoided even bad luck like this over the last five years, something that seems less like luck with that consistency. Witasick is likely to go to the DL, though ankle sprains are notoriously difficult to get an early read on. He's hardly a key part, but again, you should be thinking depth and flexibility.
  • The Pirates are struggling enough that any good news is welcome. Kip Wells could be that good news. Wells, recovering from vascular surgery on his pitching shoulder, is well ahead of schedule. He's so far ahead, in fact, that he'll be cleared to begin throwing next week, leading many to think that he'll be back in June. The Pirates could use the help as their pitching continues to struggle. Jim Tracy is already using Wells' return as leverage on his staff, reminding them that someone will have to go back to the minors or the pen when Wells returns.
  • Ian Kinsler got the good news/bad news this week. The good news is that his thumb is only strained--not torn--and he'll be able to avoid surgery for now. The bad news is that he's likely to have pain and reduced grip strength for much of the season, meaning he could lose both bat speed and control. The medical team in Texas is top-notch, so look for some creative solutions once he's back, about a month from now. If you're looking for a comparable injury, look no further than Rickie Weeks last July and August.
  • Quick Cuts: Morgan Ensberg is not with the team as he deals with a staph infection. Some sources have hinted that Ensberg is dealing with MRSA, a drug-resistant infection that is difficult to clear up. Several players, notably Sammy Sosa last year, have dealt with MRSA, a growing problem in baseball Ken Griffey Jr.'s knee problem is so minor that minor isn't the right word for it. He'll be back soon, though the conservative treatment may end up costing him some plate appearances this season Expect Jacque Jones to miss the weekend for the Cubs with a strained hamstring. The DL is unlikely, but possible if he's not back by Monday Mike Cameron is slightly ahead of schedule. He'll start swinging a bat next week.

Don't forget to tune in (or set your podcast) for BP Radio this weekend. We'll be focusing on Alex Belth's new book Stepping Up. We'll talk with Belth, Tim McCarver, and Marvin Miller as we learn more about Curt Flood and his role in baseball history.

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