November 8, 2006
Under The Knife
The Dick Martin Award for 2006
This enhanced capacity to generate a more long-term view of the data was never more helpful than in choosing the 2006 winner. The winning franchise took home the prize this year after displaying a remarkable three-year consistency in keeping players healthy and off the DL, averaging only 355 Days Lost to the DL per season since 2004. We don't want you to see this as a "lifetime achievement" award either; on the contrary, this year's winner's medical staff did an outstanding job during 2006. They had only four players on the DL all season, and only two of those player injuries were truly unexpected. Our winners also finished second in player days lost to the DL, and third in the percentage of payroll lost to the DL.
That said, without further ado, Baseball Prospectus is happy to announce that the Chicago White Sox, led by Head Athletic Trainer Herm Schneider, are the 2006 Dick Martin award winners.
Dustin Hermanson, Jose Contreras, Cliff Politte, and Jeff Nelson were the only Sox players to spend time on the DL this year. Furthermore, only Contreras and Politte really had an effect on the 2006 season. There's a solid argument that Hermanson's time spent should be counted against last season--that's when he was actually hurt, after all. Likewise, Jeff Nelson, a low-cost mid-season signing by the Sox who only pitched in six games for them this year, wasn't really expected to be a big part of their championship defense.
Knowing what to expect from a player that your a team is trying to acquire is arguably as important as keeping players healthy once they are on your roster. The Sox roster is full of guys with checkered health histories who have stayed healthy now that they're in Sox uniforms, including MVP-candidate Jermaine Dye, slugger Jim Thome, and a bullpen trio of Matt Thornton, Bobby Jenks, and Mike MacDougal. All of those players were added in the last two years. Identifying that those 80 HRs and 300 MPH of fastball were available, and for discounted prices, deserves recognition by itself, but we have to believe that in many of these cases, Kenny Williams and his front office couldn't have been as confident in making these acquisitions without checking with his medical team. The Sox medical staff then kept those players effective, something their previous teams, for whatever reasons, could not do.
Contrast these acquisitions against the big one made by the Toronto Blue Jays this past off-season. The Jays signed A.J. Burnett; Burnett spent just under half the season on the DL and pitched only 135.2 innings. The combo of Jenks, Thornton and MacDougal pitched 148.2 innings for the Sox, and most of those innings were the in highest-leverage relief situations. It is hard to make the case that you should spend lots on an injury-prone pitcher when those three fireballers were available this year for a combined $1.125M. Is medicine the new arbitrage opportunity in which you can find the most value for your dollar? We've been arguing this point for years, but we're finally starting to see the data to back this up.
In addition to advising the front office on player acquisition, you have to also give credit to the organization for taking heed of player health with respect to coaching decisions. No Sox pitcher appears on the Pitcher Abuse Points (PAP) leader board, and only very occasionally did a Sox pitcher break the 120-pitch mark. Furthermore, while it can frustrate fans on any given day, Ozzie Guillen plays all 25 guys on his roster, often in starting roles. Utilitymen Rob Mackowiak and Alex Cintron each had more than 280 PA during 2006, allowing regulars such as Scott Podsednik and Juan Uribe to rest various minor injuries, and also reducing the workload of rookie Brian Anderson. Anderson had an awful first full season (there's no getting around his .212 EQA), but he didn't appear to have fatigue issues until the very end of the season, as his OPS increased each month through August.
Recognition should also be given to the other organizations who did well by our metrics this year. The Seattle Mariners have (hopefully) turned the corner on injures as they had the fewest "Dollars Lost to the DL." Having now ushered Felix Hernandez through his first full season without incident, we can all exhale, if only until March. Also performing well were the Cleveland Indians--they had the fewest days lost to the DL. This was an improvement over an already-good 2005, but they haven't yet reached the standard set by Chicago's long-term consistency. Also, it must be noted that Travis Hafner's late-season injury doesn't appear in the DL numbers, since the DL isn't always employed in September. Let's hope they can find a way to keep the best hitter in the AL healthy all year next season.
So, this year's Award goes to the White Sox, but there's praise enough and blame enough to go around to every team in the league. Sports medicine is becoming a recognized factor in winning and losing. The White Sox already have their World Series rings, in no small part to the work of their medical staff in the 2005 season. That they are only now getting their due from the medheads shows just how competitive this award has become.