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March 2, 2007

Positional Health Reports

Center Field

by Will Carroll

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After checking both corners, we move to the center of the sward. Center field has long been one of the glamour positions, and for good reason. It is usually the home of the most athletic, the speediest, and the most graceful. In addition, the position is often home to some of the more spectacular all-around players, stars like Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle. That expectation of athleticism enters into who's allowed to play center and who's not, with the appearance often going against the reality. Lance Berkman doesn't look like a prototypical center fielder, but was average to slightly below average when given the chance. Certainly his bat outplayed any defensive deficiencies, yet because he did not look the part, his managers were reluctant to use him, a move filled both with fear of the unorthodox as much as fear of the crowds. On the other side of this expectation, we see a few whippets run out to center field, many of whom are better suited to make the Web Gem than really play a solid center. Most at the position are rangy speedsters, even in this modern era of power.

If there's a problem, it's that we've molded center fielders in the image of an iron man like Willie Mays, and many break down in the face of that expectation. It's interesting to see just how many leg injuries there are at this position, but it's the arm injuries that surprised me. I'm not sure if this is a quirk of the modern game, but it's definitely something I've noted. There's always seemingly more to look at, more data I need, but besides the ratings we get now, the Positional Health Reports let us know just how much is left to learn. That's exciting.

Normal risk is Green light, elevated risk is Yellow light, and high risk is Red light. Very rarely, a near-impervious player crops up; he gets a Blue light. For more on the system, please check out the introduction.

Coco Crisp Yellow light: If there's an advantage to having worked this beat in football as well as baseball over the past couple years, it's that I've learned a lot about fingers. That will happen when Terrell Owens breaks his and the football world comes to a near-stop. Fingers heal slowly, and a player's pain tolerance is tested. Baseball's not nearly at the same point with pain management that football is, so tolerance issues like "it hurts when I swing the bat" come to the fore. Even a year out, the finger still bothers Crisp. It's not going to get better during the year, so this is what it is.

Johnny Damon Green light: Damon is an interesting guy from an injury standpoint. He's never been on the DL, but he's regularly injured. It comes to a point of the Ripken Conundrum: would the team be better, heck, would he be better if he took some time off to heal up? The answer is apparently no. Damon took time off last year and played at about the same level as before.

Rocco Baldelli Red light: Baldelli must feel cursed at this stage. Blessed by every physical gift one could hope for, he's never been able to translate that into success because he's always had some injury get in the way. Worse, they're almost always flukes. Less talented people might call this karma, but that's not fair to Baldelli, who might just turn things around this year. The trend lines are something I'm working on for next year, but Baldelli's look good.

Torii Hunter Yellow light: The farther we can push that gruesome ankle injury into the past, the better. It holds him at a yellow because of the nature of the injury and the position, but it held up well last season. The adjustment Hunter gets for the park is likely a bit rich as well; the turf has been better since the first year it was installed.

Mark Kotsay Red light: It's no surprise that he's red. Kotsay's pretty much an automatic red, and he'd understand if he read the column. Kotsay's chronic back problems crop up at least once a year. They treat it, and then he's back out there doing what he does. Sure, he fits the definition of red-a player who will end up on the DL in more than half the cases-but the nice spin you can put on it is that it's a known quantity.

Kenny Lofton Red light: This is a red based almost solely on age. Try finding a physical comp for Kenny Lofton, and one that didn't have injury problems if they were still playing center field at that age. It's a small sample size, yes, but that could just as easily have been a positive. I'd actually assumed going in that there would be more of a survivor effect for center. The opposite is true, with a nearly linear pattern.

Gary Matthews Jr. Red light: Leave aside anything from the recent stories. The fact is that Matthews has been held down as much by consistency as anything. Here's a thought-think of two players with equal lines. Would you rather have the one that was consistent all year long, or one that was great part of the time and terrible part of the time? Baseball has long tried to adopt some things from market theory. I've never heard anyone talk about market timing.

Andruw Jones Blue light: Does this surprise you? Jones' health is part of what makes him an underrated superstar. He's just there, making the spectacular seem normal. But mostly, he's there, a more valuable skill as the other Jones brother gets a bit more chipped than chipper. The most amazing thing is that he's still pretty young. I'm stunned to see that PECOTA didn't pull Barry Bonds as Jones' comp-just look at their stat lines at the same age.

Aaron Rowand Red light: Rowand versus fence last year really messed up his season, and perhaps that of the Phillies as well. That said, he never quite fit in to the system as well as everyone expected. His diving, hardnosed style will likely put him on the DL again, but hopefully not in the same dangerous fashion.

Alfonso Soriano Green light: Position changes, even down the spectrum, are dangerous. However, Soriano did well last season, and shouldn't face more of a challenge healthwise shifting to center. Several sources told me that Soriano might be the smartest player in the game, and that there's an intelligence and self-awareness component to staying healthy in the game. Now, I just have to figure out how to measure that.

Jim Edmonds Red light: Edmonds made it past a very strange case of post-concussion syndrome, going from unable to fly to World Series stud in very short order. He starts this season with foot problems that really shouldn't affect him far into the season. He's starting to break down because of his free-wheeling style of play, but he was talented enough to absorb the losses of parts of his game.

Ken Griffey Jr. Red light: Here's the poster boy. People think I revel in Griffey's injuries, but that's not the case. Like any player, I want him to succeed, and I want him to be healthy, but I recognize that at this stage, he probably can't. He's still incredibly talented and valuable, but the injuries are really going to be the story of his career. Figuring out how injuries affect value in extreme cases like Griffey's may save his son someday. I hear Trey has some wheels.

Mike Cameron Green light: Cameron is an interesting case, because he suffered one of the more devastating injuries in the past few years; both he and Carlos Beltran are lucky to have come away more or less intact. Traumatic injuries usually have no long-term impact, but eye injuries like Cameron suffered do. Without any known effect, we have to treat it as a trauma, leaving Cameron in the green.

Dave Roberts Red light: Here's the first of three greyhounds. Roberts is only as good as his legs and he's had leg problems over the course of his career. When healthy, he's as rangy and dangerous as they come on the bases. When he's not, he can't hit enough to be valuable. Add in his age and he's red as compared to ...

Willy Taveras Yellow light: a guy who's maybe not as fast, maybe not as sharp on the basepaths, but who hasn't had the leg problems. It only takes a minute to have those problems however, leaving him a stranger in a dark corner. Right now, he's no more than a woman err, a centerfielder who's a hamstring strain away from having no value. Now why can't I get this song out of my head.

Juan Pierre Yellow light: Pierre is Taveras without the funk. (And the easy joke.) He's the slightest of yellows, in by one point after a tough baseline for his position and age. The reason is that speedy outfielders are that one injury away from losing value. Even a small injury could cascade down, since Pierre derives so much value from infield hits. Measured against four years of never missing a game that might seem harsh, but it is what it is. I'm also reminded of a scout telling me last season that "Cajuns don't age well." It was just after Pierre had been traded to the Cubs. I have no idea if it's true, but it's another thing that at least one scout believed enough to say in a room of reporters. If he's right, why don't we know this, and if he's wrong, why has it never been put to the test?

Also Green light:

Corey Patterson
Vernon Wells
Brian Anderson
David DeJesus
Grady Sizemore
Curtis Granderson
Ichiro Suzuki
Carlos Beltran
Nook Logan
Alfredo Amezaga
Bill Hall
Chris Burke
Chris Duffy
Chris Young

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Prospectus Q&A: Reid N... (03/04)

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