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August 23, 2007

Under The Knife

Facts, not Tradition

by Will Carroll

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Thank you for the well wishes, there's nothing like coming home and seeing "1,035" in the mail queue. I appreciate the thoughts and hope you realize that while most got a response of "Thanks," your thoughts mean the world to me. So let's move on...

If you've been watching the LLWS, you'll note that while there's a lot of talk about pitch counts, there's a couple things you're not seeing. First, no one's discussing the science. Jim Andrews and Glenn Fleisig didn't just come up with the numbers out of a hat. Their research has set the baseline for keeping pitchers healthy. Which brings me to the second point--you're not seeing injuries. Normally, there's a series of injuries at this point in the season as fatigued, immature boys are pushed beyond the breaking point in hopes of winning. Even the "healthy" ones have sore arms, something you'll always have. We also won't see the injuries down the line. It's unknown how many high school youths have had major arm surgery, but by instituting these kinds of limits, it's very likely that we'll see a decline in those numbers, though with the lack of statistics, it's much easier for pitch count opponents to fight than the proponents. The fact is, the counts shouldn't be necessary, but common sense in youth baseball seems uncommon. Pitch counts in the upper 100's--a number like 191, reported recently in a travel team tournament game--are proof enough that we can't just hope that coaches will get the message. It will be years before we see the results, but like smoking, hopefully we're stopping the damage before it gets too far along.

Powered by facts, not tradition, on to the injuries:

  • A lot of you asked about what I meant when I said "tricky language" yesterday in my discussion of Cole Hamels' elbow. Most of the reports said "medial collateral ligament strain." It's correct, even precise, but it's also something of a misdirection. To most--likely not readers of this column--they'll hear this, not recognize what's being said, and move on. However, you might notice that the medial collateral is another word for a more sinister-sounding piece of anatomy--the ulnar collateral ligament. Like the pronunciation of "abduction," synonymical words don't necessarily mean much beyond a preference and who taught the doctor or trainer. Hamels' ligaments seem intact, according to the reading of a contrast MRI taken just before he was placed on the DL, but there is damage, which suggests that there's something off with his mechanics or that he's reached beyond the fatigue point and is seeing damage. It should surprise no one that Hamels just exceeded his previous career innings high by 30. Given his history of injuries, it's hard to nail down just where Hamels should be--injuries are the biggest exception to the Rule of 30. One thing is sure--Hamels' long-term health is going to be one of the biggest factors in whether the Phillies are good in years to come.
  • The Cardinals continue to try to limp into the NL Central race, balancing the need to rest Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, and even the increasingly grumpy Albert Pujols with their simultaneous need for legitimate offensive threats in the lineup. Would it stun you to know that Brendan Ryan, still shy of 100 PAs, is the Cardinals' third-leading batter by VORP? I know I was surprised. Here's something even more surprising--the second- and third-best VORPs on the team belong to Adam Wainwright and Ryan Franklin. Watching the game logs for Edmonds and Rolen shows how delicate this team's balance is--Edmonds and Rolen are clearly better after even a game off, but given the alternatives, it's hard to find the right spots to give them the rest. The team got a bit of good news when Mark Mulder made a second rehab start. He went four scoreless innings, including hanging an 0-for-2 on Rocco Baldelli. Mulder's making progress, but won't be back before September, and even then he's as big a question mark as he's been all year long. Funny thing is, he'd still be the team's easy #2 in that rotation right now.
  • The worst-case scenario for a trainer or doctor is to clear a player to return from the DL only to see him reinjured. It's all the worse when that player doesn't even make it past the first pitch. Edgar Renteria was pulled at that stage after reinjuring his ankle on the first pitch he saw. It brings up the question of whether Renteria pushed too much to get back, or whether the medical staff simply missed something. Reports on his drill work and agility were positive, as it was for his hitting, so it's very unclear what happened, but I'm going to put a lot of the blame on Renteria if it turns out he was hiding pain or not giving the staff the full picture of what was going on. Toughing it out is part of the culture, but when things like this happen, it hurts the team far more than it might have helped.
  • Gary Sheffield is running out of options. He's had all the cortisone shots and hasn't seen improvement, leaving him with nothing but the work of the training staff and rest as his twin recourses for his sore shoulder. The hope is that Sheffield can take several days off to bring down the swelling, but to do so would put the team at a disadvantage against the Yankees. The DL is a possibility, even though it would take Sheffield past the point of roster expansion point, something that teams don't like doing. (You'll see this theme recurring for the next few days around the league, before getting to Sept 1, when the DL all but vanishes.) Sheffield's injury opens up more playing time for Cameron Maybin, though it may also expose him a bit more than the Tigers would have liked. The longer-term worry is getting Sheffield back to being productive and then finding the balance between rest and production, much like the Cardinals are doing with Scott Rolen's similar problem.
  • Dustin Pedroia took a nasty HBP in the capper of a tough set with the Rays. While it looked bad initially, the Edwin Jackson pitch did nothing more than leave Pedroia with a nasty bruise. He didn't have anything as fancy as a Barry Bonds-style brace or as creative as Mike Lowell's hand protecter, so he got lucky that it was nothing worse; the video is pretty astounding. (Dear MLB, please make this video linkable ...)

    Speaking of Bonds' brace, I spoke with Mike Witte late last week about his article on Bonds' brace. Most of his analysis is based on a system he hopes to write a book about and that he declined to elaborate on, but I found it less compelling than his writing, which is to say, not at all. Bonds clearly gets an advantage based on a lack of fear of getting hit on that elbow, but I see no other evidence to indicate anything beyond that. That said, if Pedroia gets one of those braces and starts yanking them over the Monster, I'll revisit this.

  • Chone Figgins might lose his chance at a batting title--a pretty crazy come-from-behind title if it were to happen--due to a recent wrist problem. Initially diagnosed with a sprain, imaging showed only a bone bruise with an unknown origin. He's down to a .335 average, fifth in the title race and plummeting since mid-August, when the problem initially cropped up. It appears that something happened, but there's little or nothing in the way of a real mechanism here, making it tougher to figure out how long he might be out. The team appears to be playing it conservative here, protecting not only its valuable player, but his shot at making a run at the batting title once he's healed up.
  • Quick Cuts: I saw some video of Pedro Martinez during his last rehab start--filthy. ... Randy Wolf is playing catch again. That's really about all there is to it at this stage. ... Alfonso Soriano ran the bases during batting practice on Wednesday night, but the Cubs aren't going to activate him until roster expansion. As long as they don't go into an offensive tailspin, there's no reason to rush him. Smart play by the Cubs. ... Troy Glaus is going to miss some time after a flareup of his fasciitis. Nevertheless, it's worth noting that he has cleared waivers. ... Apparently the Angels read UTK. After my suggestion yesterday that Bartolo Colon could be used in the bullpen, the Angels shot down that idea before it got legs. ... Speaking of legs, Nick Johnson had some hardware removed from his. The Nationals still hope that he'll be able to come back next spring, but privately are testing the market for an offseason trade.

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