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February 15, 2008

UTK Wrap

Red and Green

by Will Carroll

Pitchers and catchers have started to report; by next week, we'll have some real injuries. Until then, I'll continue to not learn the lesson that every young sportswriter should learn--never make predictions.

Each year at Baseball Prospectus, I've done Team Health Reports. Over time, I've developed a system that uses an actuarial base to predict the likelihood of injuries for a given population. If you were to see the table, well, I'd have to kill you. But if you did, you'd see charts that would make a life insurance salesman's head spin. Broken down into such prosaic categories as "LHS 23-25 Low Pre-Arb," the numbers do their magic. I adjust these by 12 other factors, including workload, injury history and the "attrition" factor from BP's PECOTA projection engine.

Like any prediction system worth its salt, it's merely measuring probabilities, not certainties. The Giants won the Super Bowl, but I wouldn't have advised betting the mortgage on it. The tough thing for some people to understand about probabilities is that sometimes, the unlikely thing happens. If you flip a coin ten times, the probability is that you'll see heads five times. If you get six, the coin isn't defective. If you get ten, it's not even that special. When we discuss the realities of playing a game, noting the probabilities leads to the ability to perform. Kerry Wood is the poster boy for this concept. Few pitchers in recent memory have been as talented. Few pitchers have had as complete an arsenal of filthy pitches that leave hitters muttering to themselves as they walk back to the dugout. Few pitchers have been as sidetracked by injuries.

If I told you back in 1998, when Wood was striking out anyone who came near the batter's box, that the signs were there that he was more likely to head to Birmingham than Cooperstown, you might not have listened. Wood's mechanics, his heavy workload at a young age, the team's poor history with young pitchers, and the very nature of pitching itself conspired against him. People compared him to Roger Clemens, but Clemens, few remember, nearly had his career derailed by an early shoulder injury. Calling Clemens one in a million is probably overstating the case, but he's rare. Expecting any player to defy the odds is in itself defying the odds.

Each of the players in my system gets a rating: red, yellow or green. Unless you're color blind, these are easy to understand and since I live in Indianapolis, the auto-racing analogy is one I tend to fall back on. Underlying these simple colors are actually a band of probabilities, chances that each player sees an injury that lands him on the disabled list. A simple 15-day visit for a strained eyelid or a season-ending shoulder injury both "count" and there's no differentiation. For each player, there's always some level of risk. One never knows when Prince Fielder is going to run someone over at home. Red, the worst rating, is just short of a coinflip. For these players, the best possible rating is a 45% chance of being injured. If you're a glass half-full type, that's a 55% chance at health. You just have to hold your breath all season long that Jonathan Papelbon's shoulder holds up, that Brian Giles' knee responds to microfracture surgery, or maybe that Joba Chamberlain's usage pattern will keep him from following Kerry Wood's path to pain.

As I start rolling out the team-by-team reports through February and March at Baseball Prospectus, let's take a look at ten surprising reds and greens. These are the names you'll want to keep an eye on heading into spring training and into your fantasy drafts. Remember, these are probabilities, not certainties.

Vernon Wells Red light: Wells is coming off shoulder surgery that was intended to correct the tightness that limited his power over the past couple of seasons. The problem is that this type of surgery isn't always effective at returning power. It also tends to be a slow-healing rehab, where mild setbacks aren't uncommon. Add in the position that Wells plays and the pressure his big contract puts on him (as well as the increased risk that all Jays have playing half their games on turf) and this red rating is really no surprise.

Joe Mauer Red light: Speaking of turf, Mauer's leg problems all go back to ill-prepared turf a few years ago in the Metrodome. While catchers often see leg injuries, Mauer has seen a full cascade of leg injuries over the past three seasons. The knees are going to be a question the rest of his career, but it's the way that Ron Gardenhire used Mauer that's stunning. Given the need to rest his legs and the fact that the Twins are, in fact, an American League team that uses the DH on a nightly basis, Mauer was sometimes used at catcher while his backup, Mike Redmond, was playing DH. Seem backwards to you? While the Twins and Mauer have resisted talk of shifting his bat from behind the plate in order to help save his legs, you have to wonder how saving thousands of crouches a year would help their star's legs, and his bat.

Carlos Guillen Red light: Here's an interesting case. In order to save Guillen's balky knees--as well as the hopes and dreams of their pitching staff--the Tigers shifted Carlos Guillen over to first base. Guillen is hardly a typical first baseman, but will this strategy work? Probably not. According to one MLB team physician, the most strain on bad knees is not caused by running, but by standing. Guillen won't stand any less at first than he might have at short. There's also an increased risk any time a player shifts position. This is often caused by the unfamiliarity they have, crossing up footwork or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I'm not saying it's a bad move to shift Guillen over, especially given the acquisition of Edgar Renteria. I'm just saying it doesn't change the risk significantly.

Hanley Ramirez Red light: Another shoulder surgery survivor, Ramirez is in much the same situation as Vernon Wells. Not only is he expected to be an offensive force for his team, he's being drafted in the first round of most fantasy drafts, going as high as #1 in some I've seen. The "new trinity" of shortstops--Ramirez, Jimmy Rollins and Jose Reyes--are perhaps as talented as the Derek Jeter/Alex Rodriguez/Nomar Garciaparra group of a decade ago. Of this bunch, Ramirez is by far the riskiest. Balancing his injury risk with his incredible upside is going to end up one of the more delicate tasks for fantasy owners this season.

Jose Valverde Red light: Selling high? It sure looks like Josh Byrnes is doing just that. There's never been much question that Valverde has had the talent, the stuff, and the obliviousness to be a lights-out closer. He's just never stayed healthy enough to do it...until last year. Everything came together as he helped take the Snakes to the NLCS. With all those saves and four years of service time, Valverde is about to get expensive while remaining just as risky as ever. It was smart to let the Astros take the risk and see if Brandon Lyon--another guy with all the talent and none of the health--can do what Valverde did last season. (Lyon is red too, in case you were wondering.)

Carlos Zambrano Red light: How did Zambrano survive the workload that doomed Kerry Wood and Mark Prior? We don't know. Maybe it's his body type. Maybe we underestimated him all along. He's increased his workload almost every year, reaching a Batters Faced high last season that we can't blame on Dusty Baker. There's a chance that he's just one of those innings-eating freaks that give the old-timers someone to talk about as a "throwback." However, his walk rate stayed high as his strikeouts came down, pointing to the fact that all those innings might just have a cost after all. "Sudden" Sam McDowell is on his comparables list, and he was out of baseball by age 32. So were Don Drysdale and Ralph Branca.

Josh Beckett Green light: Mister Blister has a green? Absolutely. He's had two seasons of 200-inning baseball and an innings progression that, while unintentional, looks like a textbook case for what I call the Verducci Rule (increasing innings by 30 or less each season for young starters). Now 28, Beckett is not only in his prime, but at his peak. He enjoys the spotlight and wants the ball, and he's also smart enough to know that he can hand the ball over and watch Jonathan Papelbon lock things down for him, a far cry from most of his time in Florida, where he knew giving the ball to the bullpen came with a "Danger: Flammable" tag. As good as Beckett was last season, there's little reason to think that he can't be that good in 2008 and 2009.

Travis Hafner Green light: It's easy for people to look at a bad season and say "he must have been hurt." "Easy" isn't always "right." Hafner is coming off a disappointing campaign, but there's no evidence that injuries were a part of it. He's had elbow problems in the past and is a DH for a reason--but there's the rub. The actuarial base for DHs is so low that it takes a significant and recent injury to shift this enough to get to a worrying risk level. Hafner's 2007 looks to me a lot like Frank Thomas' 1998, an inexplicable drop that took him from MVP candidate to just really, really good. Of course, Thomas is still playing a decade later.

Jose Reyes Green light: I mentioned Reyes earlier,and while he's certainly less of a risk thatn the rehabbing Ramirez is, it surprises many that he's a green-rated player now. When Reyes came into the league, his chronic hamstring problems tempered some of the enthusiasm many had for the young speedster. The Mets were proactive and have made the near-impossible task of removing the "injury prone" tag from Reyes altogether. His focus on flexibility reminds many of Rickey Henderson, a man who's had an influence on Reyes' base-stealing as well. He's not without risk--no speedster is--but he's becoming a more consistent, well-rounded athlete and that usually translates into increased health.

Ryan Zimmerman Green light: I see you looking at the screen, wondering how someone coming off a wrist injury got a green rating. I know, I know--I've told you a hundred times that wrist injuries linger, sapping power and bat control. This one ends up coming out like Cindy Crawford's mole: everything else is so good that you'll call it a "beauty spot" and figure out a way to make it hot. Zimmerman's risk profile is so low that the wrist injury stays just shy of the yellow level. Yes, I expect a slight drop in power, but that will be offset a little by the new ballpark; if you're just watching the RBIs, they'll likely go up as well in an improved Nats lineup.

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Premium Article Prospectus Hit and Run... (02/15)
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UTK Wrap: Come to Flor... (02/22)
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