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April 14, 2008

Under The Knife

Expanding the Discussion

by Will Carroll

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It's amazing. When I started doing this, there was one other site--heck, one other writer, Rick Wilton--who did anything like what I wanted to do: expand beyond discussing the injuries to getting to the reasons behind them. I looked at pitching mechanics, performance enhancers, nutrition and the psychology of the game. Both here and at Baseball Prospectus Radio, I've gone where my curiosity took me.

Now I look back and see three sites doing pitching mechanics; some good, some that I don't exactly agree with. I see injuries being discussed by everyone from bloggers to beat writers, with a procession of physical therapists tired of working on some old lady's knee replacement trying to invade sports medicine writing, in the same way that they invaded the National Athletic Trainer's Association a decade ago. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then I'm flattered. I love the fact that we're expanding the discussion, that scouts and engineers are talking about the same things in different ways or that doctors and trainers see the things they're doing discussed in Sports Illustrated the way the things done by the players they put back on the field have been discussed for years. Not every athletic trainer liked the three-year rankings I did in the Team Health Reports, but to a man, all of them wanted to get better, just like I want the discussion of injuries to get better.

Is this just a "blogosphere" thing? Could our discussions on sites with an order of magnitude less exposure than SI.com ever make it out there into the "real world?" There's hope. Guys like Len Kasper, Jon Sciambi and Scott McCauley understand the stats and have figured out ways to integrate the occasional mention of VORP or PAP into their discussions. Beat writers like Peter Abraham, Matthew Leach and Susan Slusser aren't just discussing injuries, they're getting insights into the causes that can only be gained from their insider vantage point. Even Fox's Joe Buck showed insight during yesterday's telecast, mirroring some research I'm doing now by discussing time on the mound for Josh Beckett in Saturday's Yankees/Red Sox telecast. (For the record, Beckett made it through five innings in just under 15 minutes for a TIP--Time per Pitch--of 21 seconds.) The discussion is not just getting louder and broader, it's getting richer.

It's one of the fullest UTKs in a while, so powered by the motherflippin' IRS, on to the injuries:

Derek Jeter (7 DXL)
Seven is a no man's land for DXL. It's at that point that teams often make the decision that a player should go on the DL. It's the safe, conservative play. Is it the smart one? I've been using a quick-and-dirty Injury Cost metric in the UTK Wrap on Fridays, but in this type of situation, quick-and-dirty doesn't tell us much. Jeter, still out with the quad strain, is replaced on the roster by Alberto Gonzalez. No one is going to argue that Gonzalez is a better player than Jeter, but right now, Gonzalez is "better" than Jeter statistically, by virtually any measure. WARP, VORP, whatever defensive metric you choose--Gonzalez is ahead. Jeter didn't play well prior to the injury, and Gonzalez has had a pretty solid week, finding 120 points of AVG and 270 points of slugging over PECOTA's reasonable projections. Is Gonzalez's 0.7 MLVr better than Jeter's? Not over any decent sample size, but a week--or more importantly, 15 days--is not enough of a sample size, and replacements can often "outperform" the injured player over such short time periods. Given this knowledge, the Yankees would be smart to give Jeter the extra week off and hope that Gonzalez keeps playing above his head. The retroactive move allows this to make sense and getting more info, like this, is a smart move by Brian Cashman.

Jose Molina (15 DXL)
"Injury stacks" is one of the concepts I've discussed that hasn't really caught on. Part of that is the name; "injury stacks" isn't very descriptive. The concept is important, however, as the Yankees are learning. Most of the time, a stack attacks the depth of a team by hitting both a starter and a backup. At catcher, it's immediately noticeable, but even in the outfield where most teams carry four players and have several others that can at least make it through a game at the position, it's not that big a deal. One GM this spring discussed with me why he'd never carry three catchers, saying "Why do it? The absolute worst case is that both catchers get hurt in the first inning and then the game goes into extras. Even if you make it crazy and the third catcher gets hurt, are you telling me that you can't make it a couple innings with any given player?" He's right. Injury stacks aren't a problem for in-game management or even roster construction. What they are is an issue of production. The third catcher or sixth outfielder is seldom anywhere near as good as the lost starter, and the deeper a team is forced to go, the less likely it is to get the same level of production. I hear you saying "wait, that's in direct opposition to what you said about short-term replacement one paragraph ago!" Yes, it's possible that the sixth guy down or 20th has a good short-term period and covers adequately, but it's less likely as the stack gets bigger.

Molina's injured hamstring is likely to force a move in the way that Jorge Posada's shoulder hasn't, though it's equally hard to argue that Molina will get any slower. Unless the Yankees are ready to let Joe Girardi come out of retirement and be a player-manager, they'll need someone to keep Morgan Ensberg from putting on the gear--and seeing the injured Posada behind the plate last night after Molina's injury tells you just how little Girardi wants to see that. Molina fought through a couple innings after straining his hamstring on a slide, but he'll likely head to the DL, forcing the Yankees to bring up Chad Moeller.

Jose Reyes (5 DXL)
No sooner does an interview I did with Metsgeek.com get posted, in which I mention that Jose Reyes hasn't had a leg problem in a couple years, than I get a text saying that Reyes has a tight hamstring. It's the first real problem he's had with the hamstring in a couple of years, and luckily is just a mild strain. Combined with his lack of steals on the season, many are wondering if this is actually a lingering problem. One theory is that he's been compensating for a knee injury, one he suffered early in training camp after fouling a ball of his leg. If this is the case--and this is one of those vagaries that's almost impossible to pinpoint outside of the training room--then the Mets and Reyes have to be looked at a little differently. Reyes, even after a couple healthy years, is a player with a known, complex issue. If anyone slacked off the maintenance program, it has to be looked at as a major negative. If, on the other hand, that same maintenance program is what kept this minor, it's a positive. From out here, where we can only make educated guesses, I think Reyes will avoid the DL, but the continued lack of steals is going to become an issue for more than fantasy players.

Erik Bedard (3 DXL)
Mariners fans are likely a bit more patient with this kind of "is he or isn't he" given their infatuation with Felix Hernandez over the past couple seasons, but it wasn't supposed to be like this with Erik Bedard. Instead, while Hernandez is living up to his hype now that he's taken conditioning seriously, Bedard is once again missing starts due to inflammation in his hip. John McLaren mentioned "the medicine," which I'm told is a high-powered anti-inflammatory like medrol, rather than a cortisone injection. Bedard came back quickly from his last episode, but the idea that the Ms got damaged goods is certainly in play here. I'm told that like last time, the Ms expect Bedard to make a start by mid-week, so I'll set the DXL low while continuing to try and dig out the real story here.

David Ortiz (0 DXL)
If rule #1 is that players should always try to avoid surgery, then rule #2 would be that surgery usually corrects the condition and returns a player to his past level. Of course, rule #2 doesn't always play out that way, and it doesn't always happen on a normal timeline. David Ortiz had minor surgery to clean up his right knee in the offseason. It's much the same surgery that Manny Ramirez could have had a couple years ago to correct the problem and hopefully clear up some tendinitis as well. Ramirez avoided it and has spent much of the past two seasons at or near his normal exceptional level. Ortiz was great last year, though noticeably hobbled. This year has been miserable. Everyone is trying to connect the dots and say that the knee is bothering Ortiz, but there's really no indication that this is the case. Early in camp, Ortiz wasn't able to do all the conditioning and agility drills, but then seemed to be okay. In-season, Ortiz has been seen icing his knees regularly, but there's still no definitive evidence that his knee is the sole problem. It's likely a contributing factor, but don't place all the blame here on the physical problem. It might be the easy answer, but easy isn't always right. Ortiz is 32 and doesn't appear to be near the 230 pounds he's listed at. I'm starting to see a lot more Dick Allen in his comparables than I am seeing Willie McCovey.

Dontrelle Willis (15 DXL)
The Tigers just haven't had a good first couple of weeks. Dontrelle Willis left his last start with a hyperextended plant knee, the result of a slip on the mound, and headed directly to the DL. The knee isn't that bad--imaging showed no ligament tears--but is sore and swollen, so the DL is the smart, conservative move. Willis should be back right around the 15-day minimum, maybe a slight bit longer depending on how the rotation falls. These types of injuries are seldom a lingering issue, though Willis' high leg kick worries some. It shouldn't, for he's not dropping onto that plant knee from a significantly higher point than other pitchers. If you think of Willis, you probably have something like this in your mind. Actually, Willis drops the knee down to waist level before getting significant movement forward, as you can see in these clips. Like hitters, even fans can be distracted by Willis' unconventional-looking motion, but like hitters, once you see past it, there's nothing all that special about it.

Howie Kendrick (3 DXL)
Torii Hunter (0 DXL)
Francisco Rodriguez (5 DXL)

The Angels have been dealing with a series of injuries to some of their key players. Apart from each other, the injuries are all relatively minor, but in sum, they're testing the Angels' depth and Mike Scioscia's ability to cobble together a winning lineup. As flexible as Scioscia's lineups have been, especially during the multi-position heyday of Chone Figgins, he's gone the opposite way in the past couple seasons.

Howie Kendrick has a minor hamstring strain and will miss the Rangers series at a minimum, though the Angels are keeping alive the possibility that they'll make a move. I ask why, since Scioscia has been able to handle being a man down at times. Maicer Izturis has become something of a Figgins-style utilityman and will take over at second base in the interim. In the outfield, it's easier to figure things out, as the Angels go six deep. Torii Hunter is dealing with a sore big toe, the result of smashing it into the wall on a defensive play. Hunter DH'd, but shouldn't miss any time aside from the defensive rest, though that lineup adjustment points out that Scioscia is failing to use the DH slot very well, continuing to use Vladimir Guerrero in the field while DHing a superior defensive player, often Gary Matthews Jr. Finally, the treatment of Frankie Rodriguez is interesting. Instead of pushing him to the DL, the Angels kept him active and decided to "rehab" him in non-save situations. The ankles are making progress, but one front-office type said "in a contract year, the Angels are just pushing K-Rod for anything they can get. If he was signed, no way they do this." I'm not so sure, but it's an interesting concept.

B.J. Ryan (15 DXL)
B.J. Ryan came back from the minors and immediately went into the closer role. Moreover, he immediately went into a save situation. If you'll remember back to Ryan's early career, he was rushed through the minors due to his rough mechanics, with the Reds and Orioles thinking that they'd better get as much as they could out of him before his arm blew up. The Jays seem to be thinking the same thing, seemingly ignoring the longer term, which this iteration of the Jays (or at least the Jays management) might not be around for. Before you say that Ryan was used only because it was an extra-innings situation, note that Jeremy Accardo was used in the seventh inning, indicating that he wasn't being held back for the potential save opportunity. Ryan not being used in the ninth seems to indicate that John Gibbons will seek to limit his innings by the save rule rather than by logic, though we can certainly hope there are some more heuristics involved. If there's any real takeaway from the performance, it's Ryan's velocity, which was down in the high 80s, and that he wasn't missing bats. Ryan escaped with a save, but the Jays can't be very excited by what they saw.

Barry Bonds (0 DXL)
I'm just noting here that Bonds, like everyone else in the Mitchell Report, was granted amnesty. The Commissioner did withhold the right to punish someone for offenses such as obstruction or perjury, just what the government is expected to re-charge Bonds with in the near future. Is the amnesty and the exceptionally small chance that we'll see a Bonds trial before 2009 enough to bring a team around to signing Bonds? It doesn't sound like anything is imminent, as neither side is desperate enough...yet. One front-office type mentioned the Reds as a possibility. I can't say I see the fit, and it would involve some defensive juggling, but there's some sense to it, playing for Dusty Baker and alongside Ken Griffey Jr. Griffey could make it work if he chose to.

Quick Cuts: Philip Hughes was throwing as high as 94 mph in the first inning against the Red Sox, and gave up three runs. He was worse, but throwing just as hard, in the second inning. Can we quit talking about his velocity now? ... Tom Glavine didn't get an out before leaving his last start with a sore hamstring. He's 50-50 to make his next start ... Chad Cordero returned to the Nationals yesterday. He was slotted back into the closer role immediately, but didn't get through the ninth, yielding to Jon Rauch for the final out ... Andy LaRoche is ahead of schedule in coming back from his thumb injury ... Guess I wasn't the only one concerned about Rich Hill's mechanics. Lou Piniella sent him to the pen to work things out ... Scott Kazmir will throw in extended spring training on Tuesday. If all goes well, he'll make a rehab start over the weekend and could be back by May 1 ... Macay McBride is headed for Tommy John surgery ... BP's own Matt Kleine is hitting .328/.411/.493 at Division III DePauw. He's also gone 11-for-12 on steals while playing a solid left field ... Expect Yovani Gallardo back on Saturday for the Brewers. He'll make a Monday start for Triple-A Nashville ... In something of a surprise, Elijah Dukes could be back for the Nats this week after his recovery ramped up faster than expected.

Just a quick note about the UTK Wrap, which you'll see here and on SI.com each Friday. Some of you have noticed that the information is identical in large part to previous UTKs from that week. That's exactly what the Wrap is, a wrap-up column intended for those who aren't subscribers for whatever reason. You, the BP subscriber, get the info in a timely, daily manner. That's not to say you should skip the Wrap entirely. Check it for updates and the Injury Cost calculations, and if you want to know the "insider" way to check the Wrap, the"'Quick Cuts" section is always fresh.

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<< Previous Article
Premium Article Future Shock: Monday T... (04/14)
<< Previous Column
Premium Article Under The Knife: Injur... (04/10)
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Premium Article Under The Knife: Too M... (04/16)
Next Article >>
Premium Article Nippon Prospectus (04/15)

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