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July 18, 2008

Under The Knife

The Ten Hurts that Hurt Worst

by Will Carroll

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When I first began reading Rob Neyer, I learned quickly that everything came down to runs, runs then added up to wins, and that nothing else matters. We can make the game as granular as we want, but it's primarily all about runs and wins. I'm certainly no Rob Neyer, but those lessons have held, and we're working on turning injuries into runs and wins-or the lack thereof. Once we get past the false perceptions that I still combat every day (no, there's not more injuries now; no, pitchers didn't always throw 150 pitches a start back in the day; no, injuries aren't just part of the game), then we can get down to the work of translating sprains and strains into runs and wins. With the All-Star break behind us and not much in the way of games to talk about, I decided to take a look at ten of the most significant injuries of the first half. You might be surprised that most of these injuries didn't "cost" much, not in terms of the dollars lost-although you could buy yourself a nice infield with those lost dollars-but instead in terms of wins. Three wins don't sound like much until your team is two games back of the division leader at the end of the season.

The value lost estimates are estimates. They're based on rough assumptions, discussions with insiders, and a look at the statistics. Remember that I'm the guy at BP that failed algebra, so please don't hold me to the same standards. The numbers are based on the work of Tom Gorman's Injury Accounting research, which can be found in the back of Baseball Prospectus 2005, but they are'nt as well calculated due to the retrospective bent of that system.

Rafael Furcal (Value Lost = 3 Wins)
Every time I talk to Eric Seidman, I joke that his article about how great a season Furcal was having cursed the Dodgers shortstop. He was out with a back issue just after Eric's article appeared, and it hasn't improved, leading to back surgery (a microdiscectomy) that for all intents and purposes has ended his 2008 campaign. There's a small chance that Furcal could return, but it's unlikely. Given that Furcal is about to become a free agent, this was a particularly bad time for him to get injured. He should be able to recover, though one front-office source thinks that Furcal may need to shift to second base. I'm not so sure about this-the stresses on the back are the same, and it's not a range issue, just a mobility and torque problem that Furcal will have to deal with in the near term. The tough thing to analyze is Furcal's value lost. Amazingly, he had already exceeded his full-season projected VORP when he went down in May. He's still the 37th best player in all of baseball by VORP, so I carried that forward and figure that Furcal's loss is more like three wins, although if Nomar Garciaparra can return to shortstop and play credibly, the Dodgers will minimize the damage.

Jeremy Bonderman (Value Lost = 3 Wins)
In determining things like lost value, figuring out who replaced who is the toughest part. Armando Galarraga is a surprising first-half SNLVAR leader for the Tigers rotation, but he replaced Dontrelle Willis. Bonderman left with his thoracic outlet syndrome and was replaced, more or less, by Eddie Bonine, who's been a sliver below replacement level. Bonderman wasn't pitching up to his expectations and projections, something that we can say in hindsight had something to do with his health issue, so he was unlikely to match his PECOTA projection based on what we actually saw. The downside is that the depth issues that Tigers have with starters are amplified, making a below-replacement replacement a drag on even an underperforming replacee. It's a complex concept at the heart of "replacement level," a concept that even smart people inside baseball struggle with. It might just be easier to see it in practice, as we have here. Those three wins of estimated value lost could end up the difference between a historic comeback and a win-now team that will not win now.

Yovani Gallardo (Value Lost = 2 Wins)
When Gallardo went down in a heap trying to leap over a tumbling baserunner, the hopes of the Brewers almost went down with him. The torn ACL in his knee will likely cost him the season, though there's still some chance that he could return late in September, or pull a Willis Reed in the playoffs. (Heck, Aaron Cook did it last year, though he was hardly coming back from the same amount of time off.) The Brewers have dealt with the injury, though the loss of Gallardo has led to the usage of Seth McClung, who will now shift into a home/road rotation platoon with Dave Bush for the second half. Gallardo's absence also indirectly forced the trade for CC Sabathia and the loss of Matt LaPorta, so there are some longer-term ramifications for this injury. Overall, Gallardo's loss of two wins could be a huge factor, especially if the Brewers again come up just short of catching the Cubs this season.

Jake Westbrook (Value Lost = 1 Win)
Fausto Carmona (Value Lost = 1.5 Wins)

So many things have gone wrong with the Indians that it's hard to pinpoint any one thing as a real loss, but if we're going to attempt it, it would have to be something that was unexpected. Travis Hafner's decline, Joe Borowski falling into disrepair, and Asdrubal Cabrera's existential crisis about his Punic name were all foreseeable, but losing Westbrook really wasn't. Losing him and then Carmona was just totally unexpected. As we speak, the Indians have a team where three-fourths of a playoff rotation is down and a guy who wasn't even counted on to be in the rotation ended up as the All-Star Game starter. Westbrook's elbow has ended his season, though Carmona should come back, and in the long run he'll be 'helped' by this reduction in his workload just before crossing the injury nexus. Carmona should be able to return soon and recapture some of his expected value. The difference between reality and the grand plan for the Indians is going to be well above the level of these 2.5 wins.

Adam Wainwright (Value Lost = 1.5 Wins)
Wainwright's injury, a damaged pulley in his index finger, is one of those injuries that's really not that bad, and he will be back. However, placed inside the context of a team outperforming its talent level, staying in the race, and using everyone short of Fredbird in the rotation, losing their one solid starting pitcher has its true value amplified. Wainwright had been carrying the rotation and giving the bullpen its one night a week off, going at least six innings in all but two starts, including the one he injured himself in. He'd already outperformed his projection, so once again, we have to use his actual performance to project forward. Adding in a little cushion to the expectation that he won't be all the way back when he returns, that win and a half could be huge in terms of the Cards' playoff hopes. With Chris Carpenter coming back close behind Wainwright, a healthy rotation without all the dead weight at the back end could keep this Cards team in contention.

John Smoltz (Value Lost = 1.5 Wins)
There was a time when Frank Wren and Bobby Cox thought that they'd have an embarrassment of riches in their bullpen. Smoltz wasn't part of that plan, but as his arm got creakier, his arm slot got lower, and he finally came close to breaking down, the team decided to let Smoltz back into the pen as a way of 'squeezing the orange'-getting a little bit out of something that had long since been squeezed dry. Even that plan didn't work, and with Rafael Soriano still on the mend, the pen has gone from deep to paper-thin. Smoltz's shoulder was opened up and rebuilt, though there's still some question about his possible return. As a starter, he's lost about two wins, but since he shifted to the closer or at least the part-time closer role, that number would have gone down by half. Let's split the difference, and tip our caps to the guy who will likely be the first Tommy John survivor to go to Cooperstown.

Alfonso Soriano (Value Lost = 1 Win)
If the Cubs do break their century-peat of futility, it's in spite of their highest-paid player, not because of him. Soriano has missed much of the season with a mix of leg and hand injuries that are a combination of both the chronic and the traumatic. No one could have stopped the broken hand (aside from a ten-cent piece of hard plastic), but the leg injuries are starting to make Soriano less like a healthy Andre Dawson and more like a modern-day Ken Griffey Jr. With five more years to go on Soriano's big contract, the Cubs medical staff is going to have to find a way to stem that progression, or the next owner will be writing checks for a sunk cost. The upside is that he's been quite good when he's in the lineup, so the value lost is mitigated a bit.

Chris Young (Value Lost = 1 Win)
Here's an injury where replacement is as important as loss. Young's skull fracture thankfully won't cost him any more than a few months of pitching and some discomfort, but it has forced the Padres to use pitchers that just shouldn't be starting at this level. The dropoff is pronounced as you go down from Young to Cha Seung Baek. Sometimes replacements perform well for short periods, and sometimes they take the opportunity to do something unexpected, like what Josh Banks has done in the Pads rotation. The problem is that you can't count on anything better than replacement level when you're replacing starters. During a season where it seems like everything else has gone wrong for the Padres, they've actually been a little lucky here.

Eric Byrnes (Value Lost = 0 Wins)
Aging speed players are a bad risk, and just a year after signing his big deal, Byrnes proved why. He looks like he'll avoid surgery to reattach his torn hamstring, but he's still going to miss the rest of the season with the injury, and face questions for next year on whether he can stay healthy. Players, especially older speed players, tend to decline rapidly after leg injuries. The problem is that Byrnes wasn't very good before this, making it hard to say that the team "lost" anything when he went down. It was far more than the three-win decline that PECOTA expected to a full-on collapse a year ahead of schedule. You won't mistake Conor Jackson for Byrnes on the basepaths, but getting Chad Tracy into the lineup more often (and that's the real replacement here) isn't costing the D'backs anything but money.

Related Content:  Back,  The Who,  Rafael Soriano,  Year Of The Injury

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