October 8, 2008
Playoff Health Report
As we prepare to get underway with what promises to be a closely-matched NL Championship Series, we have two teams that have struggled through their share of injuries to get where they are. Credit has to go to both medical staffs for managing to keep their teams functional, even though they may both end up ranking well down on the final lists for days or dollars lost. Consider that for the Dodgers, Andruw Jones and Jason Schmidt aren't here, while the Phillies are without Tom Gordon and Scott Mathieson. For some teams, losing this much value would have been crippling, but through a combination of resources and handling, both the Dodgers and Phillies come into the Series relatively healthy. For whichever team wins the pennant, there will be a staff in the training room that helped get them there, even if no one remembers to pour champagne on them.
Injuries and wins usually correlate. That's not the case for the Dodgers, who are near the bottom in days lost, dollars lost, and value lost. With 25 injuries, many of them to key players, the Dodgers were in the perfect position for a death spiral, where the workload on a medical staff spins out of control, causing more injuries due to a lack of time to do preventative work. Most of the loss was from those two star players already mentioned, and the rest was made up of older, injury-prone players like Nomar Garciaparra, Brad Penny, and Rafael Furcal.
It's the return of Furcal that's most notable and seems to have had the biggest effect on the team. The back injury that he suffered was the kind that can involve significant time for recovery; few return as quickly as Furcal did, so we have to give some credit here to the medical staff. Compare his recovery time to Mark Kotsay's, who had the same type of surgery. While Kotsay returned in a similar amount of time last year, he didn't stay healthy long, and he continues to have issues with his back. That might be a good piece of information to consider for whoever signs Furcal next season, but for now, he seems completely healthy.
The same can't be said for Takashi Saito. The Dodgers' titular closer doesn't have his best stuff back and is sharing the role with Jonathon Broxton. His lack of availability and Joe Torre's trust issues keep him out of tight situations; sources tell me that he's essentially the last man out of their pen right now. His arm troubles come after years of heavy use in Japan, and he's likely to hang it up after this season.
The rotation has a few fatigue issues to pitch through. While some will that say Derek Lowe gets better when tired, there's no real evidence for that, or for it holding true for sinkerballers in general. Chad Billingsley has crossed the Verducci line for the second time in his career, going from 90 to 140 to 200-plus innings at the age of 23. So far he's exhibited no problems, and has reduced his walk rate and his efficiency, two things that are really working in his favor right now. The Dodgers are considering Clayton Kershaw for a Game Four start, perhaps picking the rookie over Greg Maddux; Kershaw is well past his Verducci line as well, even using minor league innings as the baseline. His inefficiency with his pitches works against him, but in a single game he could well be effective because of his great stuff.
Overall, there's no significant injury issue on the current Dodgers team. Just as the current roster isn't anything like the barely over-.500 roster that made it into the playoffs, they're also not the 25-injury walking wounded that wasted much of the team's bloated payroll. We may not see much of Stan Conte in the NLCS, but his presence will be felt.
The Phillies lost over 800 player days to the DL, but they knew how to adjust. It's a main tenet of my research that while a medical professional has to treat each player equally, that treatment is not going to have an equal value. Trainer Scott Sheridan's focus on rehab was a bit shaky in 2007 but steadied itself in 2008, keeping a largely veteran team ready to go. His key moment was keeping Jimmy Rollins' ankle injury from becoming an issue and getting him back on the field quickly, but not so quickly that he would risk a recurrence. Rollins was on a maintenance program all season long, and as with players like Shane Victorino (calf), Jayson Werth (oblique), and Brad Lidge (knee), once a player came off of the DL for the Phillies, he was ready to play and never went back on the list or had significant problems. That's impressive.
The key absence is Tom Gordon, who finally gave out at midseason. Although Ryan Madson and Chad Durbin have been effective enough in the eighth-inning role, they're also not terribly consistent, and certainly not as dominant as the Phillies would be with a healthy Gordon as the set-up man. Charlie Manuel is left mixing and matching, using specialists to reach Brad Lidge. Todd Zolecki reminds us just how important that pen can be in a series against Los Angeles.
The Phillies also have some concerns over Pat Burrell's back, and they have Shane Victorino in for daily treatment on his legs. Burrell's back stiffened up at several points during the season, most notably just before the NLDS. He was able to play through it and showed no real effects in his play on the field, so it should be assumed that he'll be able to make it through the NLCS in much the same fashion. As with Burrell, Victorino should continue to be available through the playoffs, though his legs do carry some risk.
Finally, the pitchers do not seem to be suffering from any significant fatigue. Cole Hamels is at a new career high in innings, crossing the Verducci line in his age-24 season, but his performance in the Phillies' NLDS Game One belies any current problem. Brett Myers is tougher to read, due to his switch from the pen and his brief minor league stint, but again, he showed no signs of fatigue in his first start; if there's any risk with Myers, it's that he tires a bit more quickly and steeply than he used to. Joe Blanton, if he goes in Game Four, is actually down in terms of his total innings from year to year.
All in all, their current group of aches and pains should have no discernible effect on the Phillies, giving them the same team in the playoffs that won the division for them during the regular season.