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November 7, 2011
The Season in Injuries: NL West
The end of the year brings joy to some teams—here’s looking at you, Cardinals—but for most it’s an offseason of “coulda, shoulda, wouldas.” Many of those regrets have to do with injuries, which regularly rob teams of their full potential. Everyone understands that injuries affect how the season plays out, but the extent to which they impact the outcome is harder to grasp. This season saw races come down to the wire in both leagues, with the Cardinals continuing their improbable run through the playoffs to become World Series champs. How much easier would that have been for them if Adam Wainwright had been healthy? Would a healthy Daisuke Matsuzaka have made the difference in the AL East for the Red Sox? These questions and more will be answered as we break down each division over the next few weeks, starting with the NL West, home of two of the five teams with the most disabled list transactions.
In order to determine what teams were hurt most by injuries this year, we needed to get down to the only thing that matters in the end: wins. Lost salary doesn’t tell us how injuries affected a team in the standings, but the significance of the wins lost to a team due to injury is clear. We decided that calculating the WARP generated by each injured player on a per-plate-appearance basis from 2009-2011 and multiplying by the number of plate appearances his injuries cost him this season would give us what we were looking for.
After some testing, this approach passed the sniff test. Overall, it gives us an excellent estimation of the number of wins a team lost due to injuries. Let’s kick off our review with a look at the first division on the list: the NL West.
Division: National League West
The Diamondbacks were one of the most successful teams in the majors in terms of preventing injuries to important players, leading the National League in TAWL, count of injuries, and days missed. Part of the reason why Arizona ranks so well is that few of their injured players could be considered stars. Major injuries to Stephen Drew (ankle), Geoff Blum (finger), Xavier Nady (hand), Zach Duke (hand), Jason Marquis (leg), and Juan Gutierrez (shoulder and Tommy John) made up the majority of the time lost but didn’t affect the team that much in terms of wins lost. Only Stephen Drew lost more than 0.5 TAWL from his injuries this season.
Drew accounted for a whopping 60 percent of Arizona’s TAWL after breaking his ankle and missing the rest of the season following surgery. None of the other hitters contributed more than 2 percent. At the time of his injury, Drew had amassed 1.1 WARP in a little over half of the season. If we factor in his 1.2 TAWL from injuries this year, he comes awfully close to his projected 2.7 WARP at the start of the 2011 season.
The remaining 40 percent of WARP lost was spread out primarily on the pitching side. Juan Gutierrez’s shoulder inflammation and Tommy John surgery cost the team almost 0.4 WARP, or 18 percent of its TAWL. Zach Duke’s broken hand also cost the team 0.2 WARP and 10 percent of its TAWL. On a pure WARP-lost-per-game basis, J.J. Putz cost the most per day he was out, with 0.0046.
Arizona was able to make the playoffs in part because of talent but also because of avoiding injuries to key players. Ian Kennedy and his 4.8 WARP anchored the staff while Justin Upton (5.0 WARP) provided the big bat in the middle of the lineup. Losing Drew was certainly a blow, but it was not the apocalypse that would have ensued had Kennedy or Upton been injured.
San Diego Padres
It’s hard for any team to keep its TAWL under two wins as Arizona did, so it’s not surprising that we see a jump up to 4.13 for the next-healthiest team. When you finish last in the division and 23 games out of first, those four wins don’t make a bit of difference. Padres hitters suffered plenty of injuries, but none was more costly than Nick Hundley’s strained oblique and elbow surgery. He missed a total of 63 games and cost his team 0.7 WARP, which was almost 16 percent of the TAWL for San Diego. Orlando Hudson (hamstring) and Chase Headley (broken finger) both lost 0.5 WARP and over 10 percent of the team’s TAWL.
On the pitching side of the ledger, Joe Thatcher (shoulder surgery) and Clayton Richards (shoulder surgery) cost the team almost 1 WARP— and 20 percent of its TAWL—combined. Mat Latos’ recovery from shoulder inflammation cost the Padres about 0.10 WARP during his eight games missed, a rate more than five times higher than that of Dustin Moseley, who lost 0.16 TAWL to shoulder surgery over 67 games.
Right behind the San Diego Padres in both the division and overall TAWL rank were the Colorado Rockies. Unfortunately for them, the Rockies were also just ahead of the Padres in the NL West standings, 21 games behind Arizona. The first major loss took place even before the season began, when Aaron Cook broke his ring finger during spring training by slamming it in a door. Despite missing more than a third of the season, Cook’s absence cost the Rockies only 0.27 WARP. Shortly after the season started, Ubaldo Jimenez suffered a lacerated cuticle and later missed 10 games because of cramping in his legs. Even though Jimenez had the highest WARP/games lost ratio at 0.239, Jorge De La Rosa (Tommy John surgery) almost doubled his TAWL at 1.09.
The hitters spread the TAWL around. Carlos Gonzalez (wrist) and Troy Tulowitzki (hip) were two of the Rockies’ most valuable players but cost the team only 0.81 WARP combined over the course of 33 games missed. This is not including the games that they played while injured, when they likely cost the team even more. Todd Helton (back) and Dexter Fowler (abdomen) were the only other hitters to surrender more than 0.2 WARP.
San Francisco Giants
Since they finished eight games behind the Diamondbacks, the Giants probably couldn’t have claimed the division title even with perfect health, but the wild card may have been a bit more in reach. In order to have a high TAWL, you need one of two scenarios to transpire: many injuries striking average players, or fewer injuries taking more productive players out of action. The Giants actually had a little of both between the injuries to star players Buster Posey (ankle surgery) and Pablo Sandoval (wrist surgery) and the injuries suffered by everyone else.
Losing talent on the level of Posey and Sandoval would make a significant impact on any team. Posey’s injury likely cost the Giants more than his 0.9 TAWL because of his extremely limited use in 2009, which kept his three-year WARP total, a key component in the TAWL equation, low. Nonetheless, if you combine those two injuries, the team lost two wins it would have had had Posey and Sandoval stayed healthy. All told, the Giants had the fourth-most wins lost by hitters, which helped to earn them the seventh-worst ranking for WARP lost overall.
On the pitching side, things were much calmer. Only Jonathan Sanchez (arm & ankle) and Barry Zito (foot) cost the team more than 0.5 WARP, which seems just about right. Those injuries didn’t get the Giants into too much trouble, since Zito wasn’t that good to start with and Sanchez wasn’t the same pitcher he had been in the past, potentially because he was pitching through an underlying problem. Regardless, injuries to the pitching staff didn’t doom the Giants in 2011; it was injuries to Posey and Sandoval—with a sprinkling of Andres Torres—that helped do them in.
Los Angeles Dodgers
During the entire saga of the tumultuous 2011 Dodgers’ season, injuries seemed to follow the team wherever it went and whatever it did. Even though the Dodgers’ injury problems got plenty of press, there were still several other teams in each category that had it worse off. Overall, the Dodgers ranked 25th in TAWL, only one position worse than the Giants.
Despite their numerous ailments, over 65 percent of their TAWL stemmed from injuries to four players. Rafael Furcal (thumb & oblique), Casey Blake (neck & elbow), Juan Uribe (sports hernia), and Jonathan Broxton (elbow surgery) were far and away the leaders in this dubious category. Baseball has a way of exposing poor roster construction, and injuries are one way it can happen. Older players break down eventually, even if they haven’t shown many signs of infirmity in the past, and thus it’s a gamble to sign these players to long-term contracts. In the Dodgers’ case, the effects of injuries to players signed to both long-term deals (Furcal) and short-term deals (Blake) played a part in bringing an unhappy end to their season.
The good news for the Dodgers is that several of these contracts are already off the books, which might give them a chance to right the ship. Furcal was shipped out of town during the season, Blake’s option was declined, and Broxton’s contract expired. The bad news is that several other injured players remain on the roster and will give Sue Falsone and the rest of the Dodgers’ medical staff more sleepless nights than they’d like.
In our next installment, we will cover the AL West, in the process identifying at least one respect in which the Mariners were better than the Rangers.
Corey Dawkins is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @CoreyDawkinsBP