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March 14, 2008

UTK Wrap

Measuring Injuries

by Will Carroll

This year, I'm doing something different. Not simply this column, a wrap-up of the week's injuries--or will be, once we get into the season--which is new in and of itself. What I'm talking about here is Injury Cost. In 2005, Tom Gorman developed a system of "Injury Accounting." It was an amazing piece of work that allowed us to see the true cost of injuries and involved the first use of 'replacement level' in concert with the medhead stuff that I was doing. The only problem is that it couldn't be automated, could only be done in retrospect, and involved (if I remember correctly) the delicate use of the two most powerful tools in baseball: Retrosheet and Johnny Walker Blue.

Injury Cost is a poor man's version of Gorman's Injury Accounting, a quick and dirty method of calculating not the days or the dollars, but the value lost to injuries. Perfect? No. Simple and reasonably accurate? Yes. Some have asked why "real" dollars are a poor method of calculating loss. In baseball, dollars spent are a sunk cost. Once the deal is signed, the money is all but spent. (Please, don't start with time value of money or deferred compensation discussions in your responses.) Simply using dollar figures is also confusing because of the widely disparate payrolls in baseball. If Florida doesn't lose many dollars to the DL (only $3.2 million last season, despite losing the 28th-most days with 1,253), it's because they're not spending money, not because they're avoiding injuries.

So to get around the economic realities of payroll and move to a better measure of value, we use one of Baseball Prospectus' tools, MORP. Nate Silver created MORP as an offshoot of his PECOTA projections, and it calculates the Marginal Value above Replacement Player. To give an example, Phil Hughes was out for 90 days last season with a torn hamstring and an ankle severely sprained during rehab. The Yankees get him cheap in his rookie year, paying him the major league minimum of $380,000. This means that in dollars, the Yankees only lost $192,000 over the period of playing time lost. In terms of the value of that lost playing time, it was obviously much higher; based on 2008 MORP, losing Hughes for the same period of time would have an injury cost to the Yankees of just over $4 million. You can see the difference, here and on the field.

The biggest failing of the system is that it doesn't account for the value of the actual replacement the club finds. Last year, Hughes was in essence replaced by Roger Clemens. Clemens wasn't Hall of Fame-caliber and had a significant economic cost, but he's hardly Chase Wright either. Like I said, it's not perfect.

Now on to some injuries:

Josh Beckett 10/$0.90 million
Here's an odd question: Does the trip to Japan cost Josh Beckett any starts? Pitchers are a bit different to deal with than hitters; they only show up every fifth day (for starters) or else they're nearly impossible to gauge (for relievers). If the center fielder can't play, we see that he's out and that game is lost to him. If a starter isn't available on a given day, is he skipped? Is he pushed back a day or two? Beckett's back problem isn't serious in the long term as long as the Sox medical staff can make sure that this doesn't get any worse. Since it's now a known problem, it should be much easier to maintain. Perhaps Beckett is destined to be Jared's next compadre in the Subway sports ads. What's more interesting is just how valuable Beckett looks to MORP. Even with an odd 10-day loss expectation--which was my attempt at finding a middle ground in a tough scheduling quandary--Beckett's per-start value is $450,000, not something even the Red Sox can spend themselves around. Instead, they're facing a test of their pitching depth. I wouldn't be surprised if this Days Lost expectation has to be adjusted, but I couldn't tell you in which direction.

Francisco Liriano 0/0
He threw; that should be good enough. He threw well enough to get major league hitters out; that should be even better. So why are scouts and medheads alike not really impressed? It's a quirk of timing, because Liriano could have been back in September of last season, but there was no point. The Twins were smart to keep the pressure off their pitcher at that point, especially in light of the knowledge that he's not communicative about whether or not he's feeling pain. Scouts saw Liriano show up for his first outing with the same motion that got us here in the first place. He had the same recoil in his motion, the same hard slider, but not the same velocity. He's tentative, and that's not such a bad thing. Back in 2004, the Twins had a pitcher coming off elbow surgery that spent the first month of the season scared. Pitching coach Rick Anderson allegedly went to the mound and told him to "let it go." Johan Santana did. Maybe Liriano will do the same.

B.J. Ryan 0/0
If Liriano's recovery seems long and Ryan's seems short, does it tell us anything about anything? Not really. Recoveries are measured with calendars because they're on the wall, not because they're particularly accurate medical instruments. Every recovery plan comes with steps, certain physical milestones that are measured, tested, repeated, and built upon. It's an incredible bit of drudgery, even when it involves million-dollar athletes. I can remember watching a video of a plyometric workout that Ken Crenshaw--then of the Rays and now head trainer with the Diamondbacks--showed at the American Sports Medicine Institute's annual Injuries in Baseball Conference. No offense to Ken or anyone there, but watching a pitcher throw a plastic ball of varying weights at a mini-tramp--a small trampoline to return the ball--was the rough equivalent of watching paint dry to those not working in that world daily. Ryan's passed every test and is ready to throw. While I keep expecting a setback and keep the name of the last guy to come back this quickly in the back of my mind (Jason Grimsley), it looks like Ryan is in fact going to be ready to close on Opening Day.

Casey Janssen 180/$3.88 million
Losing a player for the season is costly in a lot of ways. Losing a pitcher who could have filled different, important roles--fifth starter with Gustavo Chacin not ready after shoulder surgery, closer if B.J. Ryan isn't as ready as it looks--is never good. Losing one to a labrum injury is worse. Just a few years ago, I wrote an article that called labrum tears the most feared injury for pitchers, amounting to a death sentence for their career. Only two of thirty-eight pitchers returned to anything approaching their pre-injury level and one, Rocky Biddle, hadn't set the bar too high to begin with.

Who was the other? Curt Schilling. Schilling is not the norm--and of course he continues to have shoulder issues--but progress has been made in both diagnosis and repair. A recent study by one of the Phillies team physicians estimates the return from any arm injury to be around 50 percent. Since we know that the return to level from elbow surgery is around 85 percent, it looks as if shoulders are still holding down the overall average. Janssen has a long road ahead of him if he's going to beat the odds, but that road won't include pitching this season.

Rocco Baldelli 90/$3.78 million
I'll admit to knowing next to nothing about "metabolic and/or mitochondrial abnormalities," and given how hard it is to find a doctor who does, I'd say that I'm not alone. While I continue to try to get a better picture on what Baldelli is dealing with, we'll deal with what we do know. Baldelli's slow recovery now has a reason, but it doesn't change the timing. I'm being optimistic by giving him 90 days (or half a season) and this could well be more or even a career-ender. It puts more pressure on Jonny Gomes to play defense (as opposed to playing professional wrestler, as he did on Wednesday) and to use Cliff Floyd in the field now and again. At this point, Baldelli has so many problems that he probably thinks Ty Pennington is going to show up and build him a house. We can only hope he gets something good out of this.

Kaz Matsui 0/0
My experience with anal fissures... go ahead, cringe; I'll wait. As I was saying, my experience with anal fissures is limited to hearing filmmaker Kevin Smith discuss his experiences with the condition in graphic detail during a talk a couple years ago. Smith managed to turn the topic into comedy gold, but I don't think Matsui is laughing... or planning on sliding feet-first any time soon. It shouldn't be a laughing matter in that it's simply a medical condition with complications, but... hey, it is. Matsui should be fine in time for Opening Day, and we can only hope he recovers fully.

Felix Pie 0/0
The indignity Matsui's pride may have suffered is perhaps saved a little bit by a problem with Pie's pride and joy. I'm not sure if it was pride or joy that got twisted, but I didn't ask. Testicular torsion might sound like another bad Dane Cook riff, but it's a serious condition that can (cringe, again) lead to the loss of the testicle. Described as "walking gingerly" on his return after surgery, I say "duh!" Pie should be fine in about a week and hopefully will have no more problems with this in any manner, on the field or off.

Andy LaRoche 60/$3.49 million
Yeah, I wrote Adam twice while typing this. The younger, less-established LaRoche didn't help his own cause with what amounts to a fluke injury. A pickoff throw hit him on just the wrong spot, severing a ligament in his thumb. He'll miss at least a month, and likely more as he recovers from the surgical re-attachment. With any hand or wrist injury, there's a period where the player has trouble with bat control, leading to less power and more whiffs, as well as a lingering recurrence risk and residual pain. As for that value, well, MORP deals with theory, not reality. While LaRoche is projected to take the lion's share of third-base playing time on Nate Silver's heavily-secured supercomputer cluster (there is no truth to the rumor it's just a Dell laptop), that didn't seem to be the plan. With the Dodgers reportedly scouting Brandon Inge as their third baseman-in-waiting, LaRoche is going to have even more of a challenge to get any at-bats, let alone 400 or ore. His having Michael Cuddyer among his top comparables in PECOTA's projections interests me greatly.

Jesse Crain 30/$0.52 million
When it rains, it pours. At least it's not snow, which they get a lot in Minnesota. Jesse Crain got pegged by a comebacker, forcing him off the mound this week. Crain's trying to come back from labrum and cuff repair, so maybe it's fitting that a comebacker holds him back. I'll try not to rant too long about the need to protect pitchers from just this type of event, since it's much easier to protect shins and heads than a labrum. Crain is still a ways off from coming back, and even the smallest thing, as this appears to be, can hold him back even further; I hear Rochester is nice this time of year. That 30-day loss is a bit quirky; he's more likely to stay in Ft. Myers and continue his rehab than break camp in an already-crowded Twins pen. I'm guessing that a month is what they'll need to know, not that he'll be back at that stage. (Speaking of protecting shoulders, make sure you take a look at HBO's Real Sports this week, which features a solid profile of controversial pitching guru Mike Marshall.)

Joel Pineiro 15/$0.27 million
Injuries are costly in many ways. Whether it's injury cost (my little quick and dirty stat), or the cost to bring in Kyle Lohse when a flock of Redbirds is on the shelf, nobody rides for free. Pineiro is just the latest arm problem the Cards have to deal with, who are already suffering through the first half without Chris Carpenter, and who don't have set return dates for Mark Mulder, Matt Clement, and Tyler Johnson. Pineiro's MRI came back "clean," but he still has soreness and inflammation in the pitching shoulder. If Pineiro can go at all, the Cards would love to go north with him in the rotation, so it's a very soft 15 days I'm dropping on him here. We'll know a lot more next week.

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

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<< Previous Article
6-4-3: Adventures in C... (03/14)
<< Previous Column
UTK Wrap: Perception a... (03/07)
Next Column >>
UTK Wrap: Getting Clos... (03/21)
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Premium Article Prospectus Q&A: Jon Se... (03/16)

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