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October 2, 2009

Under The Knife

Closing Up on '09

by Will Carroll

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The first name I ever wrote in a column for BP? Steve Bechler. It was on that note that I started here, with a senseless death of a player. The story became more about supplements than about heat illness, perhaps a foreshadowing of what I'd write about here. Over the last seven seasons there have been some great moments, some low moments, but at all times, it has been both a passion and a pleasure for me to do this. As the boys of summer play into the fall again and Don Henley starts in my head, UTK fades into the background for another season.

Injuries are a part of the story in the playoffs, but seldom a major one. Pennants and divisions are decided by health as much as talent, but series and titles aren't the same. They're a crapshoot, as I learned reading Gary Huckabay, Joe Sheehan, and Nate Silver. I've written over 1,000 columns and completed 400 BP Radio shows, but I've never felt like I got it exactly right-there was always something more to learn, something new to teach, if there was only just a little more time. Baseball is a phoenix, burning out only to be reborn in the spring from the ashes of the previous campaign, but in our hearts, it never burns less brightly. For everyone that reads this column or has been a part of it in any way over the last year or the last seven years, I can't thank you enough. Powered by my heroes and friends, here's a last look at the 2009 regular season's injuries:

Jose Reyes (10/4)
Reyes re-injured his hamstring trying to "air it out" a little bit. It's very hard to say if this was an inevitable thing or if more time would have made this problem vanish, but that question just gets added into the pile of questions the Mets have to answer. Many are whispering that this is another black mark against the Mets' medical staff this season, but there are too many other questions, like who Reyes was working with on Long Island and what's the off-season plan for him. While the new hamstring strain definitively ends his season and is symbolic of the whole 2009 campaign for the Mets, it's impossible to tell at this stage how it changes things for Reyes heading into the future. Surgery is still a possibility on the strained tendon, a determination that's now going to be tougher to make since he won't be running for a few weeks. Forgive me for not taking the word of his agent that he won't miss time. Figuring out what's next for Reyes (and also Carlos Beltran) is going to have to be the biggest priority for the Mets, because their expectations for them will determine the heart of the moves they make this offseason. I can bet that Reyes won't be a fantasy first-rounder next year, but his true value has yet to be determined.

Jamie Moyer (10/4)
Pedro Martinez
Chan Ho Park (10/4)

Moyer's season is over, but there's also some question if his career is over as well; any significant injury at his age, coupled with the very real declines this season, has to raise the question. The groin strain he suffered at the end of his last start was significant and will require surgery to re-attach the groin muscle. How significant? There were three ruptured tendons in his groin and abdomen that will need to be re-attached. Moyer has one more year on his deal, and has indicated that he wants to come back. The Phillies' team doctor says that this type of surgery often leaves the patient with 90 percent of the strength, so if Moyer decides to come back, he should have that option. In the meantime, Pedro Martinez and J.A. Happ are the primary options for the fourth slot. Martinez's return to action only lasted four innings and 84 pitches, which was near what was expected, but it makes his spot in the rotation a bit more stable. Happ's experience in the pen and questions about Martinez's availability, plus the general uncertainty in the pen is going to make for a really tough decision. That pen uncertainty got worse when Chan Ho Park couldn't make it through his rehab session, and returned to Philly for an examination. Early rumors are that the hamstring tightened up, and that Park is unlikely to be ready for the playoffs.

Clayton Kershaw
Hiroki Kuroda (10/4)
Casey Blake (10/2)

The Dodgers are ramping Kershaw;s workload back up to prep him for the playoffs. After a short outing in his return from his glove-side shoulder injury, Kershaw will step up to 90 pitches on Saturday. There are no anticipated problems, just a slow progression after his time off. He'll likely be the team's third starter in the playoffs, though Joe Torre's not sure exactly how his rotation slots out just yet. Kershaw's workload is being monitored closely as he goes well over his career high in innings. His age-21 season on a rate basis compares pretty favorably with Zack Greink, except on control and, surprisingly, wins. Meanwhile, Kuroda is vacating the Saturday slot due to a stiff neck, but the team doesn't seem concerned and has him slotted for the second start in the Division Series. His neck is a muscular problem, and if it weren't for the need to get Kershaw that day's work, he'd likely go. The Dodgers also expect Casey Blake to be back in the lineup today. He'll have just a handful of at-bats to kick the rust off and prove that his hamstring is ready to go. The team's a bit concerned, but thinks he's safe enough to put on the playoff roster.

Josh Beckett (10/3)
Sixty-two pitches is what's being used to determine whether or not Josh Beckett is ready to pitch. He's not going to get much more than that on Saturday when he's expected to get a last start before the playoffs. The bullpen session-all sixty-two pitches of it-at less than 100 percent went well, but it's the results he gets tomorrow that will determine ... well, no, it won't determine much at all. Beckett is going to pitch in the playoffs, but that Saturday start will give us a lot of direction. I'd expect that, given what happened in his side session, he'll be closer to the Beckett the Sox need and the fans expect than not. That's not to say he'll be full-go, but this will be a real test: Is Beckett really the playoff hero many think he is and has been in the past, or is he a pitcher than burned bright and faded when he couldn't adjust?

Rick Porcello
The Tigers have spent the year balancing Porcello's talent and workload, all while contending. It's very difficult, even in situations where a team isn't giving up much in the way of talent or wins, but beyond Porcello and Justin Verlander, there's been no consistency behind them. (No, I'm not ready to call Edwin Jackson consistent yet. I watched him for too many years, tantalizing us with his talent, to think he's not saving up all the wildness for one start, though I hope that he's finally reached his potential.) Porcello is 40 innings over his workload from last year, which was all done at High-A, but some of his work last year wasn't done in game action, so the Tigers feel like he can go a bit more safely. It's still a risk, but flags fly forever, and Porcello has shown resilience. The problem is, as you'll see below, we have no idea whether it was the right thing to do. If the Tigers have clinched, they'll skip Porcello's Saturday start and go with one of the younger pitchers off the bench.

A Look at Starter Workload: One of my recurring themes is starter workload. It's always seemed to me that this was the most important and yet least understood problem in baseball. While there's some element of luck in it, controlling workload is thought to be the easiest way to keep pitchers healthy. Instead, it's not 100 percent, but it's not even a clear improvement. It's another argument for the phase-in of a logical development system, but I'm not holding my breath on that just yet. I asked Bil Burke to check something for me, and it turns out the results were fascinating. I asked him what the win/loss record was for all starters and all relievers in the Retrosheet era, broken down by year. Two things jumped out at me. First, relievers have a better record-often a winning record-while starters have an overall losing record. That means for every Tim Lincecum, Greg Maddux, and Bob Gibson, there was a counterbalance. My guess is that this would largely be the fourth and fifth starters, but this data goes back to a four-man era. The starter workload as a percentage of decisions is influenced in some way by the starter leaving early, but has gone down almost unabated, while injuries have not done the same. Just look at this chart:

Workload

Inning and workload management as a brute-force tool isn't working. We need to move to a fatigue management system that takes a holistic view of workload, physical conditioning, biomechanics, and even genetics. We don't know any more about keeping pitchers healthy now than when I first started this column, and despite billions paid out to injured pitchers, teams aren't spending any extra thousands on research.

Quick Cuts: Ben Sheets is prepping for the 2010 season and will be one of the real wild cards in the free-agent market. Look for him to try and throw for teams as early as possible. ... J.D. Drew will miss the next few games as he rests his stiff shoulder. ... Aramis Ramirez was back in the lineup after being shut down. ... Corey Hart is done for the season, one that's seemed injury-riddled all along. This time, he's injured his fingers. It's relatively minor, but there's no reason to push him out there. ... Adam Lind had three homers on Wednesday, but Jonathan Papelbon made him pay for it. His arm isn't broken, but very bruised and sore; he could miss the rest of the season. ... Hank Blalock suffered a concussion on an odd play Wednesday, and is likely done for the season. ... Chad Bradford could just never get over the elbow issues that plagued him all year. He ended up with just 10 innings and seems headed to retirement. Is Tampa Bay the team where relievers go to retire?

Related Content:  J.A. Happ,  Year Of The Injury

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