With baseball’s frenetic off-season arms race begun, it’s interesting to see how different organizations weigh injury risks inherent in any transaction. This issue is especially evident–and intriguing–when it comes to those teams in smaller media markets. The Boston Red Sox can certainly be a bit more cavalier in the pursuit of a J.D. Drew than can, say, the Colorado Rockies. When it comes to a player’s risk of serious injury, the sport’s economic structure demands that mid- and small-market teams be skilled in spotting warning signs, assiduous in the employ of preventive measures, and adept at rehabilitation when injuries do occur. Indeed, as the aggregate knowledge of baseball-specific medicine continues to grow, its implementation at the team level has become increasingly absorbed into many organizations’ overall philosophy.
Such is the case with this year’s Dick Martin Award winner for best medical staff, the Cleveland Indians. While the Indians’ ALCS run was certainly fueled by quality pitching and offense, much credit is also due to the team’s ability to keep those quality pitchers and hitters healthy enough to deliver.
Cleveland Director of Medical Services Lonnie Soloff says that the Indians’ philosophy begins at the top of the organization and filters down through all strata. “Mark (Shapiro) and Chris (Antonetti) set the tone, and the results of our medical due diligence process do factor into free agent acquisitions, trades and the amateur draft,” Soloff explains. “It’s a frame of mind. As a sports medicine staff we are cognizant of the challenges of being a mid-market team competing against large market teams. In order to be competitive our players need to be on the field. We are vigilant with regards to tracking player workouts and playing volume–inclusive of pitch counts, plate appearances and bullpen activity.”
To be sure, preventive baseball medicine is not all charts and statistics. Although belied by C.C. Sabathia‘s well-chronicled weight issues, Soloff says that part of the team’s success derives from instilling the proper values in players and in having players amenable to such advice. “Our players do an outstanding job of educating themselves about prophylactic programs and healthy habits that will keep them fit and productive,” says Soloff. “In this sense our goals are the same.”
Ultimately, no matter what philosophies and methodologies are employed, a medical staff is judged on results, and of late no team has been more consistently good at keeping players healthy than the Indians. In 2007, only the San Diego Padres lost fewer player days than the Indians’ 324. Of the nine Indians that missed games, Jake Westbrook, Cliff Lee, Andy Marte, and David Dellucci were the only players projected to start or receive significant playing time. Just 6.98 percent of team payroll lost to injury was the fifth-lowest in the league, a total of just over $4 million. Thus, the players the team needed to be healthy were healthy.
The Indians were one of the finalists for the DMA last season, and have been one of the healthiest teams in all of baseball three years running. The Tribe averaged 418 missed player days in 2005 and 2006, with an average of just under $3 million in salary lost per season. Luck can certainly play a role over the short term, perhaps even an entire season, but after nearly 500 games real trends begin to emerge as to a training staff’s efficacy or incompetence.
An interesting case study that illuminates the Cleveland’s staff’s ability in this department is Sabathia, the 2007 Cy Young Award winner. Over his first two major league seasons, Sabathia tossed nearly 400 innings at ages 20 and 21. This, coupled with his purportedly poor workout regimen, had many around baseball betting on a physical breakdown. Yet Sabathia has made no fewer than 28 starts in each of his first seven major league seasons, and has made just two trips to the 15-day Disabled List.
It would be easy to argue that Sabathia is simply an example of a staff ace pitching efficiently and saving his body in the process. While true, this ignores the impact of the pitching program the organization has established for him. Since 2005, Sabathia has averaged 105 pitches per start, while never throwing more than 122 pitches. It’s clear that the medical and coaching staffs understand Sabathia’s abilities and his limitations, and rarely deviate from that.
Never was this more evident than in 2007, when Sabathia managed to lead the majors in innings pitched (241) and throw the sixth-highest number of pitches while finishing 26th in total Pitcher Abuse Points. Thus, Sabathia may throw a high number of pitches, but few are at high-stress levels.
In addition to the Indians, there were many other outstanding efforts by medical staffs in 2007, most notably those of the San Francisco Giants and the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Giants’ Dave Groeschner, formerly of the Chicago Cubs, had his work cut out for him this season as head athletic trainer for one of the oldest teams in baseball. Despite that challenge, the team lost only 377 days to injury, few of which were from key players. As a result, the Giants’ tally of just 2.33 percent of lost payroll was tops in the league. Going forward, it will be interesting to see how Groeschner and the Giants handle the development of their young pitchers, particularly Tim Lincecum.
Ken Crenshaw, head trainer of the Diamondbacks, leads another medical staff worth mentioning. Arizona’s 439 player days and 17 percent of payroll lost are skewed by the struggles of Randy Johnson. The Big Unit notwithstanding, the D’backs were one of the healthiest teams in 2007, with just six other players hitting the DL. Crenshaw is no stranger to the DMA, as he was the award’s first winner in 2004 while with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
While these staffs turned out great efforts this season, the 2007 Dick Martin Award goes to Lonnie Soloff, Rick Jameyson, Nick Kenney, and the entire Cleveland Indians medical staff for not only continuing a fine history of good health, but for laying the organizational groundwork to ensure continued success into the future.
Hunter Manchak is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached by clicking here.