Sunday, February 8, 2009

FJB Chat with Baseball Prospectus Injury Expert Will Carroll

A couple days ago I did a post commenting on Will Carroll's injury risk ratings for the Nationals which went up on Baseball Prospectus earlier this past week. If you aren't familiar with it, Will's system rates each major league regular on a street light-style color scale (avoid the reds, caution with yellows, go on green).

Tomorrow, Will's going to post his full team health report, which will offer more detailed commentary on each player's injury risk as well as the team's performance (or lack thereof) overall in managing injury risk.

However, to whet your whistle, I chatted with Will on Friday. Here's the transcript of our chat:
FJB: The Nationals had an unusually bad run of injuries last season. Every member of their opening day starting lineup missed at least some time due to injury, with only Cristian Guzman avoiding the DL. Since then, the team has replaced its entire medical and conditioning staff. What theory (if any) do you have about what went wrong? Did Jim Bowden simply take on too many high injury risk players? Were the medical staff to blame? Was it just all bad luck?

WC: You never know exactly what went wrong, but with this, you can reasonably say "everything." That's not to say that anyone's to blame or that rebooting the system will be any kind of cure-all, but when you look at the roster going into '07, it was hard to see how they'd come out even average. Maybe Milledge stays healthy, maybe Zimmerman, but that's really it. I don't think that with all the early injuries they had they could ever really catch up, so I'll say it was all of the above. Things look a little bit better this season, so I hope for the Nats' sake that they keep a close eye on things early in camp and focus on getting guys to April healthy.

FJB: What do you expect from Chad Cordero? The team gave up on him pretty early in his rehab, but a torn labrum isn't the death penalty for pitchers that it used to be.

WC: It's not what it was, but it remains very unpredictable. Position, significance, and probably a hundred other factors enter into it, so it's a real crapshoot. I look at Ryan Wagner, who was kind of similar to Cordero in the way he came up, his role, and sadly, how it ended up.

FJB: If Jordan Zimmermann opens the season in the rotation, should we worry about the so-called Verducci Effect?

WC: Not so much the Verducci Effect, which is year-over-year increases in workload at the major-league level. You're just worried about transitioning him to the majors, then managing his workload. He's 23, he's a big kid, and his control isn't an issue. That's three positives. He's never gone more than ... what 120 innings in the minors? The Verducci Effect has a minor league caveat that I still don't like, but limiting him to 150-160 is smart and if he makes it that far, you've got something good.

FJB: Last year, by my count based on news reports, the Nationals played with fewer than 25 players available due to injury in 75 of their first 127 games of the season. Time and again, players were listed as "day-to-day," only to remain unavailable for 10 days or 2 weeks. This is obviously not a statistic that is tracked, but it seems like this is highly unusual. Any insights?

WC: It's unusual in the quantity, but it's a tactic that some teams and managers can handle. The Nats were especially flexible and in most cases, the guys they would have called up didn't have value or worse would have meant rushing a prospect. Manny Acta did a masterful job juggling, so while he played with a short bench, I don't think he lost much value. Is losing someone for ten days a loss greater than having them five days early? You don't always read it right and the DL move would have been the right move, but I applaud the thought.

FJB: Last season, I read an article following a below par John Lannan start, and he explained that he pitched poorly because he'd eaten a big reuben sandwich right before the game, which left him feeling low energy. Is this a fair indication of the typical diet and conditioning of major leaguers?

WC: Sometimes, yeah. I jokingly refer to the "Cheeseburger Effect" sometimes. David Wells was asked why he threw a perfect game, and he shrugged and said "good cheeseburger for dinner?" There's so much we don't know and just can't know that maybe it is the sandwich. Lannan gets points for self-awareness, and I hope he corrected things. I'd like to think that players would be more responsible for themselves or that the team would monitor this closer, but the fact is they're grown men and are seldom schooled in nutrition. Some guys live on power bars and shakes. Minor league guys go on a road trip with a Sam's size bag of Comboes and a two-liter just to save up their per diem. Nutrition, I think, is one of the things teams could fix quickly and cheaply. The sky boxes have their own chef, so why doesn't the team?

FJB: These players make so much money, represent such enormous investments, the idea that the team would allow a player to live on Combos or eat a giant plate of fried, greasy food before a game is just insane. Some people will point to David Wells, but it's just anecdotal evidence that proves nothing. You could point to Livan Hernandez and say, "see? pitch counts don't matter."

WC: I'm still a bit paternalistic with the team. Team's in charge and for the most part, these are dumb kids. Is it that much different a diet than your average 21-24 yr old? Probably not.

FJB: I guess I'm more of a health nut than the average person, but there's a lot of evidence that if you don't eat well, you're going to be more prone to health problems, especially as an athlete. If I was a GM the first thing I would do is require all my players to adopt a healthy diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, etc. And cheeseburgers and potato chips would be absolutely verboten, at least during the season. This might seem overly controlling of "grown men," but to me it's no different than requiring weight-lifting or other forms of training. And you'd never find an Olympic track athlete eating this way--their coaches would kill it immediately. The players probably don't know the first thing about nutritional science, but the teams are accepting a totally unnecessary degree of additional risk with player health.

WC: I agree, but what would a nutritionist or a personal chef cost a team? 100k at the top end?

FJB: Exactly--a team chef/nutritionist couldn't cost more than 1/5 or 1/4 of a single minimum-wage replacement level player. How much did the Pirates pay Pedro Alvarez, and now he shows up fat and with tendinitis in his knees. There are a million examples like this. It's incredibly penny-wise/pound-foolish. I wonder if to some extent this isn't just a culture of old baseball people stuck in traditional notions of what's acceptable--since we smoked and drank in the clubhouse in the 1960s, why should things change now?

WC: No, it's that they still believe that every penny not spent on payroll is a penny wasted. A typical team's medical budget might be no more than $2m -- that's trainers, doctors, conditioning, new equipment, supplies, insurance, everything.

FJB: That's really shocking. Right? Am I overreacting? The players' bodies are the core commodity of the industry. It would be like if an art gallery spent millions on Van Goghs but decided that air conditioning was too expensive and just let all the painting rot in humidity. How can basic health and conditioning be such a low priority? I guess I'm preaching to the choir, but golly.

WC: No, I had the same reaction the first time I heard.

FJB: Wow. Well, thanks, Will, for taking the time. We all look forward to more good stuff from you in the Nationals Team Health Report tomorrow.
Thanks again to Will for participating, and I do recommend that everyone if you haven't already subscribed to the outstanding Baseball Prospectus website, do so now to you can check out Will's THR tomorrow.


An Briosca Mor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James Bjork said...

I disagree with Stephen to the extent of his prescribed dietary nannying, but I think he has a good point. Fielder is the exception not the rule. I have yet to meet an obese vegetarian.

I think the most catastrophic penny-wise pound foolish policy was how Kirby Puckett's hall-of-fame career was needlessly cut short for want of a $50-100.00 eye exam, which would have picked up his ocular pressure/glaucoma. Stupid stupid stupid. I hope MLB teams have annual eye exams now.

Not too hard to pay some D.O. and an assistant $1k for the day to come and examine each player on the whole team.

Hendo said...

Excellent interview, Steven. WC's insights are helpful and long overdue IMO.

I hope you and he find time to get together again, perhaps toward the end of the season.

MrIncognito said...

Prince Fielder is a vegetarian. Exhibit A on why your plan makes ultimate sense. Or not.

In the last three seasons, Fielder has appeared in 157, 158, and 159 games. If there was ever a player whose health history exceeds expectations based on body type, it's Fielder.

For some reason, the US just doesn't believe in preventative medicine. Our medical system consists of giant towers of the best acute care money can buy while we manage our prescriptions so poorly that Rx and OTC drugs are the 6th leading cause of death.

Steven said...

Ditto Incognito. I was puzzled by ABM's comment in the first place. Is the premise that Prince Fielder isn't healthy? That players shouldn't try to emulate his success? He's a great, really durable player.

Of course, being a vegetarian doesn't necessarily mean you're healthy. He could be one of those guys eating combos. (From what I've read, that's not the case--just sayin'.)