Everyone reading this should be aware of “Moneyball” and the theories detailed within the book (and to a lesser extent, the movie). The Oakland A’s had to come up with a way to stay competitive with dwindling payrolls…they had to find a way to beat the odds and win when the deck was stacked against them. Because of all of this they embraced the non-traditional statistics (most famously On Base Percentage, or OBP) and supposedly threw out “traditional scouting”. You can obviously debate the merits of the philosophies embraced by the Billy Beane led A’s but they did work…to a degree…for awhile…
The thing is, every other team is always trying to find that competitive advantage in the way that Beane did. Obviously some teams employ the “buy the biggest stars” methodology while some use the draft very smartly. Others blend the singular approaches into their own style (the Red Sox under Epstein come to mind – big money, smart drafting, use of the non-traditional statistics). While tweaks are made here and there, few things have been as “innovative” as the introduction of the sabermetric approach to baseball. It took the traditional views of baseball and turned them on their head. But the SABR movement is of the recent past and the present. What is the future?
I am hardly alone in thinking this, but injuries – the prevention of and recovery from – are likely the next major hill to climb in baseball. Namely, injuries to pitchers. Will Carroll (@injuryexpert on Twitter) of SI.com has essentially embodied this. He is basically THE go-to guy when talking about sports injuries (especially baseball and football – due in large part to the tie to fantasy sports leagues). He has stated that injuries (prevention and recovery) are really the next Moneyball and I have to agree. One only has to look at the Detroit Tigers of 2011 to see the importance of a healthy team (and more importantly, a healthy pitching staff). Today, on SI.com, Tom Verducci went into detail about this. He specifically looks at the bullpen roles and how injuries are tied in. I think though, that you can broaden that view to include the full pitching staff.
A few shocking statistics from the Verducci article are below
Injuries cost teams $487 MILLION last year – and average of 16 Mill per team. This has totaled up to $1.9 BILLION since 2008.
- Think about that in terms of a players: that is losing Victor Martinez (and not replacing him) and Rick Porcello, or Jose Valverde, Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer.
50% of all starting pitchers will go on the DL every year and 34% of the relievers
- This is obviously something we, as Tigers fans, know all about with the likes of Jeremy Bonderman and Joel Zumaya, or going farther back with Justin Thompson and Matt Anderson, plus draft picks Kyle Sleeth and Kenny Baugh (just to name a couple).
Now, part of the high cost of the injuries can be explained by the salary structure of MLB – the older players tend to be paid more. So, when Alex Rodriguez gets hurt the financial correlation is higher than say Joba Chamberlin or Phil Hughes gets hurt. There is also a reasonable relationship in that the older players bodies tend to break down more than those of the younger players meaning those cost are escalated by the higher possibility of players with multi-million dollar contracts getting hurt in comparison to younger players. To use a recent Tigers example – Carlos Guillen and Magglio Ordonez compared to Austin Jackson and Jhonny Peralta. Still, all of that aside, saving $16,000,000 a year while getting MORE out of the players you pay would seem to be the very definition of Moneyball.
Back to the crux of the article though – pitchers get hurt. Avoiding those injuries would seem to be a priority for most teams. After all, one half of the SPs will go on the DL at some point in the season (the Tigers have already seen #2 Sp Doug Fister and top prospect Jacob Turner shelved by injuries). While the expectation should certainly not be Verlanderian (you like that?), wouldn’t 100 pitches (plus the obligatory warm-up tosses and pregame throwing) over 150-170 innings be doable (by the way Hardball Times has a great look at Innings Pitched through the years – this is from 2007) As Tom Verducci points out, even through all of the steps that baseball has seemed to have taken, it has not made a positive impact. So, one has to wonder how they can change their approach. How can Major League baseball keep more of its stars on the field, particularly pitchers?
In a funny sort of way, many in the baseball community have just come to belive thsi is part of life and accept it as fact. Hence the spawning of the term TINSTAAPP (There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect) and similar acronyms. It could be said that some teams actually embrace this approach. They recognize that injuries will occur and then try to maximize the return on their investment before it loses value. A prime example of this would be Joel Zumaya. He was a starter all through the minors with some injury history and the Tigers could assume he had a limited time to pitch, so they moved him to the bullpen and called him up to the show in 2006. A similar fate could await young Casey Crosby, another hard throwing starter with a history of injuries. the Tiers seem to be a team that fully believe in TINSTAAPP as they draft pitcher after a pitcher, many being hard throwers (not that correlation equals causation), knowing that most will not make the majors. Essentially, the Tigers are trying to catch lightning in a bottle. They are far from alone though.
I obviously do not know the solution to this as I am not a doctor and my medical knowledge is less than those who play one on TV. However, I do know that in a highly competitive environment, a team that can control the impact of injures on their club will have a huge advantage, both on the field and in payroll. If you feel the same way, then I suggest you follow Will Carroll on Twitter (@injuryexpert) as he has is always on the forefront of these discussions.