It’s Time to Talk About the Orioles and Their Physicals

You can give it this — the Orioles’ signing of Yovani Gallardo seemed like it was going to be pretty dull all-around, but now it’s becoming fascinating, thanks to a recent and familiar little twist. See, Gallardo still isn’t officially signed, and word is it’s because the Orioles aren’t comfortable with what they’ve seen so far in his medicals. I believe they’re waiting on results from more tests; I believe the issue is the health of his shoulder. So for the time being, the Orioles don’t yet have a starting pitcher they want, and that same starting pitcher is having to worry about an even further depressed market for his services. Nobody roots for these things.

It feels familiar because it’s the Orioles, and this is far from the first time the organization has wound up in a place like this. This further cements the team’s reputation for having an almost impossibly rigorous physical, and it can be rough, on Orioles players and fans alike. No one likes having the rug taken out from under them, and that’s exactly how it feels when these issues come up. It seems like it reflects poorly on ownership, and Peter Angelos has certainly taken a large amount of crap over the years. I’m not here to broadly attack or defend Peter Angelos. It just feels like it’s time to talk about the Orioles’ reputation, how true it is, and what it could mean.

You know what we don’t have? Statistics. We can compare the Orioles’ team ERA to all the other team ERAs, but we can’t easily compare the Orioles’ standard physical to all the other teams’ standard physicals. I think we do have enough information to say it’s tougher than average. It very well might be the toughest in baseball. It’s worth remembering procedures are always changing, but the Orioles do seem to be particularly cautious. They’d probably say as much, even if they used a different word.

Importantly: the majority of players pass the Orioles physical. Maybe you could call it the overwhelming majority of players. Issues do pop up, and those generate attention, because “pending physical” tends to be taken as a formality and it’s weird when it’s not. But the Orioles pass a lot of players. The system isn’t designed to fail 10 or 20 or 50 percent of those who go through it.

Now we can consider the Orioles’ history. Right now, they’re trying to figure out if they can proceed with Gallardo. That’s why this post is being written in the first place. Very visibly, a few years ago, the Orioles failed Grant Balfour, and that pissed Balfour off. He did sign another contract with another team, but other medical professionals came out publicly to disagree with the Orioles’ findings. (Balfour turned out to be bad, and he lost two miles per hour.) The same offseason, the Orioles didn’t like what they saw in Tyler Colvin‘s physical, and they tried to re-work an agreement.

The Orioles had the same thing happen with Jair Jurrjens, and they converted a major-league contract into a minor-league contract. Relatedly, the Orioles pulled away from Nick Markakis because of concerns about his health. That didn’t come out of a post-agreement physical, but it speaks to the caution.

If you want to go back several years, concerns led the Orioles to move away from Jeromy Burnitz, who then signed elsewhere and was bad. And famously, the Orioles decided not to sign Aaron Sele because they didn’t like what they saw in his shoulder. Sele went on to have some success in Seattle, although he promptly lost his strikeouts and did experience shoulder problems. The reality of that one is different from how it’s remembered.

The organizational caution might simply be the consequence of what happened with Xavier Hernandez almost two decades ago. The Orioles signed him, then they found out he had a bum shoulder, and they voided the deal. Hernandez went after them for that, and he got himself a hefty settlement, but he didn’t pitch in the majors again, and now those physicals are routine league-wide. No team wants to get stuck paying money to someone who’s not on the field.

Over the course of all this time, different people have offered the Orioles their medical opinions. The medical staff hasn’t remained constant, but then, the ownership has, so what happens below is presumably a reflection of the preferences from above. Angelos wants for his doctors to be thorough. Every owner wants the doctors to be thorough, but Angelos especially so, it seems. The physicals don’t even capture everything. After the Orioles signed Tsuyoshi Wada he very quickly needed Tommy John surgery. So even still, little things can slip through the cracks, and the idea is for ownership to pay as little money as possible to the disabled list. You can never eliminate it all, but you can try to get closer.

All we’ve talked about to this point are the Orioles. It’s the Orioles who have the reputation, so it’s the Orioles who, in turn, get examined the most thoroughly. And maybe that’s fair, but it’s important to note that other teams have players fail physicals, too. The Orioles aren’t necessarily exceptional. Consider, say, that three-way Jay Bruce trade that was just recently rumored. According to reports, that trade died because of medical concerns. Last season, the Mets backed out of a Carlos Gomez trade agreement because of medical concerns. This winter, the Yankees moved away from Tommy Hunter because of his medicals, and the Dodgers moved away from Hisashi Iwakuma because of his medicals. You remember what happened with the Astros and Brady Aiken. On a smaller scale, the Yankees also nixed a would-be agreement with Hideki Okajima, and Chad Gaudin failed a physical with the Phillies just a few years back. That’s just me doing some quick Googling; I’m sure there’s more out there, and I’m sure there are failed physicals that simply don’t get leaked to the media.

Players fail physicals. Not often, but it happens, and it happens everywhere, because every team has doctors looking to spot potential problems. The Iwakuma case this winter was similar to the Balfour case from before, except that Iwakuma didn’t make such a big deal of it to the press. The Dodgers saw something, so they tried to re-work their agreement. The Mariners swooped back in, and subsequently said they don’t know what it is that scared the Dodgers off, because they’re perfectly satisfied. Medical interpretations aren’t always cut and dry, not when you’re dealing with elbows and shoulders and various wears and tears. It’s commonplace for doctors to disagree, and the guys working for the Orioles might simply see X% more future problems than the average doctor.

It’s difficult to argue this has worked against the team. It’s difficult in large part because these issues have just been infrequent. But the Orioles weren’t worse off for losing Balfour. They weren’t worse off for losing Colvin. We’ll see if they lose Gallardo, and if they’re better or worse for it. For sure, in theory, the reputation is a negative, because it might scare agents and players off. There was speculation Bronson Arroyo didn’t want to put himself through the Orioles’ physical. No one would look forward to it, but baseball is a business with just 30 big-league employers, all of whom have different needs. You can’t really be that picky, and besides, money is money. If a player is confident he’s healthy, he wouldn’t worry very much. And if a player knows he has some issues, he’d expect for those issues to be discovered anywhere. The issue with Balfour came from Balfour assuming he was physically fine, and though the Orioles disagreed, future players will assume they’re also physically fine, so they won’t anticipate the same problem. And given the chance, again — almost all those players would pass.

There’s no denying the Orioles are pretty tough. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. From a labor perspective, it’s worse for the players, but the Orioles get to work in their own interests and I don’t see any compelling evidence this has cost them much. So it’s just one of the things that comes with reaching an agreement there, and given the offseason the Orioles have had it’s not like players are trying to stay away, or that Angelos is trying to pinch every penny. Maybe the reputation makes the Orioles a few percentage points less likely to sign a given free agent. Maybe the approach also makes the Orioles a few percentage points less likely to end up paying a lemon. The Orioles are obviously comfortable with the trade-off. Yovani Gallardo might not love it, but at the end of the day, that seems like it’s Yovani Gallardo’s problem.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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Shirtless Bartolo Colon
Member
3 months 5 days ago

Take good care of your body, and a physical won’t be an issue. Real simple.

Philip Christy
Member
Philip Christy
3 months 4 days ago

Also, a hefty supply of stem cells.

Paul22
Member
Paul22
3 months 4 days ago

Then nobody would pitch because pitching destroys shoulders and elbows. Most pitchers would show abnormal findings on a MRI and feel fine, which is why MRI’s are only used to confirm injuries to pitchers and not diagnose them.

NeoShweaty
Member
NeoShweaty
3 months 4 days ago

@Paul22

It’s a joke. Notice the name of the guy saying it.

Legeisc
Member
Member
Legeisc
3 months 5 days ago

Wow…I thought the Astros received a lot of grief over Aiken and Vogelsong failed physicals.

baubo
Member
baubo
3 months 4 days ago

Probably more because people hated them than them acting any differently from other teams. Vogelsong ended with a negative war and Aiken promptly blew out his arm.

So I guess the moral of the story with the Astros and Orioles would be, teams should be have more rigorous physicals?

Slacker George
Member
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Slacker George
3 months 4 days ago

I wonder if the Orioles get lower insurance rates.

Jaack
Member
3 months 5 days ago

Remember how in 1999 Aaron Sele had a 4.79 ERA but still managed to finish 5th in the Cy Young Voting?

asuray
Member
asuray
3 months 5 days ago

Sele was 3rd in the AL in FIP (3.85) among qualified SPs and 3rd in pitcher WAR (4.9). Probably undervalued a bit by that 5th place finish.

Jaack
Member
3 months 5 days ago

Oh I know, my comment was more of a “Good Lord, Baseball was really stupid in 1999” than a “Ha ha the BBWAA is dumb because Aaron Sele”

tz
Member
tz
3 months 4 days ago

Fun Aaron Sele fact: Sele’s 4.61 career ERA translates to a 99 ERA- (or a 100 ERA+ on BBRef).

That’s what pitching in Fenway, Arlington, and the Kingdome in the peak of the juiced ball era will do for you.

asuray
Member
asuray
3 months 4 days ago

SEA were in Safeco by the time they signed Sele. Even Safeco couldn’t negate the effects of the juiced ball era, though.

Lenard
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Member
Lenard
3 months 4 days ago

Really makes you marvel at Pedro and his 1.39 FIP.

rosen380
Member
rosen380
3 months 4 days ago

“Fun Aaron Sele fact: Sele’s 4.61 career ERA translates to a 99 ERA- (or a 100 ERA+ on BBRef).”

… and don’t forget DH :)

Scott Karl and Rick Helling have him beat; min 1000 career IP and an ERA- between 99 and 101, they have the two worst ERAs at 4.81 and 4.68. Sele is third :)

Best ERA, same conditions, Frank Owen 2.55.

Average, +/- 2SD gives a range of 2.80 to 4.76 which if you’d say ERA- is close to right, then cross-era ERA is close to useless [and think of how often it gets used!]

By ERA [and +/-20% of his career innings, 1920+ debut], Mike Mussina’s neighbors are Dennis Martinez, Rick Wise, Frank Tanana and Mel Harder… so obviously not a HoFer– at best very borderline.

By ERA-, his neighbors are Juan Marichal, Bob Feller, Don Drysdale and John Smoltz

tz
Member
tz
3 months 4 days ago

@Lenard, yet another fun Pedro fact:

In 1999, when Pedro had a 1.39 FIP, only 14 of the 38 AL qualifying starters posted a WHIP below 1.39.

Boss61
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Member
Boss61
3 months 5 days ago

Kudos. The most fair and balanced article I yet have read on this topic.

Orsulakfan
Member
Orsulakfan
3 months 4 days ago

Part of the reason the Balfour thing became so explosive is because the Rays’ trainer, who was friendly with Balfour, publicly disputed the Orioles’ findings. This same trainer diagnosed Machado with a torn ACL before tests were given – and it turns out that the knee injury was serious, but not an ACL. Showalter was livid about that. The other part of the history to consider here is the Albert Belle hip injury. The Orioles had insurance that paid for most of the remaining salary on Belle’s contract, but not all of it, and Angelos wanted to avoid such things in the future after that, and after Xavier Hernandez, as this article points out.

Jon C
Member
Jon C
3 months 4 days ago

Small sample size?

Adam S
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Member
Adam S
3 months 4 days ago

I could just be the way ownership and upper management perceive results of physicals.

Orioles physical: There’s a 10% chance player X will need major arm surgery in the next 3 years. (I realize a physical isn’t that simple.) OMG, what a risk.

Dodgers physical: There’s a 90% chance player X won’t need major arm surgery in the next 3 years. 90%, that’s pretty good chance he’s healthy.

Then again, the Orioles could be ahead of the curve. As noted, it’s not like any of these guys went on to post a string of productive healthy seasons.

Paul22
Member
Paul22
3 months 4 days ago

Orioles tend to look at pitchers not in much demand. Gallardo has nowhere to go unless he waits till June, and now he is considered damaged goods. Orioles probably get him to drop the guaranteed years to 2 and have him take a vesting option for the 3rd year if he misses no time on the DL due to the shoulder

One thing in support of the Orioles, Gallardo only went 6 IP 2 times in the 2nd half and was kept to a pretty low pitch count, and he pretty much abandoned his CB which is sometimes associated with shoulder injuries, and this lead to a drastic drop in his K rate.

Vil
Member
Vil
3 months 4 days ago

It appears you are correct. Sources report that both sides have agreed to a restructured deal: 2 years, $22 million.

davedsg
Member
davedsg
3 months 4 days ago

So, in hindsight, the Orioles have been right for voiding the contracts of the mentioned players for one reason or another. Sounds to me like they’ve been doing their due diligence by not committing to damaged goods. Congratulations for looking out for their own self interest. If only they would’ve seen an issue (physically) in Albert Belle before they signed him in the ’98/’99 offseason. I guess they learned from their mistake.

Cidron
Member
Cidron
3 months 4 days ago

to lazy to look… But, how do the Orioles rank in DL time (stints, or actual time) over the course of the last 3-5 yrs, or even the last 10yrs? If the tougher medicals result in less dl time (especially due to known or suspected injuries), there may be something to their (medical) madness.

david k
Member
david k
3 months 3 days ago

I’m not sure you can draw any conclusions from that. These rigorous physicals are primarily given to free agents or players about to be acquired in trades, not to players currently on the roster. So if they have a home-grown player on their roster, they probably never went through this kind of physical.

Jon L.
Member
3 months 4 days ago

It’s a little ridiculous to make fun of the Orioles for their physicals. These are the tactics that led to a World Series championship in 1983 and already 10 winning seasons since then. Without their policies of signing one-dimensional sluggers and giving them rigorous physicals, who knows where this franchise would be?

Killark125
Member
Killark125
3 months 4 days ago

Are you serious when discussing a 1983 WSC and trying to correlate the Orioles rigorous medical testing?

chaokang
Member
chaokang
3 months 4 days ago

He’s trying to ridicule the current Orioles medical policy by pointing toward past ineptitude.

Woodyalien
Member
Woodyalien
3 months 4 days ago

I think being right next to Johns Hopkins might make a difference in medical evaluations.

Danbowski
Member
Danbowski
3 months 4 days ago

He’s a good man, and thorough.

Mike NMN
Member
Mike NMN
3 months 4 days ago

The market is going to adapt at some point. Either more teams will be like the Orioles, or free agents will show greater reluctance to consider Baltimore, as they might fear a leaked medical report would seriously impair their market value.
To be seen. I have a feeling this is a trick you can only use on guys at the margins–decent freeagents, but not elite players

Vil
Member
Vil
3 months 4 days ago

Probably. But then again the Orioles, the Orioles did sign Belle and Tejada to big contracts and I’m pretty sure they had to pass physicals. And they were considered elite bats at the time. Belle’s hip problem emerged two years after he was signed, so I’m not sure that even the most rigorous physical could’ve detected a problem.

But with arms—given the current market costs of signing pitchers—yes they will be extra careful since pitchers get hurt more often than hitters.

In any event, the Orioles have had a mantra going back to the McPhail’s tenure as GM: “Grow the arms, buy the bats.” As we saw with Chen, they are not willing to make large investments in starting pitchers, so these rigorous physicals will be indeed applied to only starters that are not in great demand.

vivalajeter
Member
vivalajeter
3 months 4 days ago

It’s weird to me that teams get criticized when a player fails a physical. The Mets got hammered when they passed on Gomez, and people even said it was because they didn’t want to take on his salary (which makes no sense – why would they agree to trade for him in the first place if they couldn’t afford him?). Gomez was pretty meh for the Astros, and clearly wasn’t the impact player that he was in the 2 prior seasons.

I guess when people see that a team trade for or signed a player, they just get their hopes up and assume they’re getting the good version of that player. When it turns out the player isn’t who we thought they were, they gear their disappointment towards the team. But the reality is that a healthy Gomez/Gallardo/Whoever isn’t an option.

jdbolick
Member
Member
3 months 4 days ago

The criticism stems from the analysis being subjective, as the player might pass for the twenty-nine other teams, and once it becomes public it has an effect on that player’s bargaining power.

Orsulakfan
Member
Orsulakfan
3 months 4 days ago

I’m curious about how news of signings gets released to the public. Is it just impossible for teams to keep these things under wraps until the physical has been completed? Who tells the press these things before the deal is done?

evo34
Member
evo34
2 months 20 days ago

That’s a good question, and I wonder why there is no legal recourse for players damaged by the leaks.

Dave Stewart
Member
3 months 4 days ago

Injuries are one thing. But when a team tries to knock $5 million off your deal because you have halitosis, don’t walk away, run!

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