Scott Kazmir, the Dodgers, and Health

The real nice thing about having Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke in the same starting rotation, aside from all the wins, is that they allow a team to lose two key starters for the season — Hyun-Jin Ryu to a shoulder injury suffered in spring training and a Brandon McCarthy to Tommy John Surgery after just four starts — without it crippling the team. The Dodgers would’ve preferred Ryu and McCarthy stay healthy, but with top-end talent like the Dodgers had, a lot can go wrong for things to still go right.

This year, the Dodgers had a chance to retain Greinke, but they narrowly missed out, with Greinke heading to Arizona. Whether or not they “missed out” on guys like David Price and Johnny Cueto doesn’t matter; the point is, those guys play for different teams, too. Without Greinke, the Dodgers rotation will be much different than it was in 2015, but in certain ways, it will be very much the same.

You start with Clayton Kershaw. We’re talking pitching here, so you always start with Clayton Kershaw. Kershaw is the best in the world and he’s got a clean bill of health when it comes to his arm, so there’s no better place to start. But after Kershaw, there’s still Ryu, who’s clearly an injury risk, and there’s still McCarthy, who’s clearly an injury risk, and there’s still Brett Anderson, who made 31 healthy starts last year, but made just 32 starts the past four years combined, and so he’s clearly an injury risk.

The Dodgers knew that’s what they had going into the offseason, and their first move to address the rotation, having missed out on the top flight arms, was an attempt to sign Hisashi Iwakuma. Iwakuma’s 34 years old, had an injury history in Japan and hit the disabled list last year, so he’s clearly an injury risk. So much so, in fact, that he failed his physical and the Dodgers decided to move on.

The guy they moved on to ended up being Scott Kazmir, who signed a similar contract to the one the Dodgers were prepared to give Iwakuma. When you think Scott Kazmir, you probably think injury risk. Granted, Kazmir’s averaged 31 starts a year over the past three seasons and has avoided the disabled list, so most recently, he’s been something resembling durable. Yet, still, there’s been the occasional skipped start due to shoulder concerns or early, precautionary removal due to tricep tightness and of course the three years of injuries that derailed Kazmir’s career and left him jobless, not too long ago. After all, the best predictor of future injury is past injury. While he’s been healthy lately, we’ll never live in a world where Scott Kazmir isn’t considered an injury risk.

So, to quickly recap, after Kershaw, the Dodgers had three injury question marks, who they tried to tandem with an injury question mark, but when that didn’t work, they went out and got a different injury question mark. Got it. With that in mind, let’s look at some numbers and graphs.

Given the nature of Ryu and McCarthy’s season-ending surgeries last year, it probably wouldn’t surprise you to learn that the Dodgers lost more days to the disabled list from their pitchers than any team in baseball last season. They also had the most individual trips to the disabled list, by pitchers. So, that’s last year. What about the last three years?

This information, by the way, and the graphs to follow, come from Jeff Zimmerman‘s recent Hardball Times post chronicling 2015 in injuries.

The last three years of days lost to injuries:

3-year-Total-Days-by-Team

The last five years:

5-year-Total-Days-by-Team

How about 15?

15-year-Total-Days-by-Team

Since forever, the Dodgers have been experiencing injuries as often as any team in the game. It’s been that way for the past couple decades, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better.

Which is interesting, because Stan Conte was the Dodgers longtime director of medical services, and if there’s any trainer whose name you know, it’s probably Conte’s. Before resigning to focus on research and consulting, Conte earned an impressive reputation over his 20-plus years in the game, and has long been considered to be on the forefront of injury prediction and prevention technology.

You’d think the team with the renowned medical staff and the unlimited capital to invest in cutting-edge technology might have the injury thing figured out, to an extent, yet the numbers are what they are. I should have mentioned earlier in the post that there won’t be a real conclusion here. This is just thinking out loud.

Most of what we’ve heard about the Dodgers’ advancements in the medical field have been in the last half-decade or so, and perhaps that should simply be viewed as a response to their already decade-long run as one of the most injury-prone teams in baseball. The results don’t yet match the publicity because the team’s investments in the new technology haven’t had the time to pay off. Perhaps also there’s something of a selection bias in the data, in that larger market teams like the Dodgers are more active in free agency, and free agents are older players by necessity, and older players are more likely to get hurt.

Above all else, maybe the Dodgers just don’t care as much about injuries as other teams? That sounds bad. Of course the Dodgers want their players to stay healthy — that’s why they’re doing all they’re doing to advance their knowledge of injuries. But the Dodgers currently have the most money, and have always had a lot of it. That means each dollar lost to an injury matters less to the Dodgers than it does any other team. That’s why a team like the Dodgers can afford to guarantee $10 million to Brett Anderson even though he hadn’t been healthy in three years. If he blows out his arm again, oh well, what’s $10 million to the Dodgers? If he’s healthy in 2015, like he was, then they get 180 quality innings from a 27-year-old lefty and huge surplus value.

If there’s any team who can commit dollars to a risk without feeling the pressure of that liability, it’s the Dodgers. Maybe that’s why they’ve dedicated so many resources toward injury technology — because they know they’ll continue to take risks on injury-prone guys. If the guy goes down, there are always backup resources to be used in an effort to patch the hole, and in the meantime, there’s cutting-edge medical procedures waiting for you in the training room to aid your recovery. If the guy stays healthy, the return is well worth the risk. With the overwhelming number of injuries the Dodgers have dealt with in recent history, and the overwhelming number of injury risks just in their current starting rotation, maybe on the surface it doesn’t make sense to invest money in another risk like Kazmir. On the other hand, maybe it’s just part of the plan?



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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.


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Bip
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Bip
4 months 26 days ago

On Conte: He’s been interviewed on Effectively Wild a few times, and he has made it clear that the primary thing he brings to the table is injury assessment, not prevention. He, at least by his own word, doesn’t have any new magic when it comes to preventing injuries, so mainly he’s there to assess risk for the front office to factor into their calculation. For what it’s worth, one of the interviews I heard was before he resigned from the Dodgers and one was after.

So, while the Dodgers, as you have shown, have not been injury-free by any means, they have still been one of the more effective pitching teams over that time. A quick lookup has them 2nd in baseball in pitching WAR as a team since 2001. What this might suggest is that, in part due to Conte’s influence, they are actually more willing to accept a pitcher with injury risk, but not quite for the reason you said. Perhaps it is because they are confident that they are valuing that risk accurately. So, for a guy like McCarthy, who pitches very well when healthy but has been often injured, maybe other teams were scared off, and Dodgers felt that the performance was worth the cost, even factoring in injury risk. And, if he puts up three typical McCarthy seasons for the next three years, he will be.

Bip
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Member
Bip
4 months 26 days ago

It should be stated that Clayton Kershaw has more than double the WAR of any Dodger pitcher since 2001. Take him away as an outlier, given that he doesn’t really show anything about the success of the Dodgers’ strategy with regard to injury assessment, and they fall into an approximate tie for 6th in WAR, without losing much ground on the total injury leaderboard. So, still one of the best pitching teams and one of the most injured teams.

sp13
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sp13
4 months 26 days ago

The AL Central division has been doing very well in the injury department in the last 3-5 years.

soddingjunkmail
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soddingjunkmail
4 months 26 days ago

Maybe because they’re mostly lower budget teams with younger players?

Bip
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Member
Bip
4 months 26 days ago

Interestingly, though age may correlate with injury, youth correlates with TJ surgery. I think it’s another selection thing: if a guy is 30 and still pitching without needing it before, he probably won’t need it.

Mr. Patient
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Mr. Patient
4 months 26 days ago

In the Twins’ case, it’s just that they label their players “day-to-day” for months at a time.

Sazj3030
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Sazj3030
4 months 26 days ago

I think that the penultimate paragraph strikes an important note for the Dodgers’ plans, at least last season. Signing Brett Anderson to his one-year deal was one example, but they did the same with Brandon Beachy (with less positive results, of course). It’s for that reason that I thought they would strongly pursue Henderson Alvarez this offseason and I was surprised that there was never much discussion about them as a possible landing spot. A young, right-handed, former all-star seemed like the perfect target for the Dodgers to sign for $5-7 million or so, even if just to see what he had left.

Bip
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Member
Bip
4 months 26 days ago

Also, I would assume the Nats since 2001 includes some Expos years, right? Otherwise, that last chart suggests they might actually be the most injured team over that time. Not that it impacts your thesis.

FrodoBeck
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FrodoBeck
4 months 26 days ago

‘Since’ into ‘sense’ in that second to last sentence.

I really like this evaluation, makes sense to assume that they’ll have one of the higher injury-prone teams because they can just go out and buy someone else, or dig into their deep farm system to replace the guy.

trenkes
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trenkes
4 months 26 days ago

All hail Herm Schneider

formerly matt w
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formerly matt w
4 months 26 days ago

These graphs make me think of the stories, back in 2010, about how Nolan Ryan and the Rangers were going to address the rash of pitching injuries by having their pitcher pitch more and deeper. Jury’s in on that one, I guess.

Bip
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Member
Bip
4 months 26 days ago

Yeah, definitely makes sense to have Nolan Ryan, one of the most unusual pitchers in history, serve as the example for your pitching policy.

Richie
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Richie
4 months 26 days ago

Definitely made sense that Nolan would think that way.

Art Vandelay
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Art Vandelay
4 months 26 days ago

I’ve never heard that before, but if it’s true I absolutely love it.

formerly matt w
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formerly matt w
4 months 26 days ago

Here’s the article I was thinking about:

http://jonahkeri.com/2010/09/13/pitching-injuries-and-rangers/

(To be fair there’s a lot of “This approach is nuts.”)

Count Chocula
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Count Chocula
4 months 26 days ago

When you have Matt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez on your team it makes sense that the Dodgers are at the top of the list.

LHPSU
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LHPSU
4 months 26 days ago

This is the kind of article that makes Rangers fans wake up screaming in the middle of the night.

Richie
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Richie
4 months 26 days ago

FYI only, weren’t the Dodgers actually a bit strapped for cash during the McCourt years?

Bip
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Member
Bip
4 months 26 days ago

Yes, but they were still never a bottom-half payroll from what I remember.

vmx
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vmx
4 months 26 days ago

Does the writer of this article seriously believe that the Dodgers are leading the way in medical research and possess secret medical breakthroughs unknown to the medical community?

Bip
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Member
Bip
4 months 26 days ago

Assuredly he does not.

Kevin Krueger
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Kevin Krueger
4 months 26 days ago

Seems to me like they’ve decided pitcher injuries are a crapshoot any way, so they might as well take all the guys no one else wants. Friedman’s going with a “minimize variability” strategy ever since he went to LA (probably a sensible thing to do with a huge payroll), and it’s working. They have plenty of stars, and the playoffs are mostly random anyway, so the best thing to do from there is put together a pitching staff that’s 9 deep or whatever so you can get a 95 +/- 10 team to a 95 +/- 5 team instead of a 97 +/- 10 team.

vmx
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vmx
4 months 26 days ago

Yeah taking guys no one wants is exactly what a big market team should do to flex its financial muscles.

obsessivegiantscompulsive
Member
4 months 26 days ago

Given that Stan Conte was mentioned prominently in the article and considered a possible factor, it is surprising that nothing was mentioned about his Giants affiliation, which was even highlighted in his bio that is linked above.

He was with the Giants for 15 years, and head athletic trainer since the 2000 season. Per your last chart above, the Giants has had the 5th least days lost to DL since 2001. Fell to 10th in the 5 year chart, and was 9th in the 3 year chart, suffering some decline in health performance since Conte left.

In all, I agree with your thesis regarding free agents and especially starting pitchers who have a history of injuries. Free agents tend to be older and that’s when the injuries start to come in more regularly. In addition, since the new ownership have come in, they have made a policy of spending whatever money it takes to add talent to the team, no matter the risk, as long as it is only risking money. This has allowed them to mostly keep their young prospects that they believe are keepers, safe and developing in the minors, while adding on expensive talents that are unwanted by other teams, as long as it upgrades the Dodgers team overall.

Lastly, since even before the new owners, under Colletti, the Dodgers have made it a policy, it seems to me, to cover starting pitching with quantity, while accepting a lot of injury risk on top of it in order to get quality as well. The injuries may and will come, but with so many starting pitchers, if they assessed their injury risks properly, then they will end up with enough starters to cover their full season in games started, with enough quality starts. And with a policy like this, they will regularly have pitchers like McCarthy or like Maeda, who will most likely not make the opening day roster, allowing them to stash them somewhere until they might need them mid-season, keeping the talent coming in, as necessary. Then there’s always the mid-season trades available, if you keep your farm stocked with enough OK prospects, you could always trade for help if necessary.

It is an interesting strategy to take. The Giants did that last season, and hated it so much that they went and signed two horses in Cueto and Samardzija this off-season. Though, with Peavy and Cain in the last two rotation spots, is still employing that tactic somewhat, with Heston and Blackburn as the next two in line.

I also suspect that Lincecum might still end up with the team as the long reliever/spot starter as a part of this strategy. He still wants to be a starter, but even if he’s throwing with improved velocity, unless he’s throwing heat like early in his career, it won’t be enough to erase four years of poor overall results in the eyes of most teams. The best he’s going to get is a low MLB contract with no promise other than a chance to compete for a starting spot, and most will probably be minor league deals with the opportunity to compete, whereas I see the Giants offering a big enough contract (but not as big as the last; more like Vogelsong’s deal for 2015) and role (as super reliever, utilized anywhere, plus first short at any rotation opening) to keep him. Kazmir got a minor league deal after being out but also healthy and scoutable by throwing in independent league, as a example of what Tim should be facing.

People still doubt Lincecum, but few have followed what he has done each season and how he progressed, he’s actually been good enough through long and extended portions of a season until his body couldn’t handle it anymore. It’s too bad that he is still pushing to be a starter, as it is the only logical reason for why his body broke down. Being a reliever would ease the wear and tear on his body, while allowing him time to recover properly, and he could be Eckersley-great at the super-utility role, like he was in the 2012 playoffs.

Bip
Member
Member
Bip
4 months 26 days ago

Evoking the name Eckersley in reference to Tim Lincecum is incredibly optimistic at this point. Just like every old pitcher is not a Moyer, every converted starter is not an Eckersley. In fact, over 90% are not.

As for Lincecum’s recent performance, was he good, or was he just receiving his share of good luck in a small sample? It reminds me of the state of things during May of last year: Lincecum and Kershaw had flip-flopped ERA and xFIP, each pitcher having one beginning with 2 and one beginning with 4, and each the reverse of the other pitcher’s. Both ended the year with their ERA’s matching their xFIPs. So, did Lincecum break down, or was he pitching that way all year?

xeifrank
Member
4 months 26 days ago

Alex Wood a 2+ WAR (no injury risk) is right there if need be.

Paul22
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Paul22
4 months 26 days ago

I wish they could weight these DL and Days lost tables by projected WAR. Losing a Kershaw for 80 days is much more painful than losing a Brendan Ryan. But then I also wish historical payrolls and salaries comparisons could be adjusted for payroll inflation (not CPI).

As to the fragility of the Dodgers rotation, I think its comparable to the Yankees. Both teams have the financial clout to make deals at or before the deadline, so its not the end of the world for either team if they lose a couple of starters (well, maybe if the Dodgers lose Kershaaw it is)

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