Projections and Playing Through Pain

Fantasy evaluations are based on the player’s statistical projections, no matter what type of league you are in. A key to winning fantasy drafts is to find which players will exceed their projections and then go get them as cheaply as possible. It also follows that hitters that played through injuries the year before could outperform their projections.

One problem with projections is that they take into account the player’s full season of production. If a player persevered through an injury during the season, their overall stats probably suffered. Projections don’t know if a player played through injuries, though. The player’s projections might have been better if the player had simply gone on the disabled list to recover instead of trying to play through pain.

An example of a player playing through injuries in 2010 was Ben Zobrist. He suffered a back injury in late July and missed only six games. Then he played through the rest of the season. Here are his triple slash lines before and after the injury.

Time AVG OBP SLG
April to July .272 .371 .384
August to October .174 .298 .293

His production dropped significantly after the injury and that put a damper on his 2011 projection. Going into last season, his Marcel projection was:

AVG OBP SLG
.260 .357 .431

Marcel uses a weighted 5-4-3 average of the three previous years worth of MLB data. Other projection systems use a similar method with previous season’s data. Here are his 2008 to 2010 stats:

Year AVG OBP SLG
2008 .253 .339 .505
2009 .297 .405 .543
2010 .238 .346 .353

By replacing the 2010 number with the April to July triple slash line –- instead of his late-season injury statistics — his 2011 projection would change to something more like:

Projection AVG OBP SLG
Adjusted 2011 projection .276 .375 .464
Actual 2011 stats .269 .353 .469

His batting average was about the same in both projections, but the original projection had a better prediction of on-base percentage while the adjusted one did better with slugging percentage.

One example is not enough of a sample size to draw any kind of conclusion, so it was time to crowdsource on the interwebs for players that were hurt and played though an injury in 2010 or earlier. For our sample it would be best if the injury had been a one-time fluke and not a yearly reoccurring injury that would affect the player’s stats from year to year (see Chipper Jones).

I ended up with 10 hitters from 2009 (Brandon Inge, Vernon Wells, Kevin Kouzmanoff, Geovany Soto, Mike Napoli, Jimmy Rollins, Jacoby Ellsbury, Luke Scott, Edgar Renteria, Alex Rios, Chris Young) and 2010 (J.J. Hardy, Brian McCann, Andre Ethier, Mark Reynolds, Carlos Pena, Ian Kinsler, Ben Zobrist, Scott Rolen, Raul Ibanez, Mark Teixeira). I matched up each pair of years and compared their AVG, OBP, SLG, isolated slugging percentage and home runs per plate appearance numbers. I regressed each player’s stats to the harmonic mean of their plate appearances. Finally I and compared the change in stats from the projection to their actual results.

The following values show how the players’ actual stats compared to their projections. (For example, slugging percentage has a value of +0.013. A hitter that played through an injury will likely slug 0.013 higher than his projection.)

Stat Change
AVG -0.001
OBP 0.000
SLG +0.013
ISO +0.014
HR/PA +0.0045

The final numbers show that the players that play through the injuries don’t really see a next-year drop in their AVG or OBP compared to their projections. This same group of players does see a nice jump in power numbers though. Looking just at the HR/PA, the value works out to be three home runs over the course of 650 PA. While the numbers don’t show a huge discrepancy between the actual and projected stats, the players, on average, show a measurable increase in power over their projections.

With this information, here are some players that played through injuries in 2011 and may exceed their projections in 2012. I have included the average draft position (ADP) for the player in 2011 (ESPN drafts) and 2012 (Mock Draft Central) to show how the injury has affected the player’s draft stock.

Jason Heyward
2011 ADP: 44
2012 ADP: 109

Jason played the entire regular season with a shoulder that he hurt in Spring Training. He tried to play through the pain, but eventually on May 22nd, he went on the disabled list for 24 days. Even after coming back from the DL it continued to bother him as seen by his stats before and after the time on the DL (2010 stats added for reference):

Timeframe AVG OBP SLG
2010 .277 .393 .456
2011, Before going on DL .214 .317 .407
2011, After returning from DL .234 .321 .379

It might make sense to have a different draft/auction approach with him depending on the type of league. In a keeper league, I would value him as if 2011 never happened and take him in the first 40 picks. You can’t let a young talent like Heyward pass through your fingers. If he fails, so be it. If he thrives, you will have a nice keeper. In a one-year redraft league, you can’t take as much of a chance that he will be 100% healthy. I would probably split the difference between his 2010 and 2011 ADP and draft him around the 80th pick.

Chris B. Young
2011 ADP: 87
2012 ADP: 123

Chris played through a thumb injury that happened around the All-Star Game. He stated that it didn’t affect him, but his stats say differently. Here are his numbers before and after the All-Star Game:

Timeframe AVG OBP SLG
2010 .277 .393 .456
2011, Before going on DL .214 .317 .407
2011, After returning from DL .234 .321 .379

His power in the second half of the season dropped like a rock as seen by this drop in his batted ball distances:

Chris may not be able to put up numbers like he did in the first half of the season, but I do expect a decent season from him. Drafting him near the 90th spot seems reasonable.

David Wright
2011 ADP: 14
2012 ADP: 33

David had a fracture in his back to start the season last year. It was not diagnosed until June thanks to the infamous Mets training staff. Eventually, he went on the DL and missed 58 games. After coming back from the DL, he performed better:

Timeframe AVG OBP SLG
Before DL trip .226 .337 .404
After DL trip .272 .349 .440

David’s 2012 draft value should be based more on his production after returning from the DL. With the lack of talent at third base, a top 20 pick is not out of the question.

Adam Dunn
2011 ADP: 37
2012 ADP: 275

2012 was a mess of a season for Adam Dunn. It may have all started when he had his appendix removed just after the start of the season. There is no way the surgery caused the entire season collapse, but it could have started the downward trend. Historically, players have taken a little over 30 days to return from an appendectomy. Adam only missed a week, and the early return could have changed his approach and/or confidence. Adam still has a good chance to be a productive player in 2012. It may be tough to start him, but he should at least be drafted for the chance of a turnaround.

Andre Either
2011 ADP: 60
2012 ADP: 131

Andre’s right knee has been hurting him for almost 2 years. Here are his stats from the last three years:

Timeframe AVG OBP SLG HR
2009 .272 .361 .508 31
2010 .292 .364 .493 23
2011 .292 .368 .421 11

As with so many other players in the sample, Ethier’s AVG and OBP remained constant, but the power numbers dropped. He has undergone surgery on the knee and should be 100% ready for the start of 2012, at least by his own reports. Plan on drafting him in the top 100 players.

Besides the above profiled players, here is a list of some other players that may have had their 2011 season affected by injuries:

Adam Lind
Alex Rios
Matt Holliday
Ryan Zimmerman
Michael Brantley
Franklin Gutierrez
Adrian Gonzalez
Carlos Gonzalez
Troy Tulowitzki
Rajai Davis
J.P. Arencibia
Denard Span
Scott Rolen

Playing through an injury is nothing new in baseball: nobody wants to lose their starting position or disappoint their teammates. This chivalry is all nice and dandy, but we are talking about serious stuff here — fantasy ball. It’s important to have an understanding of the player’s true talent separate from his injury-riddled production. Finding players that played through injury can help you find an under-valued asset, since these hitters will hit for more power on average than they there were projected to produce. Buy low on a few of these hitters and you might just get a leg up on the competition.




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Jeff writes for FanGraphs, The Hardball Times and Royals Review, as well as his own website, Baseball Heat Maps with his brother Darrell. In tandem with Bill Petti, he won the 2013 SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis. Follow him on Twitter @jeffwzimmerman.

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