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

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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Bip

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.