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Answering Rob
2004-03-04 07:58
by Will Carroll

Usually, I don't get a chance to read columns that interest me before the email hits. Yesterday was no exception and this time, there was more of it than usual. What's different about this one is the perception, both implied and explicit.

In Rob Neyer's latest column , he asks a lot of questions about Geoff Jenkins and Ken Griffey Jr. Both of these players are among the most "injury prone" in the game and Rob does a great job - as usual - of breaking these down and showing why the signings of each have not or are not likely to work out for their franchises. Contrary to most emailers, I didn't think this was aimed at my work; I think Rob was aiming more at Jim Bowden and Doug Melvin.

Rob then asks a medhead version of "the naive question." Why does this happen? What are the possible explanations? He comes up with:

There are three "explanations" for injury problems like those suffered by Griffey and Jenkins.

One is that the player doesn't take care of himself, and so is prone to injuries (but doesn't have to be).

Another is that the player is naturally injury-prone (and can't do much to change that).

And one more is that the player has just been particularly unlucky (and presumably his bad luck won't last forever).

In the case of the first, this is undeniably true. Some players simply are more likely to be injured due to lack of flexibility, strength, or style of play. They may be overweight, out of shape, or simply unprepared for the activity.

In the case of the second, this is probably true. Some players do seem to tend towards injury, but as we learn more about the patterns and causes of injury, we get better at preventing them. More on this later.

Luck is a poor explanation. It's the last resort. Certainly, there's not an explanation for some injuries. They just happen, but they happen at rates that are predictable in an actuarial sense. No one in their right mind can suggest that Mark Prior might run into Marcus Giles and miss a couple weeks, but we do know that over time, a certain percentage of pitchers will have traumatic injuries.

Injury analysis then becomes something of an actuarial science, reducing baseball to insurance. That's certainly not poetic, but it is a good basis for running both a business and a ballclub. My mother never expected to be hit by a tornado, but unlike the people who lived next to her, she had insurance when it did happen.

In a very real sense, insurance is a big part of baseball, either in terms of laying off the risk of contracts and in roster construction. Failing to use these principles is roughly equivalent to ignoring the best research in baseball statistics. It's certainly possible to win without having a stathead in the front office, but explaining it to the owner might be tougher when your team ends up eliminated in July.

Part of my background that serves me so well is the time I spent working in disability insurance. Insurers have done amazing studies on types of injuries, how long it should take to return, the steps needed to return, and the likelihood of a type of person to have any type of injury. This directly applies to baseball, with slight adjustments. There are distinct player types, known risks, and perhaps more measurement than is possible in most workplaces.

Injury analysis, like Rob says, is never going to be directly predictive. There will be cases - Phil Nevin most famously - where the factors line up so well that it looks predictive, but that's not the end result of the working being done now. Injury analysis, which I am finally beginning to see as a subset of sabermetrics, will be actuarial in nature. Players will fall into distinct pools of risk and, with other factors, will be used to judge the talent of each player by each team.

As we continue to build out the BP Injury Database, we're in territory that I equate to the days before STATS, when Elias kept as much data to itself as possible. Injury analysis is in the intuitve stage - find a manager or beat writer who hasn't used the phrase "if we stay healthy" a couple hundred times already in spring training.

I'm not a doctor, nor do I play one on the Internet, but I can see the day when risk of injury will be a known quantity. Perhaps it will be on a PECOTA card or a Topps card, along with other stats that tell us what has happened or will happen. Then, that player, along with the others, will take the field and play the game we love so much. Out there, it seems at least that anything can happen.

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