If You Haven’t Got Your Health: Part 1 Overview

 

In the wake of the largest pennant race collapse ever, Red Sox fans are looking for answers. What went wrong? Who is to blame for this epic failure? Manager Terry Francona is already gone. Speculation about GM Theo Epstein’s future abounds. Unlike so many of the Red Sox heartbreaking failures, this season’s tragedy offers up no singular villain to curse. There is no Bill Buckner or Grady Little this time around. Robert Andino will not live in New England lore the way that Aaron Boone and Bucky Dent do- his name spoken with bitter distain. No, this year the devil is lost somewhere in the details.

The 2010 team did not break too many hearts on their way to third place in the AL East. That team was undercut by an almost unimaginable string of injuries and never seemed poised to make a run toward October. The 2010 high water came on July 3, just a few days after losing star Dustin Pedroia. Injuries plagued every aspect of the team that year; pitchers Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz lost significant time, both catchers, Victor Martinez and Jason Varitek, went down for extended periods. Finally, when Kevin Youkilis, arguably the team’s best overall player, went down for the year the team’s chances seemed slim.

T

he 2011 team suffered greatly from injuries as well. Relievers Bobby Jenks and Rich Hill missed huge amounts of time. Youk battled numerous minor pains before eventually falling victim to another serious injury, requiring surgery for a sports hernia during the off-season. The top replacement option for Youk, Jed Lowrie missed 41 days on the DL, marking a third straight year in which Lowrie has had trouble staying out of the trainer’s room. Newly acquired left fielder Carl Crawford missed a month of time and never played up to the level expected of him. Worst of all, Clay Buchholz and Daisuke Matsuzaka both suffered season ending injuries, crippling the pitching staff. Fellow starters John Lackey and Jon Lester also needed brief DL stints. As the season slipped away from Boston, the team was left to give eleven starts to the group of Andrew Miller, Tim Wakefield, Alfredo Aceves and Kyle Weiland in September.

As fans reflect on two disappointing seasons, questions about the Red Sox ability to evaluate injury risk and handle injury prevention cannot be ignored. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers here. The subject of injury risk and prevention is mired in variables, thickly fogged with randomness and variation. No two players or injuries are exactly the same. Accessing a team’s ability to identify injury risks or to prevent them is fraught with peril. As Dr. Spaceman says, "What can we do? Medicine is not a science." 

To begin with, we should ask, "are the Red Sox falling victim to bad luck and freak occurrences or does the team struggle to identify at risk players and to address issues in mechanics and conditioning to prevent injuries?" First, answering that question means trying to indentify what is normal for a team with respect to injuries, which are abnormalities, in sense. Thankfully, Jeff Zimmerman at Beyond the Boxscore has done some incredible work in this area and provided some context for these questions.

From 2002-2009, teams averaged 710 player-days lost to the DL. Conclusions should be tempered with the knowledge that the variation in these numbers was fairly extreme, with a standard deviation of 314 days. Under Theo’s guidance, the Red Sox were slightly below average in lost player-days from 2003-2009, with an average of 652 per year in those years. Given the extreme variations, that is essentially average. The worst during that time period was actually 2004 when the Sox lost 1151 player-days to injury on route to the World Series. The 2008 team saw the fewest lost days with just 408 total.

In 2011, the Red Sox lost 806 player-days* to injury, hardly a shocking or significant number, less than one third of a standard deviation and less than half the colossal totals seen by the 2007 Royals (1644) or the 2004 Diamondback (1640). While injuries certainly help to derail the 2011 Red Sox, the sheer total of time lost to injuries was nothing out of the ordinary. Based simply on days lost, the Red Sox are not doing any better or any worse then the rest of baseball in the area of injury management.

That does not mean Boston has been average at accessing risk by any means. Players are not all equal, not in value and not in risk. Injuries to players signed as free agents to high priced long term deals are a bigger financial risk than those to players developed in-house and under team control. Starting players are far more important to the team’s record than bench player and starters and key relievers are of far greater value than swing men and middle relievers. Next time, I will take a look at the Red Sox injury record with free agent signing to see if the team has underperformed at keeping their expensive imports on the field.

*This my calculation based on the transaction records and does not include most minor league players like Ryan Kalish.  

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