Seeking a Way to Predict Baseball Injuries
July 7, 2009
Increasing Pace of Injuries Hampers Baseball
By MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT
Nearly a quarter of the Mets’ roster from opening day — a collection of players making more than $50 million this season — is out because of injuries. In their place, the Mets have resorted to a ragtag group that includes several minor leaguers.
The problem is representative of a larger trend in Major League Baseball that has left people in the sport grasping for an explanation: the amount of time players were out with injuries increased 26 percent from 2006 to 2008. This year’s numbers, midway through the season, are similar to those from last year, when players spent more time on the disabled list than ever before.
Injuries can hurt teams on the field and in the pocketbook; baseball estimated that teams paid a half-billion dollars last season to players on the disabled list, the ledger of players considered too injured to compete. Players are breaking down at such a rate that teams are basing contracts more on performance incentives like games played and innings pitched. That way they can limit their exposure to having to pay players who are out with injuries.
Without a rigorous examination of what is behind the increase, the most popular explanation is that testing for performance-enhancing drugs, particularly stimulants, has deterred players from taking substances that for many years enabled them to play through pain.
Other theories include the belief that major leaguers, whose salaries are higher than ever, are less inclined to play with pain for fear of jeopardizing their lucrative careers; the idea that advances in imaging technology have enabled team doctors to diagnose more injuries; or the possibility that teams are putting uninjured players on the disabled list as a way to expand their rosters.
“There are a lot of theories around about why it has gone up, and a lot of them make sense, but I am not convinced that it’s one thing,” said Stan Conte, the director of medical services and the head athletic trainer for the Los Angeles Dodgers. “Anyone who thinks they have the one answer is lying or wrong.”
Long before baseball players began taking muscle-building steroids, they were openly using stimulants like amphetamines in clubhouses, to help them through the grind of a 162-game season. But in 2006, the league began testing for amphetamines, which mask fatigue and pain and increase reaction time. The testing is not believed to have become a deterrent until 2007.
“What stimulants do is create an unrealistic self-confidence for the athlete, and they think their body can do things that it, at times, really can’t,” said John Hoberman, a professor at the University of Texas who has written frequently on doping. “These drugs postpone the symptoms of injuries, symptoms that restrain athletes from playing hurt. They are no longer there, and players are realizing that they can’t play hurt.”
In the 1990s, a decade of significant advances in sports medicine and training, the number of reported injuries steadily increased in baseball.
Barry Axelrod, a longtime player agent who is the treasurer of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, attributed the rise of injuries in the 1990s to the use of steroids. “I know the powers in baseball said they had no idea, but everyone in baseball knew dating back to the late ’80s it was prevalent,” Axelrod said. “The side effects from the steroids was the increased injuries because players were more fragile and their muscles were becoming too big, and the training was too intense for the body.”
In 2002, a year before baseball began testing for steroids, the number of injuries dropped drastically. It stayed low until 2007, when the number spiked; it set a record last season.
The problem, exemplified by the Mets, has remained acute this season. The Mets (39-42) are missing the heart of their lineup — shortstop Jose Reyes, center fielder Carlos Beltran and first baseman Carlos Delgado — and are four and a half games off the pace in the National League East standings. They lost all three of their games against the first-place Philadelphia Phillies over the weekend.
The Atlanta Braves (39-43), who are a half-game behind the third-place Mets in the five-team N.L. East, , are in a similar situation. They have played the entire season without one of their best starting pitchers, Tim Hudson, and have seven other players on the disabled list.
“Teams could be being more cautious with players, not letting guys play through things,” said Mets catcher Brian Schneider, who spent time on the disabled list this season with a back injury. “Everyone’s always heard of a phantom D.L. It might be that they’re doing it more for roster spots, not to lose guys to waivers, to keep guys up. There’s just so many different rules, so many different ways to go about it. It might be a coincidence. It’s just such a complicated question because there’s so much that can go into a D.L. situation.”
If a pitcher needs to work on his mechanics, for example, a general manager could say that he is injured and put him on the disabled list, allowing the team to replace the pitcher while he works out his problems.
“Making good use of the D.L. allows you to expand your 25-man roster,” Axelrod said.
Baseball, which has compiled the yearly injury totals, has not done so this season. But Conte, the Dodgers trainer who is leading an effort to build mathematical formulas to predict injuries, said that based on his data, the numbers are down slightly from last season. They have not, he said, returned to the levels of 2002 to 2006.
Peter Nash, the director of underwriting for Sportscover, a syndicate of Lloyd’s of London that insures contracts for teams and players, said that over the last decade, teams have been giving more contracts based on performance. A hitter, for example, may receive more money if he plays in at least 100 games.
“We used to have to cover clubs much more when they were giving large contracts without the incentives,” Nash said. “Now we are being approached by the players and being asked to insure the incentives in their contracts to make sure they make money even if they get hurt and can’t play.”
Nash said that his company had noticed an increase of injuries in baseball in recent years and thought it was part of a larger trend.
“We believe that injuries move in five-year increments: they go up for five years, then plateau, then go up for five years, and plateau, and over time, they are going higher and higher,” he said. “As long as athletes are pushing themselves as hard as they can, the number will continue to go higher and higher.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: July 8, 2009
Because of an editing error, an article on Tuesday about the increasing amount of time Major League Baseball players are missing because of injuries included an erroneous example of a contract incentive designed to protect teams when players are hurt. Baseball does not permit certain incentives for statistical accomplishments, like hitting more than 30 home runs in a season. (As the article noted, incentives for games played are allowed.)
July 8, 2009
Seeking a Way to Predict Baseball Injuries
By MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT
LOS ANGELES — Beyond the massage tables and the stacks of athletic tape in the Dodgers’ cramped training room hangs a dry-erase board with scribbled questions like “Fat? Skinny?” and “Country of origin? Region of the country they grew up in?”
Stan Conte, the team’s director of medical services and head athletic trainer, expects the answers to help him resolve a problem plaguing professional sports teams: injuries.
In Major League Baseball, where players are breaking down in record numbers, teams paid about a half-billion dollars last season to players on the disabled list.
The ability to predict how players’ bodies will fare is a holy grail. With an actuarial approach, Conte seems to have a head start in the pursuit. He is trying to build a formula that will give teams a competitive advantage and help them avoid players who spend their days in the training room and not on the field.
“The insurance industry has made millions of dollars off figuring out how, when, where and why people are going to die, and we are trying to figure those things out about injuries,” Conte said.
Every major league team and scores of independent analysts are trying to understand why injuries strike certain players. But Conte said his effort was more advanced because his data has been compiled over 15 years as a trainer for the San Francisco Giants and now the Dodgers. He has had hands-on interaction with hundreds of players before and after their injuries, and his observations and medical records inform his hypotheses.
Conte also draws on the analytical prowess of David Zes and Adam Sugano, statisticians who teach at U.C.L.A., and Matt Marks, an employee in the Dodgers’ baseball operations department. They are building mathematical formulas that they hope will show the chances a player will be injured within the next season.
“This project couldn’t have been done 5 to 10 years ago,” Sugano said. “There weren’t enough numbers, and there wasn’t access to lots of the numbers. The numbers weren’t being collected, and those that were weren’t the cleanest. And 20 years ago, there wasn’t the computational power. It didn’t exist.”
Billy Beane, the general manager for the Oakland Athletics, called it “the natural progression of statistical analysis.”
Beane was at the forefront of baseball’s first surge in statistical analysis, as detailed in the 2003 book “Moneyball,” when he embraced new ways of evaluating players’ talents. Now Conte is applying similar methods to injury research.
“Injuries are a huge part of the game and it makes sense that they are doing it,” Beane said. “I just don’t have the money to let someone spend all year looking into this.”
Conte considers many of his findings proprietary, but in a recent interview at Dodgers Stadium he provided a glimpse of his project.
About once a week for the past six months, Conte has sent an e-mail message with lists of players’ identifying characteristics to Sugano and Zes. They build logarithmic formulas and computer codes that test Conte’s hypotheses, like Dominican players’ being more durable than Americans and whether high pitch counts lead to injuries.
“He has been working and seeing things over his career that he thinks are trends, and he needs someone to execute them,” Sugano said. “We are the executors.”
Marks helps Zes and Sugano by scouring the Internet and baseball databases for statistics on players’ performance and injuries.
Although Conte said the project was far from finished, he has begun to apply some of his analysis to advise the Dodgers’ front office on personnel decisions, including free agents.
When the team’s contract with relief pitcher Scott Proctor was due to expire last year, Conte said he and his assistants conducted a risk assessment that considered Proctor’s medical history, the number of pitches he had thrown and his frequent appearances two seasons in a row.
“We did a risk analysis — I can’t tell you what it was, but we saw him go 83, 83 in appearances two years in a row and had some concerns,” Conte said. “Without getting into specifics, we ended up not tendering him a contract.”
Proctor, who recently revealed that he is an alcoholic, signed with the Florida Marlins. He sustained an elbow injury in spring training and needed major surgery. He may miss the entire season.
Conte’s injury analysis has evolved. He said it was more sophisticated and, he hopes, more accurate. Three years ago, he advised the Dodgers that signing pitcher Jason Schmidt to a three-year, $47 million contract was not a high risk. Since then, Schmidt has had two shoulder operations. He has pitched in only six games.
“Everyone asked me two, three times a day, ‘If you had to do it all over again, how would you analyze Schmidt?’ ” Conte said. “I didn’t have all the answers with Jason Schmidt, which has pushed me to get better knowledge.”
A nagging challenge is the absence of a centralized database of injuries. All Conte’s team has to work with is Major League Baseball’s disabled list, a relic that includes errors and misinformation.
“People in M.L.B. don’t believe it, and we still don’t,” Conte said, adding that teams sometimes manipulate roster moves by putting players on the list who might not be injured. “But it is the closest thing we have to anything.”
Unlike the N.F.L. and the N.H.L., baseball does not have a central database of league-wide injury data. The commissioner’s office has begun trying to help teams track injuries reliably and consistently. But that project could take several years.
“Stan has been all over us with this trying to get all the data into one place,” said Chris Marinak, Major League Baseball’s director of labor economics. “The difference between Stan and other trainers is that he has taken a real vested interest in this.”
Conte said he was conducting his research on his own time, not as part of his job with the Dodgers. Considering all the money teams have invested in injured players, the formulas could become lucrative if successful. Conte said he has no agreement with the three others on sharing any potential profits.
“For now, we are having fun and that’s enough,” Sugano said. “It’s something we have talked about, but we will be careful. We will let them taste the sauce. And it’s something that won’t work if they don’t have our algorithms; we have the recipe and it won’t work without it.”
It is not clear whether other teams are conducting similar research because they are not inclined to discuss something that may provide a competitive advantage.
Lonnie Soloff, the head trainer for the Cleveland Indians, a team considered to have a progressive medical staff, said he used a mathematical formula to assess injuries but acknowledged, “it is not an exact science and I am not sure it will become an exact science anytime soon.”
The Boston Red Sox, another team with a progressive medical staff, declined to let their trainer be interviewed.
Conte contends the long-prevailing belief in baseball that injuries are a matter of chance is misguided.
“I refuse to think we are doing all these things to get them healthy, and it’s a matter of luck whether lightning hits or doesn’t hit,” he said.