White Sox, Brewers Lead Injury Prevention Parade

The White Sox and the Brewers, among other teams, seem to have made some real progress in preventing injuries. But there's so, so much more money to be saved.

Writing over at SI.com, Will Carroll finds a billion dollars just sitting around not doing anything, and discovers that at least a few teams are actually taking real steps to limit injuries:

Over the last decade, teams have spent more than a billion dollars on players that were on the DL. That's billion with a B, all spent on players shelved for injuries that could be preventable. Certainly there will always be injuries in sports -- which keeps me employed -- but there doesn't have to be quite so many and they don't have to be quite so serious.

Many will ask how I know this to be true, and I'll direct you to look at the massive gap between the best teams and the worst teams when it comes to keeping players healthy. This isn't a flukish statistic, but one based on a decade of numbers. Looking back through 2002, the gap between the best and the worst teams is almost $100 million dollars. In fact, the team that saved the most money over that time period -- the Chicago White Sox-- saved almost exactly enough money to have bought their entire 2005 roster. You might remember them as the team that won the World Series. Thanks to Herm Schneider and his staff, the Sox got that one for free. You can think of a good medical staff like a "Buy 9, get the tenth free" deal at Costco.

--snip--

The Brewers have been second only to the White Sox in preventing injuries over the past decade, in part because they've decided that random isn't good enough. They made the unusual move of putting their medical staff under the direction of assistant GM Gord Ash. Ash has focused effort, resources and thought onto his medical staff, leading to a reduction in injuries and a better understanding of the intersections of health, performance and development. The team has used this "one page" approach, aligning the scouting, medical and minor league departments to generate results.

I started beating this drum a long time ago, just imagining how much money teams could save if they could prevent injuries by just some small percentage. I was thinking mostly about pitchers, because they suffer more catastrophic injuries. Obviously, you want to keep the hitters healthy, too.

In the post-Moneyball era, we love to talk about market inefficiencies. First it was (supposedly) sluggardly sluggers who wouldn’t eschew the walks, then it was secretly excellent outfielders, and lately I suppose it’s secretly great baserunners or something.

Really, though, that’s just sort of playing around on the margins. You can’t win without great players, and generally speaking everyone knows who those are. Secretly effective players might push you from 85 wins to 87, but it’s a great player or two that gets you from 85 to 94 and into the playoffs. And great players on the market are almost always cost almost exactly what they should. Because that’s the easiest part of a general manager’s job.

No, the real path to exploiting inefficiencies lays somewhere else. What if you could buy a super-sophisticated pitching machine that cost $2 million and would lift your team’s batting average by two points. Would you do it? You should. What if you could invest just $500,000 extra and cut your team’s DL time by five percent. Would you do it? You should.

Granted, those two points and that five percent are merely speculative. Still, I’d probably give them both a shot, because the potential payoff/outlay is massive. Generally, though, teams don’t think that way. They’ll happily spend $8 million for a below-average shortstop, but not $800,000 on a medical staff that just might help win a division title.

Most probably wouldn’t, anyway. That’s obviously changing, just like everything else in the game. Twenty or 30 years ago, the state of medicine was just slightly better than the version practiced by Theodoric of York. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good leeching as much as the next guy. I’m just not sure it’s the best way to protect a roster full of tightly strung millionaires.

I don’t mean to suggest it’s easy to keep these guys healthy. There has been a massive difference between the Brewers and the White Sox and the teams at the other end of the scale. Before drawing any overarching conclusions, we do have make sure it's not just luck. But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that some teams have started to figure things out, and some still have not.

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