Ah, November. We've stood up and left the offseason behind and the diamond is covered with a tarp to protect it from the rain. Then we woke up to buzzing phones and the self-congratulatory analyst speculation that is the first week of free agency--Jhonny Peralta, Nelson Cruz, you know, the usual.
But November is also the beginning of award season, and if I've learned anything from watching the movies, awards are the most important part of this entire industry. Why we watch in the first place, right? First there was Tito and Clint Hurdle getting their respective Manager of the year awards earlier this week, and then Scherzer and Kershaw's Cy Youngs, and Iwakuma finishing third which is pretty cool. Raul won the prestigious "Hutch Award," which I didn't even really know was a thing--or prestigious--until I read about it right here. But still, always good to see the Mariners get recognized, even if the majority of the season feels better left in the pages of last year's calendar.
This morning I woke up to some interesting news, though. It's about an award--yes--but that's actually not really what I want to talk about. Fooled you, didn't I? First, the story:
The Martin-Monahan award is given out each year by RotoWire and Will Carroll, a sportswriter specializing in medical issues. Carroll is a BBWAA member and former SI reporter, who wrote The Juice in 2005, a SABR award-winning book detailing PEDs in baseball. He now writes for Bleacher Report. The award goes to Head Athletic Trainer Rick Griffin and Medical Director Dr. E. Edward Khalfayan.
BUT--look, this is actually interesting. Being from--and growing up in--Portland, I've had my fair share of injury news with my sports news. Greg Oden, Brandon Roy...these words together mean something different when you've watched that team literally deteriorate in front of your own eyes. After last season, and under new Front Office management, the Blazers fired athletic trainer Jay Jensen, who had been with the franchise for 19 years. Jensen had been under fire repeatedly over the last few years as Oden and Roy somehow kept Franklin Gutierrezing themselves into crutches and casts, and there were rumors here and there about players unhappy with his philosophy and style. All super vague stuff. But the results were there.
For his part, Jensen was always praised by his peers, and even Oden refused to blame him for anything. All I could think about after this was that sports injuries had to be a lot more complicated than pinning it on one guy, and while someone could have done this wrong, rehabbed that a strange way, or refused to think of this or that thing, the fact of the matter is that the human body isn't really designed to do all the crazy shit these players do every day, and things like days off for starting pitchers are nothing more than inventions by medical experts to try and stop people from spontaneously combusting.
So this brings us back to the Mariners. Perhaps I just have a short memory, or chose to dwell on the negative things (I know it's probably the second), but there has been some really awful injury news from this ballclub in recent years. From the aforementioned Guti nightmares to Danny Hultzen's future now in question, Stephen Pryor, Josh Kinney, and all of Felix's little flare ups. There was a lot of talk about how the Mariners handled Michael Morse's injury--that maybe throwing an injured Michael Morse to try and suck some life out of him might have been a bad idea. Broken bones from Mike Zunino, Michael Saunders smashing into a wall, back pain and pulled muscles and this and that and oh god make it stop please.
But you know what? Maybe this could have all been a lot worse. Faith in this organization might be at a pretty deep low, but it seems foolish to abstractly tie the decision making made by the Front Office during the offseason to what the medical staff does, even if they made mistakes now and then (and lets be clear, that Morse thing was pretty stupid). So let's look at the press release justifying the award:
The Mariners made nine disabled-list moves all season, the lowest such total in all of baseball.
Wait, really? Nine? That's it?
Starters Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, and Joe Saunders started a combined 96 games, a total matched or bettered by only five other three-man starting units throughout the MLB.
That's pretty cool I guess, though Iwakuma is propping that up quite a bit. But here's where it gets interesting:
Due to the hard work of Griffin and the medical team, the Mariners had the second-fewest days lost to injury with 566. Outfielder Franklin Gutierrez was the position player sidelined most frequently as his reoccurring hamstring problems accounted for 125 total games or 40 percent of the total games Seattle position players would miss due to injury.
The effectiveness of the Mariners medical staff also made an impact financially as the team would have the lowest injury cost in the MLB. A low injury cost is a good indicator that the top contributors not only were available to play but rebounded quickly when an injury did occur. Justin Smoak and Michael Saunders were able to overcome problematic injuries and returned shortly after becoming eligible for reinstatement from the 15-day DL.
Alright, that is pretty cool. But a lot of this logic seems to be working backwards--a results based quantification of something that might be better analyzed from a procedural standpoint. It's interesting that even with this award, and their reasoning stemming from it, we still don't know any more about how the medical staff does what they do, what their philosophies are, or if certain injuries or lack thereof is a direct result of the work the medical staff did. Does that mean they are good? Not necessarily. But the results speak for themselves, and even though it seemed pretty bleak at times in the summer, I'm wondering how much of that was an actual result of poor decisions made by the team, or just projections of the usual distrust in this organization onto a place that didn't deserve it at all.
Look--I hardly know enough about baseball, let alone advanced sports medicine. I'm not doubting or supporting what this award means, if anything, but it should tell us something about how we think about this franchise. Doom and gloom are pretty pervasive and easily infectious emotions, and maybe--just maybe--we have less to be depressed about than we think we do.
When the Blazers fired trainer Jay Jensen, the overwhelming opinion seemed to be that he was somewhat of a scapegoat--bad injuries and insane luck led to things few trained medical professionals ever could have fixed in the first place. Local media had send offs, players voiced their support, fans seemed relieved for a new direction while ultimately admitting it may not have been his fault in the first place. But all I know is this--if the Blazers make the playoffs this year and remain relatively injury free for the next few years, someone somewhere is going to praise the new guy for changing the culture and bringing direction to a lost franchise. Make of that what you will.
So congratulations to the whole Mariners' medical staff. They do a lot of work we never even know takes place, and they are responsible for a pretty huge part of what happens on the field. When stuff goes wrong, they are some of the first to get blamed. When stuff goes right...well...you know.