Too Many Colors

A few weeks back when I participated in the Yankees roundtable on Baseball Prospectus Radio, I commented that despite their upgrades this winter, the Yanks are now so heavily invested in ballplayers who are 30 to 35 or even older that any one or two injuries could cause them trouble given their lack of depth. Joe Sheehan made his prescient comment about the Yanks’ ability to assume contracts — and man, was he right when it came to the A-Rod trade — but the rest of the panel shared my view.

As did the host, Will Carroll, who doubles as BP’s injury expert. Just as he did last year, Carroll is previewing every ballclub in a Team Health Report which shows the level of injury risk for their starting nine, rotation, and closer. Players are assigned the colors of traffic lights which represent an underlying quantification of injury risk. As to what that quantification is based on, Will had this to say:

Like PECOTA, it’s a black box in the sense that I don’t let it out. FAR less math involved. It’s a weighted system of twelve factors starting with position, age, and injury history, but also things like body mass, PECOTA attrition/drop rate, playing time, team’s overall health rating, speed of recovery, and a few others, including a couple that are very subjective.

Just to put it in plain English, the “PECOTA attrition/drop rate” to which Will refers is BP’s forecast of the chance that the player will either decrease his productivity by 20 percent or more (collapse), or decrease his plate appearances by 50 percent or more due either to injury or poor performance (attrition).

Not all of the Health Reports are in the Premium category, and it so happens that the Yanks THR is a freebie. Will starts this one off by quoting a friend of his who says that everything in the world can be summed up in three words, and while he uses “Good. Expensive. Fragile.” to describe the 2004 Yanks, the first three which came to my mind upon viewing the forecast were, “Too many colors.” I tossed a few colorful words of my own in there, as you can imagine.

Only four Yankees out of the 15 Will graded get the green light: Alex Rodriguez, Hideki Matsui, Enrique Wilson (who may not even be the regular second baseman) and Mike Mussina. Eight receive a yellow light, and three — Jason Giambi, Bernie Williams, and Kevin Brown — turn up in the red-light district. No sooner was I reading the THR (a day late) than Alex Belth floated an email saying Williams was undergoing an appendectomy and would miss Opening Day. Ugh.

Carroll offered to field my questions on the Yanks’ report, and so I jotted down a handful and fired them off to him. What follows is our exchange.

FI: How much of the fact that Jason Giambi was red and Kenny Lofton was yellow is based on the two of them playing the field?

WC: It was a factor, but taking them out wouldn’t have changed either significantly. Giambi would be in on age and the lack of comparable successes (at least in the long term) for his knee injury. Lofton was in the middle of the yellow range — speed players tend to age poorly unless they refer to themselves in the third person.

FI: The news pre-op seemed more likely that Williams would be in center and Giambi would be DHing; does that change anything?

WC: Williams was actually on the cusp of yellow/red and I certainly can’t predict appendectomies. Williams is both older, figures to play some in the field — by design or by default when if Lofton gets injured, and has such a multitude of injuries in his file that it’s almost impossible that one of these wouldn’t jump up and bite him. Arthritic shoulders, bad knees, reduced speed, and DH doesn’t necessarily help. Edgar Martinez has to go through a pretty elaborate stretching regimen before every at bat; Bernie might not make that adjustment.

FI: Good points when you think about those 35-year-old hammies. What color lights would Travis Lee, who they recently signed, and Tony Clark receive?

WC: Lee and Clark are both green. Neither have major recent histories and neither figures to get enough playing time to hurt themselves. 1B is the safest position on the field.

FI: How wide a variation in the eight yellows is there, and if you were able to give some of them plus (closer to green) or minus (closer to red), who would get what?

WC: Internally, there’s quite a variation. Lofton is higher, Jeter is medium (thought I’m not terribly worried about him. I’ll worry more if I start seeing him dive more knowing that his SS job is under scrutiny) and Sheff is pretty low. Sheffield was one of the more interesting players to research so far. No one believes his hand wasn’t broken in the Cubs series. [Sheffield was just 2-for-14 with 1 RBI in the Braves’ first-round loss to Chicago.]

FI: What’s Kevin Brown’s bigger risk, arm or back?

WC: Back, but you have to look at the entire kinetic chain. If he favors his back, he’ll put more stress on his arm. I just can’t see Brown going 200 innings, but he did it last year. The one thing I can’t factor in is someone’s pain tolerance.

FI: You didn’t really elaborate on Jose Contreras’ yellow — what can you say about him? Is it based on the uncertainty of his age?

WC: No, I use the same data as PECOTA on age. Contreras only has one year in his injury history and that’s the part that’s uncertain. The biggest negative for him was the expected jump in innings. That’s a challenge for anyone.

FI: Steve Karsay’s shoulder problems last year were blamed on tendinitis, but now we’re hearing that he had rotator cuff surgery. Did the Yankees conceal that? How serious was his tear?

WC: Conceal? No, but they had no reason to tell anyone. If Tom Gordon’s agent knew about that, would his price have gone up? Tendinitis and cuff problems are often related. It would take a whole section of a book to explain that — but luckily that book, Saving The Pitcher, is coming out in April!

FI: Let the record show that I added the shameless linking to Will’s innocent plug of his book. Anyway, what about the rest of the Yanks’ pen — Gordon, Quantrill, Heredia, and White? Any glaring risks there?

WC: Gordon’s always a risk, but used properly, he’ll be fine. The rest don’t figure to be major risks for anything “preventable.” That word — preventable — is a tough one. Bernie gives us a perfect example for just how unpredictable injuries are. Any pitcher can get overused or take a ball off their head and pow — in an instant the whole rotation or pen has changed. Where the Yankees — and you touched on this in the intro — are harder to figure is in how they’ll deal with an injury. There’s not much in Columbus, but Cashman’s just as likely to go get someone from another team as he is to get someone from Triple-A.

FI: Tell that to Aaron Boone.

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