Putting On The Tin Foil Hat

This weekend the Toronto Blue Jays announced that the team’s closer Sergio Santos will miss the remainder of the season after opting for shoulder surgery as a means of repairing his injured labrum. Prior to this concession, the right handed pitcher had been trying to rehab his injury through good old fashioned hard work.

Almost immediately after informing reporters of Santos’ fate, Blue Jays manager John Farrell attempted to put any negative speculation to rest by reiterating that the reliever was not damaged goods when he was acquired from the Chicago White Sox this off season in exchange for sell-high prospect Nestor Molina. In fact, he informed the throngs of reporters, Santos didn’t even experience pain in his shoulder until April 20th, what will be recorded as his last game of the 2012 season.

Of course, Blue Jays fans can be forgiven for being suspect, as there has been a history of bushwhacking between the two clubs dating back to the David Wells for Mike Sirotka deal in 2001 which brought about the infamous claims of “caveat emptor” from Commissioner Bud Selig.

I’m not suggesting that there wasn’t enough due diligence exercised on Toronto’s part in acquiring Santos, or that the White Sox avenged themselves for the Alex Rios “by all means, have him” waiver pick up of 2009. However, I do think it might be somewhat disingenuous to suggest that the Santos injury is as new as the team is saying. At the very least, there’s a lot of circumstantial evidence to suggest that not all was right with the player as early as this Spring.

How else does one explain the lack of in-game work from Santos in Spring Training, where he faced only 19 batters over five appearances? That’s much fewer than any other pitcher who made the big league team. This, combined with his erratic performances throughout the first month of the year, including the Season Opener against the Cleveland Indians, when he appeared to be severely overthrowing his pitches only to watch them all cross the plate low in the zone.

A quick look at his release points in each of his six appearances this season also reveals that outside of his first two times out of the bullpen, he had some difficulty settling on his mechanics:

Again, we’re admittedly dealing in the realm of speculation here, a land I’m not normally eager to visit, but there are a few reasons the Blue Jays might want to suggest that Santos’ injury occurred at the end of April and not earlier: 1) It’s the truth; 2) The team wants to justify waiting this long before resorting to surgery; or 3) The red flags and warning signs coming from Santos in the early going weren’t heeded as they should have been.

Personally, I have no problem allowing a player to rehab an injury through means other than surgery granted that the rehab shows progress and recovery time isn’t expected to be longer than what going under the knife would require. If a player prefers rehab to surgery when both are valid options, ideally he and his team would agree on a date that considers recovery time, at which point a certain amount of progress would need to be made in order to continue with the rehab. I suspect that this is what happened with Santos and the Blue Jays.

However, it’s possible that the team mishandled some early warning signs as well. And if that was the case, it would be magnified by the horrendous luck that the team has experienced so far this season with the health of its pitching staff.

As analytics progress in telling players what to throw to who, how and why to swing and even where to field, it seems to me that the next step will be in injury prevention and rehabilitation. While injuries are bound to happen, no matter how cautious the front office or how excellent the training staff is at preventive care, there is too large of an advantage to be had by keeping a roster healthy to not look at ways of exploiting that edge.

More than a year ago, Will Carroll of Sports Illustrated wrote about investments in injury prevention.

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. On the other side, there are teams that lost significantly more than expected, costing their teams as much as $30 million.

Looking at all of this is a means of telling you that you’re not crazy for thinking that there’s more to this story than what’s being told. While suggesting that Sergio Santos was damaged goods when he was acquired from the White Sox is the stuff of hardened conspiracy theorists, there still exist some legitimate questions surrounding the timing of his injury and the fashion with which it has been dealt.

If we want to take those questions even further, we can also ask why so many of the team’s pitchers have gone down to injury this season. For the most part, it’s been played out as something of a fluke occurrence, and that might very well be accurate, but again we’re presented with circumstantial evidence suggesting otherwise – new members of the coaching staff, prospects being rushed, adaptations to pitching repertoires.

However, the most important factor for me is that there is a clear correlation between investment in health and injury avoidance. And, as Mr. Carroll points out:

A player moving from a weaker team to a better team in terms of medical results isn’t guaranteed a change, but the data shows that his risk does go down significantly. It allows a team like the Brewers to make a deal for Shaun Marcum, knowing that even with his significant injury history, he’s more likely to stay healthy in Milwaukee’s rotation than in Toronto’s.

Given what’s happened to the team’s pitching staff this season, this proved to be an example full of premonition.