It’s been a big week for transactions, and we’re not even done. While the trades understandably have received a lot of the buzz, it is Cole Hamels’ massive new contract with the Phillies that grabbed my attention. It’s the second-biggest for a pitcher ever: six years and $144 million, plus a vesting option and a limited no-trade clause. Like most of these contracts, it is fair, meaning that given reasonable projections for both performance and the market (taking into account player decline and increases in in the average cost of a marginal win), the Phillies are paying for what they expect to get. Neither side “got over” on the other in terms of money — Hamels might outperform it, but there is a roughly equal chance he will not.
With any player, of course, injury looms as a risk for the team, especially with pitchers. Hamels has a relatively clean injury history, but it is far from unblemished. This is what piques my interest: Current Brewers ace Zack Greinke is on the trade market. Indeed, it sounds like he will be moved any day now. That holds plenty of interest in itself, but what struck me right away is that with Hamels signing Greinke is easily going to be the best starting pitcher on the free agent market after this season. He is a legitimate ace having another dominating season. One can quibble over whether he or Hamels is better, but he is in the same territory.
I have discussed this before with others, and what usually comes up is that Hamels has more value because he does not have the past mental health issues Greinke has had, and is thus less risky in that respect. Leaving aside which pitcher is better, does the notion of Greinke being “risky” in comparison to Hamels because of past struggles with social anxiety disorder (or depression, depending on what you read) hold water?
Let’s get one thing out of the way: I am not a physician (psychiatric or otherwise), psychologist, or physical therapist. I am not diagnosing anyone. I am simply going to discuss this based on what I think are some very simple notions — I would call them “common sense,” but I am not quite sure they are quite as common as they should be.
I am also not discussing this from a “makeup” angle. I am not dismissing that (admittedly) vague notion of what scouts “see” when they read a player’s body language or try to figure out how he might fit in a particular team situation. While there should be a link between folk psychology (of which “makeup” is one subset) and practicing psychology and psychiatry, we are are not there yet, at least not in this dimension of baseball.
These qualifications are made in order to note that although I will be discussing the (supposed) “risk” of Greinke’s emotional issues, that is not the same as discussing his makeup or how he might fit in a particular team or city. They are related on some deep level, but I do not think they should be talked about interchangeably (even if they are, anyway).
I am also going to mostly abstract from some of the moral issues here (our social attitudes about mental illness, for example). They are important, but to keep things focused, I will stay on the level of “risk management.”
Without reciting the whole story, which can be found elsewhere (Joe Posnanski has written about Greinke many times, here is one good post from 2010), in 2006, Greinke walked away from baseball during spring training, got on some sort of medication, and started feeling better. He came back after a number of weeks off and stayed in the minors most of the rest of the year. He pitched out of the Royals’ bullpen in 2007, then had a very successful season as a starter in 2008 (I wish I could find an article that I read from that season in which an anonymous scout [move those guys] said that the Royals would be better off with Greinke in the ‘pen), then had his awesome 2009, a season that has not been topped by a Major League pitcher since. The rest, including Greinke sort of forcing a trade after 2010, is history… He’s been mostly great since then.
Greinke has never had real health problems other than that. Yeah, he missed the first month or so of 2010 because of a rib injury he got playing basketball during the offseason, but that is not the sort of thing that generally sends up “red flags” for pitchers, and certainly did not seem to affect his performance afterwards. I would guess his next contract will forbid that sort of activity anyway (many contracts do). But get this: that is the only time in his career he has been on the DL other than his time on the 60-day DL in 2006 with social anxiety/depression issues.
One parallel worth discussing might be with Josh Hamilton, who is a Great American Hero because of his personal struggles with addiction. As Dustin and I have discussed on Twitter, it is interesting that if one mentions Hamilton’s issues — not in moral judgment, but simply in discussing risk to the team — one comes off as a “jerk,” but people feel free to speculate on Greinke’s emotional toughness all of the time. It is apparently fine to be “concerned” about Greinke’s mental health issues from six years ago, but it is inappropriate to bring up Hamilton’s ongoing battle to control his addiction (about which Hamilton himself is quite open, and admirably so).
Attitudes towards substance addiction would also be worth discussing, but again, I want to avoid moralizing in this post. Hamels provides a better pretext for discussing his in a more objective, “medical” (again, I am not a doctor) manner, is more timely, and perhaps most importantly, a pitcher like Greinke. He is also just two months younger than Greinke. But is he less of a risk?
Now, Hamels does not have a massive list of injuries like some pitchers. But he does have some worth noting. During this past off-season, he had elbow surgery to remove “loose bodies” from his elbow. In August 2011 he had a brief DL stint for shoulder inflammation. That is pretty much it recently.
Well, what is “recently?” We’re still supposed to be worried about Zack Greinke going to the DL six years ago to deal with a psychiatric issue, right? Hamels also went on the DL in 2007 with a UCL Sprain — that is more recent that Greinke having to miss time because of mental health.
Again, I’m not doctor or other qualified expert. I do not claim to know how much we should be worried about any of Hamels or Greinke’s issues. Let me put it this way: looking at risk management going forward, would you be more worried about a pitcher who has had a broken rib last season, or one who missed time with shoulder problem and had elbow surgery? More relevant to our immediate topic, would you be more worried about a mental health issue from six years ago, one millions of North Americans deal with and go about their business just fine, or that recent arm problems? I guess the big cautionary tale here is Joey Votto, who went on the DL with depression in 2009 and hasn’t been any good since then.
If I go on too long, this might get into the moralizing I really want to avoid. Speaking strictly from an amateur risk management perspective, based on their public medical histories, if one is comfortable backing up the truck for Cole Hamels, I do not see how one could object to doing it for Zack Greinke. The issue needs to be Greinke’s projected on-field performance, but spurious assumptions about a mental health “risk” that a multitude employers and employees deal with on a massive scale in our society. To do otherwise without detailed and specific information, whatever its moral status, is simply bad baseball analysis.