February 10, 2004

Q&A with Will Carroll

Over at BaseballProspectus.com, injury savant Will Carroll has begun his "Team Health Reports" for all 30 major league teams. Will kicked off the series of articles with a look at the Philadelphia Phillies and his second installment focused on none other than my beloved Minnesota Twins.

While the Phillies THR is free of charge, the Twins THR is Baseball Prospectus "Premium" content, which means non-subscribers don't have access to it. Of course, if you haven't heard already, subscribing to Baseball Prospectus Premium is definitely a worthwhile expense.

In addition to his work for Baseball Prospectus, Will is also putting the finishing touches on his first book, Saving the Pitcher, which can be pre-ordered on Amazon.com. As if that weren't enough, Will also maintains a blog of his own, the Will Carroll Weblog, which features his thoughts on all sorts of stuff that have nothing to do with baseball injuries.

I don't usually talk a lot about injuries, mostly because I don't know much about them. That said, when it comes to the Twins, it's not difficult to get me talking...even about stuff I don't know about. Will Carroll was kind enough to answer some of my questions about the Twins and their injuries...

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Aaron Gleeman: The Twins trading Eric Milton seemed like a no-brainer move to me and I give them an A+ on the deal, despite the fact that all they got back was Carlos Silva and Nick Punto, neither of whom I think much of. It surprises me then that so many Twins fans I've spoken to are not happy with the deal.

To me, there is just no way a team with a budget in the $55 million-range can keep a pitcher with a serious knee problem who will make $9 million in 2004 and threw only 17 innings in 2003. This is especially true when said pitcher wasn't ever even all that great to begin with (Milton has never had an ERA below 4.00 in a full season).

So here's the question (yes, there is a question): What do you think the chances are of Milton and his knee staying healthy enough to pitch 200 effective innings for the Phillies in 2004? And, what is your over/under on the last season of Eric Milton's major league career?

Will Carroll: 200 innings is a tough threshold. I'm not sure how many pitchers cleared that last year (22 in the AL, thanks Lee), but it's not many. Milton, like Randy Johnson, will make it a certain amount of time before an inevitable breakdown, but none of us know exactly what that will be.

For the Phillies, a team opening a new stadium and a great shot at a title, that risk is certainly one they're willing to take on and can certainly afford. I'm not sure the Twins could have got much more given the contract and health, but it doesn't seem like much either.

AG: By the way, before we get off Milton, it always seemed to me (and a lot of people) that Milton's landing/follow-thru was very violent and basically asking for trouble. I know this is easy to say now that he's had knee problems, but if something like that was so obvious to the untrained eye, why didn't the Twins try to do something about it? Or don't you think his heavy landing had anything to do with the knee injury?

WC: I don't get to see Milton very much, so I'll take your word for it. Tinkering is something I cover in Saving the Pitcher, but Keith Law of the Blue Jays said it best when he said that, at some point, tinkering becomes counterproductive.

Some of the inefficiencies actually help by being deceptive or add power that the arm will break down under. Do you reduce short-term effectiveness for long-term durability? That's a tough question for any coach or organization to deal with. What if I told you Johan Santana's going to win 20 games with a 2.35 ERA, but that he'd need Tommy John surgery after the season? It's risk and reward.

AG: Gee, thanks for bringing up a wonderful subject like Johan "The Official Pitcher of Aaron's Baseball Blog" Santana needing Tommy John surgery! For the record, I think I'm nearing about 10 years without having cried, but that streak would be in serious jeopardy if I heard that news. As long as we're talking about Johan...

As anyone reading this probably knows, this website is essentially Johan Santana's official fan club. As I've said millions and millions of times, I think he has more long-term star potential than just about any pitcher not named Prior.

It obviously scared me to see Johan needing to have bone chips removed from his elbow this off-season. I know you and I have talked about this a couple times and you've said bone chips are something that typically comes back, but over a period of years instead of months. Is there a chance, however slim, that the bone chips could come back at some point during the 2004 season?

WC: Bone chips happen. Think of them like a blister. It happens, it heals, but if you irritate the site again, it recurs. Something - and we don't know what - is causing spurs/chips in his elbow. I'd guess about half of pitchers have them, but the majority are non-symptomatic.

I'm not as high on Santana as many are, but I'd sure like to have him on my team. Chance of recurrence in 2004? Sure. He could get struck by lightning or your dog could chew off his pitching arm too. The chips are more likely, but I'm not laying money on it either.

AG: Okay, let's assume Johan is safe for 2004. Doesn't that mean he's still a walking (and pitching) time-bomb, with the potential for the bone chips rearing their ugly, chipped head at any point, during any season? And finally, seeing as though he had the bone chips removed almost immediately after the season ended, do you think they had anything to do with his less-than-stellar performance in the playoffs against the Yankees?

WC: The question is more how is it managed than anything else. Will he need them cleaned up after every other season? Every third? Will they get symptomatic mid-season at some point and cost him and the Twins a couple months? We don't know, but we do know to watch for it. If Santana gets an x-ray or such every month or so, isn't that a good expense? I would guess that it didn't help him in the playoffs, but I don't know that.

AG: Let's talk Corey Koskie for a minute. He has been, without a doubt, one of the Twins' most valuable players over the past few years and has also been one of the most underrated players in baseball over that span (is anyone outside of Minnesota aware that he is a career .285/.379/.457 hitter who plays Gold Glove defense at third base?).

Koskie is also 31 years old this season and his contract with the Twins expires after the year. He seems to me like a guy who is going to age very badly, mostly because he, despite being a good athlete and actually somewhat fast on the bases, almost always appears to be moving gingerly. Even his swing seems, at times, to get extremely long and loopy, like he's having trouble just bringing the bat head through the zone.

In addition to my personal observations, Corey has missed 53 games over the past two years with various injuries and has also gone into prolonged slumps several times. Last year he hit 14 homers in the first-half and then didn't hit a single homer after the All-Star break. I don't really have a specific question (what else is new?), but I'm interested in your take on Koskie as an aging/injury risk?

WC: Koskie is someone I always compare to Mike Sweeney in my head. Both deal with back problems and assorted other minor things that always keep them from reaching the level we expect. That's not to say they're bad players - far from it - but health is so fragile and integral that ignoring it as baseball has done for...well, nearly forever, stuns me.

Koskie had some really interesting PECOTA comparables but the one that stands out for me is Robin Ventura. I think they really are similar and will follow similar paths. Having the '87 version of Leon Durham [as a comparable] scares me, but I'm really looking forward to the 2004 comparables. PECOTA's attrition and drop rates for Koskie are also scary, so in a walk year, I'd start thinking about who'll be at third next season.

AG: Talk to me about Joe Mays' insurance situation. This has been a much talked about issue with Twins fans this off-season, because the Twins can't seen to get money from the insurance company to cover Mays' injury. That lack of money (presumably) kept them from re-signing Eddie Guardado or Latroy Hawkins (or perhaps signing a replacement like Ugueth Urbina). Why haven't the Twins gotten money to cover Mays' contract? And do you foresee them ever getting any money for it, even a fraction?

WC: It's a dispute about whether or not Mays' 2000 problems are related to his 2003 Tommy John surgery. I can't get too specific, but it's a typical contract problem. It will end up in arbitration somewhere, but I have no idea where it will end up. Blaming the loss of Guardado and Hawkins on that seems pretty weak. It's not like Carl Pohlad is hurting.

AG: The Twins are installing a new playing surface this year, finally seeing fit to ditch the old turf, which had gotten so incredibly worn out that it was laughable. There were seams in the "carpet" that rose high enough to trip someone, there were big patches that were so worn out that they didn't even have a color anymore. It had to have been like playing on concrete the past couple years.

What do you know about this new turf they are using in regard to its impact on injuries? And do you think the old, crappy turf led to more nagging injuries for players? (Jacque Jones' groin, Koskie's whatever, Doug Mientkiewicz's everything, etc).

WC: I discussed in my chat [on BaseballProspectus.com] Monday that we just don't know due to a lack of data how much turf affects things. Anecdotally, it seems to cause more injuries, but as there's less turf around the league, there aren't less injuries.

We also don't know if NexTurf or whatever the new substance is has a significant effect. There's lots we don't know and that's one of the more exciting things about injury analysis. In baseball, there's few blank canvases left, but most of the good questions about injuries are still waiting to be asked.

AG: In general, what do you think of the Twins' training/medical staff? I have no inside knowledge, but it does seem to me that they've had an awful lot of injuries, both nagging and serious, over the past few years.

Last year, Milton missed nearly the entire season and Joe Mays was horrible and then ended up needing Tommy John surgery. Koskie missed a bunch of time, Rick Reed had to leave multiple games with back problems and also missed time, Mientkiewicz had nagging injuries all year, Jacque Jones missed a lot of time with groin problems. Then there was the incident where Lew Ford hurt his arm and Ron Gardenhire was angry at him for not being willing to go into the game because it was hurting him. Turns out the arm was broken. And that's just 2003.

In past years, Cristian Guzman has had a problem with the training staff and has missed significant time with various injuries. Brad Radke missed half of 2002 with groin problems. Mays, even before the TJ surgery, had elbow surgery and was injured often. I'm sure there are some other things I am forgetting too.

Are these things simply a matter of "all teams have injuries" or is there something more here? I know the Twins fired their long-time trainer a while back and rumors were that it had to do with his relationship with some of the players (Guzman chief among them)?

WC: Damned Gleeman-length questions. 🙂

Man, that's a tough question to answer without waffling. I'll admit that I'm still bitter about the manner that [former Twins trainer] Dick Martin, a personal friend, was treated by the organization, but their staff is qualified and hard-working.

I saw [current trainer] Jim Kahmann at the Injuries in Baseball Conference, so he's committing his off-season time to working in addition to the insane hours most trainers put in. (There's a chapter in STP about "A Day in the Life of a Trainer" that will just stun you.)

I think what we have to look at is results over a reasonable period of time. Kahmann's entering his third year and that's where numbers stop being fluky and start being more reliable. At the end of the day, any trainer should be forced to answer for his results, just like anyone in baseball.

Too often, it's about relationships or knowing where the bodies are buried in the organizations. I think a lot of teams don't want to be accountable and that holds true for a lot of trainers. The data's out there, if not publicly accessible, and we know which teams are consistently losing less time and money to injuries. Not addressing it is the fault of the front office.

You can read more of Will Carroll's injury-related writing, including his Team Health Reports, on BaseballProspectus.com. For his non-injury work, check out the Will Carroll Weblog.

Will's book, Saving the Pitcher, is due out later this year. To pre-order it now on Amazon.com, click here.

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