Sunday, April 20, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

How much water does the injury excuse hold?

Let's do our best to ignore the maddening amount of circular reasoning required to pin the blame of the Phillies fall on player imperfection and lady luck. The company line, articulated by general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. in this column by the Inquirer's Bob Ford, is that the Phillies just need to stay healthy.

How much water does the injury excuse hold?

Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. (Charles Fox/Staff file photo)
Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. (Charles Fox/Staff file photo)

Let's do our best to ignore the maddening amount of circular reasoning required to pin the blame of the Phillies fall on player imperfection and lady luck. The company line, articulated by general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. in this column by the Inquirer's Bob Ford, is that the Phillies just need to stay healthy. 

Said Amaro: "The team we fielded the last third of the season was not our club. That wasn't the expectation when we started the season last year...For better or worse, we invested in these guys because they were some of the best players in the game. And we felt that if they stayed healthy, that core of players could sustain our ability to contend. If they weren't going to be healthy, that's what would cause problems."

Again, let's ignore the obvious. For the sake of the argument, let's assume that a major league general manager lacks the means necessary to field a roster of players that spends all three-thirds of a season living up to the expectations he had for it when the season started. We'll assume that injuries are unpredictable, and that it is impossible to build a roster that can withstand them without an over-reliance on fortune's fickle grace.

The question: is good health really the only thing holding this team back? Or, perhaps, more accurately: Were the Phillies the victims of an overabundance of bad luck last season when they finished the year with the seventh-worst record in baseball?

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In a vacuum, which is often the environment the Phillies appear as if they are operating, the answer would appear to be, "Yes." Few teams, one could argue, would be able to weather a storm that includes the losses of their cleanup hitter and their No. 1 starter, which the Phillies did in Ryan Howard and Roy Halladay.

But what if we step outside the vacuum and view the Phillies' injury woes in a relative sense? How did they compare to the rest of the teams in baseball?

Now, I will admit that the only thing that I have at my disposal are facts, and that most of these facts are based on numbers, and that plenty of people will argue that if those numbers do not support a certain narrative, then it is the numbers that must be wrong. 

Nevertheless, let's humor ourselves and look at what the numbers say. 

The process that I used is hardly scientific. But it was a process. My goal was to find out how much money each team spent on players who did not play. To do this, I went through the payrolls and 2013 statistics of 14 teams: the Phillies, the Yankees, the Nationals, and every 2013 playoff participant except for the Indians. I did not include the Indians because I lost their data on my spreadsheet and did not feel like doing the work all over again. Like I said, the process was not scientific.

For each one of these teams, I used the number of games played by each player whose salary was at least $4 million for 2013. I divided each salary by 162 games, and multiplied the per-game salary by the number of games played. For starting pitchers, I assumed 32 starts represented a full season. For relievers, I set the bar at 60 appearances. If a pitcher made 16 of 32 starts, he was credited with 81 games. And so on.

I set the bar at $4 million because the argument that prompted this study was the contention that once a GM awards a big contract, his fate is dictated by the ability of the player to stay healthy, an ability over which he has no control.

Hopefully this makes more sense after I outline the results.

The Phillies' $4 million earners, who accounted for 97 percent of their payroll, missed a total of $28.6 million worth of games, or 18 percent of the Opening Day payroll. That's a hefty chunk of change. But not as hefty as the Yankees ($78.5 million, 37 percent of OD payroll), the Dodgers ($67.4 million, 31 percent), Cardinals ($37.6 million, 32 percent) or Braves ($18.9 million, 21 percent). The Phillies' total was similar to the Red Sox total of $25.0 million and 16 percent.

The Cardinals and Red Sox played in the World Series. The Braves won the NL East. The Dodgers won the NL West. The Cardinals won the NL Central. 

"Doc Halladay not being healthy crushed us," Amaro told the Inquirer. "It's not his fault. It's just part of the game. When it happens to guys you are counting on with huge contracts, you can't just buy your way out with mediocre players."

And this is where the disconnect lies. The Cardinals spent the whole season without Chris Carpenter and two-thirds of the season without Jaime Garcia. It's hard to argue the Phillies' loss in their rotation was greater. You can argue that Jimmy Rollins did not provide the Phillies production commensurate with his contract, but neither did the Cardinals' shortstop: Rafael Furcal missed the entire year while earning $7.5 million. St. Louis also spent the entire year without closer Jason Motte. 

The Dodgers spent most of the season without starting pitchers Josh Beckett, Chad Billingsley and Ted Lilly. Ryan Howard gave the Phillies more than Matt Kemp gave the Dodgers. Hanley Ramirez missed half of the season. 

The Braves? Brian McCann played in 102 games and had a down season. Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton combined to earn $26 million while offering replacement level production. Tim Hudson missed the final third of the season. Relief ace Eric O'Flaherty missed the whole year. 

The Red Sox were healthier, but they spent half the season without top starter Clay Buccholz. Jacoby Ellsbury played in 134 games. Shane Victorino played in 122. Relievers Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey were lost causes. 

The Yankees? Alex Rodriguez played 44 games, Mark Teixeira 15, Derek Jeter 17, Curtis Granderson 61, Kevin Youkilis 28. 

At some point, maybe I will do a study that actually is scientific. For now, I will simply hurl anecdotal evidence back at your rebuttals. The Phillies missed Ben Revere, but the Braves missed Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy and Jonny Venters and Jason Heyward was hurt for a stretch, and the Nationals missed Bryce Harper and Ross Detwiler and Allen Craig was hurt and on and on and on we go. 

The Phillies problem isn't that their high-paid stars keep getting hurt, it's that they are in a position where they are relying on their high-paid stars to not get hurt. In the Inquirer article, Amaro says that signing Carlos Beltran instead of Marlon Byrd would have meant not signing Roberto Hernandez. But Carlos Beltran signed for only slightly more than the Phillies will end up paying Jonathan Papelbon for the same length of time if his option vests after 2015.

The problem is the Phillies have spent the last four years backing themselves into a corner, failing to parlay the Cliff Lee trade in 2009 and the Hunter Pence trade in 2012 into young players who are ready to contribute and offset the depreciation of the older core. Injuries happen, and you'll have to use your own process to convince me that they have happened to the Phillies at an anomalous rate. 

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