Tossing BP With Will Carroll
Will Carroll has catapulted himself into the big leagues of off-the-field baseball personalities during the past year. The multi-talented Carroll is an author with Baseball Prospectus, a host of Baseball Prospectus Radio, and the proprietor of the Will Carroll Weblog. His Under The Knife column, which is available to BP Premium subscribers, appears at least four times per week during the season. It is a must read for those of us who like to be on the cutting edge when it comes to injuries and potential health risks as well. BP Radio is a weekly one-hour radio show, and it is currently carried by 13 stations around the country.
Baseball Prospectus is one of the four most important sources of information (along with Baseball-Reference.com, ESPN.com, and the Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia) for Rich's Weekend Baseball BEAT. I am a BP Premium subscriber and found it so useful this past season that I recently re-upped for another two years.
I had the honor of interviewing Will during the past week in my ongoing off-season series of discussions with baseball's top online writers, analysts, and bloggers. Not surprisingly, Will gives us his valuable opinions without holding anything back. Pull up a chair and listen in.
RWBB: I'm curious. Are you an MD?
Will: That's probably the most common question I'm asked. I am not a physician, nor medical professional of any type. I have a background in sports medicine, but I am not a certified athletic trainer.
The next question I generally get is the following: "If you're not a doctor, why should I listen to you?" I figured out the answer after about a hundred failed attempts. I'm a translator and a pattern recognizer. If you have a medical background, you'll understand what a Grade II+ medial collateral sprain with meniscal involvement means without me. If you're a baseball fan, you know who B.J. Surhoff is. If you're not both--and who is, really?--then you're missing half the picture. I sit in the middle, trying to give my readers as much overlap as I can. Without talking down to anyone, I can usually translate the medical info into a baseball context and the baseball info into a medical context. I take what the medical professionals do and try to make it mean something to the BP reader, which is at a pretty high level to begin with. If I can do it in an entertaining fashion, it's all the better.
RWBB: When did you become interested in sports medicine?
Will: Birth. My father is in the field. I can remember seeing him work on Jimmy Connors or Andy Brown when I was four years old. (Brown was the last hockey goalie not to wear a mask. Does that sound like a good idea? "Mask? Nah, I can dodge those pucks.") If he'd been a shoe salesman, maybe I'd know shoes. My interest in the field has come and gone, but it's always been about a basic understanding of the athlete and what they go through.
RWBB: What prompted you to begin writing your Under The Knife column?
Will: I just thought I could add something to the conversation. I didn't think sports medicine was getting enough coverage--and still don't--and had just enough coffee in me to think I could do it. I was working on my novel--still unfinished--regarding a fictional Steve Dalkowski and, well, it's still sitting there, the third book on my "to do" list. I sent my first email to three guys, who all gave great feedback. I think the biggest inspiration was Lee Sinins. He was one of the "original three" and his links made me. It went from three to three thousand in a hurry, so a lot more people wanted this kind of stuff than I thought.
RWBB: How did you get hooked up with Baseball Prospectus?
Will: I had read BP since 1998 when Rob Miller (another one of the "original three") told me I had to read this book. He had kicked my head in two years running in our Front Office Baseball league, so I figured I'd better read it. It turned what I knew about baseball on its head, and it was exceptionally well written. I didn't understand the math--and still don't--but, wow, it was life changing.
Later on, Gary Huckabay sent me an instant message one day and asked if I'd like to write a piece for BP 2003. I was flattered and stunned and said yes way too fast. I got to know Joe Sheehan a bit and had corresponded with a couple other BPers and when I was asked to become part of the big Premium move, how could I say no? It's like the kid from the farm getting a call telling him he was going to play in Yankee Stadium. BP is the Yankees of baseball writing and I'm proud to wear pinstripes.
RWBB: You're of the belief that injuries are the hidden frontier of baseball knowledge. Please explain.
Will: I need more coffee for this one. Injuries have always been looked upon as something that just happens--tragedy, accident, darned shame. Or they become a destiny, like injury-prone, star-crossed, or worse, "might have been." No one, including MLB, took a serious look at what damage was being done to the game in any holistic sense. There were parts out there--Keith and Rany's PAP, MLB's "Redbook," the work Glenn Fleisig is doing--but there was no one place that tried to put it all together and make injuries a part of a baseball discussion. That's my goal; that and giving the guys behind the scenes in sports med some credit.
J.D. Drew, a good player? Can you answer that without discussing injuries? How did Rickey Henderson or Roger Clemens stay healthy for so long? (For both, it's one simple common thing.) Why did this guy come back so soon and this guy had the same injury and is still out? The paper said four to six weeks. Which is it and why? If my ace goes down with a blown cuff, how does it hurt my team and could we have prevented it?
Endless questions, but when I see someone drop a med head phrase in a column, I just love it. We don't see guys saying, "Damn, he's hurt" anymore. The smart ones are asking good questions now--or coming to me.
RWBB: Do you believe that baseball injuries can become a transparent statistical class like on base percentage and park factors?
Will: Darn good question. We don't have the stats to work with right now. I work from anecdotal evidence and the experience of the people that share their knowledge with me. The Redbook is amazing, but it's mostly raw data with some suggestions made in an actuarial sense. Good first step, but even people in the front offices of very smart teams didn't know what it was or have access to it. I think there will be "counting" stats like DL days and "derived" stats like DL Days over the average for this injury. There will probably be calculated stats, too. I'm toying with a formula that tries to approximate an injury percentage, but Nate Silver's way ahead of me with PECOTA's attrition rate. I used a simplified version this year on the Team Health Reports and it worked very, very well. Red Lights (the highest risk category) were 89% more likely to have a significant injury than an average player. We're working on seeing if DL days or DL dollars is a better measure, but the preliminary results are encouraging.
RWBB: Are teams generally aware as to the number of days lost or amount of payroll lost to injuries?
Will: In the broad sense, no. I'm sure they have it in a spreadsheet somewhere, but there are few GMs that could pop that out. They could say, "Damn, we're awfully banged up" or something, but there are few that really look at it and fewer that seem to do anything about it. San Francisco and Cleveland are really in the forefront with data, and New York has a secret weapon down in Tampa.
I only know of two teams that really take injury prevention seriously. All teams say they want fewer injuries but not many have a real plan for doing anything about it. It wouldn't be that hard to do. Heck, give me 1% of the money I save a team (and the right to hire the head trainer), and I'll do it for no salary. When you look at how teams fall apart due to injuries--the A's, the Cubs--or don't, in the case of the Marlins this season, it's a wonder that it's not more of a focus.
There are some really good teams, a lot of average teams, and a few teams that are about a half step shy of just saying, "Rub some dirt on it."
RWBB: You recently reached an agreement in principle to write a book this off-season on pitcher injuries. Give us a sneak preview of your work.
Will: Hell, I signed a contract and everything. The book is an amalgamation of the knowledge that's out there about pitching health. From mechanics to medicine, from surgery to stretching, I'm going to give both a broad overview and some deep insight. Well, that's the goal. Like UTK, it's just filling a niche. There's nothing out there like it, so I might as well write it.
It even has a title, "Saving The Pitcher." I'm really excited about the project because I'm working with some great people on it. That's something of a theme of my writing existence and even the radio show. It's the people I meet and get to know in the course of my job that makes it so amazing. If you'd told me a couple years ago that Nate Silver and I would walk up and talk to Rickey Henderson or that I'd interview Scott Boras or that I would stand on the field at Wrigley next to Ryne Sandberg, I would have laughed. If you told me I'd be writing full time, I wouldn't have believed you. I'm the luckiest boy in the world!
RWBB: When will "Saving The Pitcher" be published and by whom?
Will: I don't have a firm date for you, but Ivan R. Dee will publish it in the spring. It should be a few months behind BP 2004 and the new Neyer/James book on pitching, so budget accordingly. Some people think the Neyer/James book is competition, but if what I hear about it is true, they will actually be very complementary.
RWBB: What is your position on the significance of pitch counts and stress rates?
Will: It's all in the book but, until then, pitch counts are a decent measure. If you don't have a radar gun or a good knowledge of pitching mechanics, pitch counts aren't bad. You know where pitch counts would make the most difference? Little League. We kill these kids and then keep on riding the best ones in high school and college. Kerry Wood didn't have surgery because of being overworked as a rookie, though that didn't help. All the mileage he had on that arm built up and...pow...it was almost gone, if not for a miracle of surgery that's near common today.
RWBB: How do you feel about Pitcher Abuse Points?
Will: I wrote an article a long time ago attacking PAP and that was pretty dumb. PAP is, without a doubt, meaningful and the best system available today for measuring pitcher workload. It's pretty technical, which is a downside, and doesn't tell us much in a particular game, but it's definitely a great tool and, more importantly, a big step forward for the science of pitching.
My work on Velocity Loss is preliminary. It's promising but preliminary. Data collection is the big problem there. Until V-Loss is proven or not proven, it's my pet. Either way, PAP is the big dog on the porch and, in most long-horizon analysis, the best tool period.
RWBB: Which factors are the most relevant when forecasting the likelihood of injuries to pitchers in the future--age, pitcher type, mechanics, or overuse?
Will: All of the above? I think it's some combination of those. Mechanics are probably the most important. Mike Marshall's work with high speed films makes that point. If everyone could do what he teaches, I'd have nothing to write about other than Kaz Ishii taking one off his dome or that Barry Zito has calluses from his pre-game workout. Age is a big factor. Randy Johnson can do what Jerome Williams shouldn't do. Type is an interesting one. It's very subjective, but if we can find patterns, that's valuable. The Neyer/James book intrigues me greatly because what they're doing in categorizing pitchers may give me things to work with.
One or two other things that aren't often mentioned (outside of my upcoming book, of course) are that most pitchers are in terrible physical condition for pitching and that most pitchers don't throw enough.
RWBB: Name two or three pitchers who you believe could experience serious arm troubles next season?
Will: Arm only? Wow, I would have guessed Roy Oswalt last year, but his groin broke first. He's a good candidate again this year. He'll need to really concentrate on his mechanics and he's never been great at that. Houston has a problem keeping pitchers healthy in general so I worry a bit about Brandon Duckworth heading down there. I'm a bit worried about Josh Fogg's mechanics near the end of 2003. Would Kaz Ishii surprise anyone? Dewon Brazelton? I'm not worried about any of the Cubs pitchers, surprisingly. It hasn't caught up to them yet.
RWBB: In one of your recent articles, you mentioned Chan Ho Park as an early "breakout" candidate for 2004. Did you mean "breakout" or "breakdown?"
Will: Breakout. I mean, what's it take for him to look way better than last year or even 2002? Not much. What's he look like if he has 10 wins? Comeback player of the year? Here's a guy who had the bad luck of a horrid contract and the worst pitching coach imaginable for him all at once. There's enough left there, he's got the right people working around him, and he's a low risk pick at the right spot. The problem is, the Rangers aren't paying him like the White Sox did with Esteban Loaiza. Instead, they're paying him the GNP of an industrialized nation.
RWBB: That's for sure. Do you think teams are finally learning not to pay pitchers so much or not to give them such long contracts?
Will: I think in general teams are starting to notice that they can't insure contracts beyond three years and that certainly got their attention. I think it was Joe Sheehan that I was talking to about this, but he was telling me just how risk averse most teams are in their decisions and it's true, most teams don't go too far out on the limb for anything. That risk aversion permeates baseball. It's why we see the same old managers, why you get long term contracts for 'proven veterans' and why young guys have to fight so hard to make it.
Pitching is almost literally a coinflip proposition, injury-wise. Just over half of all pitchers will be on the DL at some point in a three-year period and some of those will be serious--elbow reconstruction, torn labrum. Rotator cuff injuries are way down, but tendonitis is up. Baseball's going to need to get a lot smarter on how to value players, especially pitchers. I'd pay for greatness and I'd pay for consistency. The rest seems replaceable to me. Granted, if I were running a team, I'd have a four man rotation, a thin bullpen, and...well, if I were running a team I'd be smart enough to get people around me that knew a lot more about this than me and I'd defer to them.
RWBB: How can the union and the owners work together to restore credibility on issues such as the use of steroids and other supplements or enhancements?
Will: Man, this would take a long time to answer plus I'm working on an upcoming piece for BP, so I hesitate to give an important but overblown issue short shrift. The MLBPA and the owners could implement a world-class drug testing policy much like those in place for Olympic sports. Perfect? No. Good for the sport? Not sure. Steroids are not the issue people make them out to be in paranoid, reactionary columns. If Ken Caminiti came on SportsCenter and said, "Five percent of baseball players are on steroids", would anyone freak out? If Jose Canseco said, "I know there are 82 players on the juice," would anyone buy his book? Maybe some of them used THG or another drug. Maybe some took hGH or used testosterone gel. I'd rather have drugs out of the game, but I don't think it's making a mockery of history either. If you take out steroids, do you take out creatine? If you take out hormones, do you take out protein shakes? There are all kinds of mines in this field--privacy issues, accuracy, false positives, etc.
One thing I do know. I would not want to be the first guy that tests positive. Counseling might not sound like a penalty--and it's not--but that guy is going to take some abuse in the press and on the field. Sadly, it's more likely to be a guy who's trying to be the next Scott Podsednik rather than the next Barry Bonds.
RWBB: How about the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative?
Will: BALCO? I'm not touching that until the grand jury is done. But remember, gossip isn't guilt and America is built on innocent until proven guilty--no matter what they're doing in Gitmo.
RWBB: Do you still stand by the exclusive story you broke for Baseball Prospectus last August that Pete Rose and MLB have reached an agreement allowing Rose to return to baseball in 2004?
Will: Absolutely. Unequivocally. What people forget is what we put on the line for that story. We'd have to be blithering morons to put ourselves so far out there without rock-solid evidence. It's a failing of me as a journalist that I didn't do some simple things at the very start, when the story was falling into my lap, that would have made this easier, but live and learn. I'm not a professional journalist any more than I'm an orthopedic surgeon.
Actually, the question as asked is off slightly from what we reported, but that's semantics. The basic point of the story is that Pete Rose will be back and yes, that will happen. If Bud's waiting me out, seeing if he can bring back the panic attacks, tell him he wins!
RWBB: You were expecting an announcement regarding Rose's reinstatement in late November. Why hasn't something been released yet?
Will: Bud and MLB will do this on their own time, for their own reasons. Since the story broke, people have pointed to the post-awards, pre-Winter Meetings period as the most likely. The announcement is still something MLB controls completely, so they'll do it when everything is right. John Erardi at the Cincy Enquirer thinks it will be early 2004 and he's done a great job following this.
RWBB: Do you think Rose will ever admit his wrongdoings?
Will: Someone close to Pete said recently, "What makes you think he hasn't?" Baseball's never been an organization that does things in broad daylight. Our original report said that Pete wasn't going to be asked to make a public admission of wrongdoing. He came pretty darn close in a recent TV interview. People overwhelmingly want him back in the game, with or without the admission, so even getting close is going to push that popularity higher. I'm guessing here, but I think he'll sign something and Bud will wave the document at the press conference, but we'll never see it. "Pete has met my conditions for reinstatement," he'll say. For most fans, that will be more than enough.
RWBB: Rose has already missed the mid-November cutoff to be included in next year's Hall of Fame balloting, reducing his window of eligibility for his election by the BBWAA to just one year. Is that correct?
Will: There's some debate on that but, by the rules I've seen and the people I've spoken to, you're correct. Someone told me it would have been a bad idea and hell on Pete's ego if he'd missed the Hall on a vote, but just think about this - let's say he's back in baseball and you see him at games and on the field. He's working with kids, he's keeping his nose clean, and he's being an ambassador for the game. Give him a year of that and people will be so used to seeing him in the game rather that out of the game that it will seem a lot more natural to think of him in the Hall.
Besides that, the Hall is pretty bogus. Hell of an honor, but if they wanted to futz with the rules to get Pete in, who will stop them?
RWBB: If Rose is elected to the Hall of Fame, do you think any of the 59 living members would boycott his induction ceremonies?
RWBB: Are you planning on attending the Winter Meetings in New Orleans on December 12-14?
Will: I'll be there with bells on. Well, not bells. That really isn't something that I would normally wear, especially in New Orleans. My business is based on talking to people, so when all of those people are in one place, I'd be a fool not to be there. I wish I had the freedom to be at the GM meetings, the owners meetings, and so on, but the Winter Meetings are still kind of Baseballapalooza.
Plus, New Orleans...that has to be better than Nashville and I had a blast in Nashville. Stand in a bar and there's Gammons over there and Cashman right there and...man, it goes on and on. It's mostly standing around and drinking and waiting, really. All the action goes on behind the scenes and Peter will beat me to all the good stuff!
RWBB: What can baseball fans expect from these meetings?
Will: I'd imagine it will be a lot like last year. The Expos are holding the game hostage since Vladimir Guerrero will set the market. We'll see one or two big deals, several minor ones, and signings of big but not huge names. The non-tender situation is what throws everything we think we know off. If we come out of these meetings with no major deals, then the collusion talk gets really loud and ESPN will start putting a microphone in Frank Coonelly's face.
RWBB: Who do you talk to on a regular basis to exchange information?
Will: You're kidding right? Name my sources? Not in a million years!
Oh, you mean people I speak to and respect their work? I speak with players, agents, doctors, clubbies, GMs, stat guys, fans that sit in the stands, and a guy that lives really close to the Yankees minor league facilities that owns a camcorder with the longest lens imaginable.
I speak with a lot of writers and I'm honored that people like Peter Gammons, Jayson Stark, and Rob Neyer read my stuff. I read as much as possible, but there's just so much junk out there. There are a really small number of really good writers in any medium. For every Stephanie Myles, there's someone on a beat that doesn't ask good questions. For every Matthew Leach, there's someone that toes the party line too closely. For every Alex Belth or Christian Ruzich, there's ten blogs by a guy who puts ketchup on hot dogs and moves his lips when he reads.
RWBB: I like my hot dogs plain.
Will: Same here. I always end up with something on my shirt otherwise! But seriously, there's not many consistently good writers out there. It's an issue that comes up because the Internet is finally starting to be taken seriously from a credibility standpoint. The BBWAA is debating allowing net based writers to join, but how do you set the conditions? How long would someone have to write and in what type of medium? Don't get me wrong, there's good writers out there and more coming, I hope. There's also a lot of noise, but everyone deserves to have a voice and that's the interesting thing for me. Teams should be grasping this and learning that they should be managing their communities better. Teams still think far too locally.
RWBB: Which teams have the best trainers and team doctors?
Will: No team has a bad staff. Some have bad results, but they're all qualified, hard working people that do their best. People get weeded out when they can't do the job to the level that is expected, or just by bad luck. Stan Conte is the class of the field, but he had a fluky bad year in 2003 (yet the team still won). Dave Tumbas, Sean Cunningham, Ron McClain, Jamie Reed, and Jim Rowe come to mind, but there are just as many deserving assistants, too, like the now-retired Barney Nugent, Paul Anderson, Chris Correnti, or Lonnie Soloff. Heck, Dave Tumbas just got let go by the Cubs in a move that really surprised me.
Doctors? Well, you probably know the big names. Andrews, Yocum, Kremchek, Conway, and Hawkins. The teams that are good integrate it all. They give the medical staff a say in personnel and in game decisions. Not overruling but just having a voice. Some trainers can say that a pitcher shouldn't go out and the manager will listen. Some doctors will say that a player shouldn't be signed. Very few teams do integration well.
RWBB: Which teams have the best facilities?
Will: All are pretty good and they have access to better. The newer facilities have a big advantage of course. San Fran and Cincy are world class.
RWBB: Other than injuries, what proprietary baseball knowledge is still inefficiently valued?
Will: Lots. More than lots. How do we value anything? We can't even agree on what "value" is! The lesson of Moneyball is that baseball is a very inefficient market. We don't have a great grasp on defense and what work is being done is such high level stuff that it will be years before it trickles down in a usable form.
RWBB: As a Chicago Cubs fan, what would you like to see Jim Hendry do this off-season and Dusty Baker do next season?
Will: First, I'd get a bench coach with a strong talent for game strategy. Dusty runs a great clubhouse, but he's been out managed and he runs a crap staff. I'd hire Tom House as pitching coach. Not that Larry Rothschild is bad, but Tom's better and has a relationship with Mark Prior. I'd try to convince Rickey Henderson that he'd be the best first base coach of all time. I'd try and work a deal for Alex Rodriguez. The Cubs are one of few teams that could absorb that contract. Maybe deal Kerry Wood, Juan Cruz, and a minor league pitcher, plus Alex Gonzalez.
I'd also like to get one more consistent arm in the pen and a new second baseman, maybe Fernando Vina. He's not my ideal, but he would fit in well, is an upgrade on Grudz, and he's got the proven veteran facial hair.
Will: Very much so. My reaction to the deal was a four-letter word. Still, I like Lee a lot more than I would have liked J.T. Snow or Rafael Palmeiro and his subliminal big black bat. I mean, does Viagra really think we don't get that message? Lee is a solid player who's probably slightly overpaid, but will fit right in. His father was with the organization and actually was the one that signed Choi, if I remember correctly. More than anything this deal really makes me re-think Larry Beinfest. He may really "get it" more than I thought.
RWBB: I agree although Marlins followers and mainstream baseball fans may view the trade as nothing more than an opportunity to dump salary. I don't see it that way myself.
Will: No, it's a good trade that happens to clear up some salary space. It will be interesting to see if the Marlins stick with their plan--and they had one--or if they really are the next Angels. Building around batting average is tough and they're going to lose several of their important pieces. Not sewing up Pudge quickly is the most surprising part of the early Hot Stove for me.
RWBB: Combining the Cubs and Baseball Prospectus Radio for a minute, what was it like to have Ron Santo as a guest on your radio show?
Will: Interviewing Santo was one of the highlights of the year. Sure, I turned into a fan during the interview, but man, why is he not in the Hall. I said it was bogus and here's one of the reasons why. Did you see the ceremonies where the Cubs retired his number? Here's a guy that's lost his legs, facing bladder surgery in days, they screwed him out of the Hall earlier in the year and all he wants to do is thank everyone for letting him be a Cub. Every team needs a Ron Santo, someone who is as good a human being as they are a player, someone that reminds you that "love of the game" isn't just an empty phrase.
RWBB: Speaking of the Hall of Fame, how do you feel about Ryne Sandberg?
Will: Sandberg is my childhood hero. How is he not a first ballot guy? I don't know, but I'm not rational about Ryno. Lee Smith got hosed, too. He should be in.
RWBB: I believe Santo and Sandberg are worthy of enshrinement, but I'm far from convinced when it comes to Smith. In my mind, he was a good relief pitcher who just happened to come along at the right time to get the maximum benefit from the so-called "save" stat.
Will: I think our valuation of relievers is too high in-season and too low when we're looking at their careers. It's odd to see the disconnect, but I think we'll have a sea change soon. Dennis Eckersley is coming up and he had such a singular career that it may force people to change how they look at it. He was a pretty good starter, but not great. He was a great closer, but not for long enough to match someone like Smith. If you put Eck in the Hall, then I think you have to start taking a harder look at relievers. I agree, the save stat alone shouldn't be putting these guys in. But just like Eric Gagne winning the Cy Young this season, some of these guys--the top ones like Smith--deserve recognition. We can't fault them their role or era that they played in. That was management. They were given the chance to play and they did very well. We're also going to see more and more guys of this era coming eligible without some of those 'magic numbers' like 300 wins and some of those magic numbers get altered by era. Is 500 homers magic? The game is always changing. God, I love it. When do pitchers and catchers report?
RWBB: Not soon enough, Will. Thanks for your time and hard-hitting answers.
Next week: Mike Carminati of the ever popular Mike's Baseball Rants will be in the hot seat. Expect a question or two about Joe Morgan.