For some reason there are still baseball fans, bloggers, sports writers and Major League franchises who completely fail to understand the occurrence rate, impact, and win-loss implications of player injuries.
Given that in each baseball season virtually every MLB team has an almost predictable number of key player injuries, it is astounding how some franchises continue to build one-dimensional 25 and 40-man rosters to start those seasons.
This dramatically flawed “idea” is built on the belief/hope that their team’s hitters, starting pitchers, bullpen staff, and bench players will not spend any significant time on DL stints. Whether injuries occur on or off the field.
And then, when key player injuries invariably occur, the team’s front office/manager announce that they’re shocked, just shocked. They shrug and plaintively ask the fanbase, “What can we do, I’m mean who knew?”
It’s a fan relations scam, built on the hope that the team’s fanbase is low-information enough to buy into the “who knew?” approach to player injuries and DL time.
And, unfortunately, that works in San Francisco.
Almost every season we hear Giants fans and the local baseball media rationalize poor team performance by citing player injuries as the cause.
Fans dutifully nod their heads up and down and mindlessly parrot the “Who knew there would be injuries?” line.
That way, no one is responsible for, say, a 64-98 season. Not the front office execs, not the ownership group, not the manager and coaches, not the players.
All of which gives the Giants continuing permission not to have analytical staff to put in the time and creative planning to create 40-man rosters that are built in layers, with the depth to weather player injuries and still keep winning.
In one phrase: to create a sustainability of excellence.
Sustainably successful teams like Houston, the Cubs, the Dodgers, Cleveland, St. Louis, and the Nationals understand that to compete for 162 games means fully anticipating starting player injuries, lost at-bats, and missed starts on the mound.
Look at some of the highest team DL stints for 2017 (with a roster effect rating that measures the level of the players on the DL) from RosterResource’s DL Tracker:
- #1 New York Mets, 9.66 Roster Effect Rating (RER)/28 DL stints
Mets fans may be the only MLB fanbase who have a legitimate reason to cite player injuries as the main cause for their disappointing 2017 season. As they apparently do at the end of every season.
- #2 LA Dodgers, 8.55 RER/38 DL stints.
What’s remarkable here is that the Dodgers lost Clayton Kershaw for 39 days; Justin Turner for 21 days; Alex Wood for 55 days; Logan Forsythe for 34 days; Rich Hill for 39 days, and NL Rookie of the Year Cody Bellinger for 10 days.
All are starting pitchers or starting infielders, on a team that won 104 games last season.
- #4 Boston Red Sox, 7.65 RER/27 DL stints.
93 wins and the AL East Division champion.
- #5 Washington Nationals, 7.58 RER/26 DL stints.
This is a team that lost just-signed free agent CF Adam Eaton for the entire season on April 29th; lost Bryce Harper for 44 days; starting SS Trea Turner for 72 days; and Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg for a combined 39 days.
The Nats were NL East Division winners with 97 wins.
- #13 San Francisco Giants, 6.10 RER/23 DL stints.
Now what was that “player injuries” excuse again?
- #16 Houston Astros, 5.31 RER/26 DL stints.
The World Series champions lost potential MVP SS Carlos Correa for 47 days; they lost ace starter Dallas Keuchel for 62 days; star outfielder George Springer for 69 days; and pitchers Lance McCullers and Charlie Morton for a combined 92 days.
The San Francisco Giants front office has been all in on a one-dimensional approach to roster building over the past five seasons, led by former General Manager Brian Sabean (now Executive VP of Baseball Ops) and current GM Bobby Evans.
And the results of that approach from 2013 through 2017? A sterling .492 winning percentage (399-411).
San Francisco’s accidental and very lucky 2014 World Series win sadly only helped reinforce the team’s “cross your fingers because anything can happen” approach. (More on that later.)
Here is how the San Francisco Giants roll it out every season:
A three-part pastiche of ridiculous statements are fed to the fans and the local sports media to kick off Spring Training each year.
- The manager and/or GM will publicly declare some version of, “Thankfully everyone is finally healthy and we are looking forward to strong contributions from our core group of players…”
- Somewhere at about mid-season, the manager and/or the GM will say the following, probably after a particularly tough loss: “It’s hard to win when you lose [a) ‘one of the best hitters’; and/or, b) ‘one of the best pitchers’] in the League to an injury.”
- The final piece of this old school player-injury dance is a coordinated spiel by the manager, GM and entire front office about a week after the season ends: “We look forward to having everyone healthy next season, which will allow us to again be competitive and get to the postseason…”
Now, fast-forward to the start of the following Spring Training… “Thankfully everyone is finally healthy and we are looking forward…”
All sound familiar?
One of the myths about preparing for inevitable player injuries is about money. That creating a multi-layered roster costs way too much, so only the rich teams can do that.
Which misses two critical truths:
First, when a star position player or pitcher goes down due to an injury, even the wealthiest teams do not have superstar players sitting on the bench waiting to be injury replacements.
But progressive front offices ensure that talented professional baseball players populate the high end of their organizations.
Second, two things establish roster depth: a) having a vibrant farm system that continually has talented young players coming through the pipe. And, b) insuring that league-average players with complementary skills are sitting on your big-league bench and are staged at your Triple A team.
As we have noted many times, it sounds like a negative but players who are “league-average” are actually extremely talented. For years the Giants’ 25 and 40-man rosters have been littered with less-than-league-average players, because they are inexpensive.
So we know creating roster depth is not about having, or spending, more money. (And as we also know, the Giants are by far the MLB’s richest franchise– by ownership group worth and franchise worth.)
What creating roster depth in an MLB franchise is actually all about is hiring smart people and getting out of the way so they can build a successful organization with sustainable winning teams.