What would we do, baby, without us?by Brandon Isleib
March 05, 2009
Spring training is a nervously optimistic time. You're excited to see most players get back into shape, correct a hitch or flaw in their swing ordelivery, get a read on a prospect, and so forth. But for some players, you're kinda dreading it. The key guys on your team who get injured a lot have to be coddled and treated with care just to get them into the regular season, and even then it's gruesome to sit there waiting for your main guy to get hurt.
A lot of teams miss the playoffs because their star(s) get(s) hurt. That's no big news. A lot of teams survive the injuries, however, simply heading into October a man down. Maybe they replace the injured player with someone who's almost as good, or maybe somebody else steps up, but there are many instances of a key player going down and the team getting through it. So this March, if somebody goes down, take these teams to heart. You might be okay.
Below is a list of the teams I'm inspecting, ranked by most Win Shares lost from one year to the next by the listed player. Win Shares is at least a quick and dirty way of seeing who was counted on for their overall game. I'm only looking at position players because it's always obvious who replaced them in the lineup, as opposed to pitching staves and so forth.
This method eliminates other types of stars who get hurt, such as the chronically hurt (after awhile, are your playoff hopes really pinned on a healthy Frank Thomas or Moises Alou?) or the players who contributed more in their half-season than they did in the previous full season. While with the latter it's reasonable to think they would have contributed more if they hadn't got hurt, A) you don't know that, and B) if they weren't a key player the previous year, you're not expecting that player to be key suddenly. Besides, as Win Shares shows pretty cleanly, value is value no matter when and for how long it accrues. It's like when you know you're going on vacation so the day before you leave is full of all sorts of work you have to get done.
There ain't no nothing we can't love each other through
Willy Taveras is an easy example: for the Astros in 2006, Willy played full-time and was worth 13 Win Shares. For the 2007 NL-winning Rockies, he played only 96 games but still got 12 Win Shares. You can't say he didn't live up to his previous value, even though with more time he would have done more. The Rockies still got what they paid for; a hurt Willy Taveras wasn't good, but since he still had the same value as the previous year, the Rox didn't lose value to his injury.
The teams on this list, though, are another story. I'd do a list of the teams followed by a blurb about each of them, but I just came off a huge series where I did that, so that format is rather uninspiring to me right now and would result in nothing but tedium for you, the loyal reader. So I'll present the list and talk generally about the teams and how they went about solving their newfound problem. Restricting to a drop of 18 Win Shares, excluding 1981 and 1994, and requiring a minimum of one-third missed season so that we're actually getting injuries instead of just aging or ineffectiveness:
Year Team Player Prev. Yr. WS Inj. Yr. WS Loss 2005 Cardinals Scott Rolen 38 5 33 2006 Yankees Gary Sheffield 33 3 30 1929 Cubs Gabby Hartnett 26 1 25 1939 Yankees Lou Gehrig 25 0 25 1989 A's Jose Canseco 39 14 25 1992 A's Dave Henderson 25 0 25 2000 A's John Jaha 22 0 22 1947 Yankees Charlie Keller 31 10 21 2004 Yankees Jason Giambi 28 8 20 2005 Astros Jeff Bagwell 23 3 20 1963 Yankees Mickey Mantle 33 14 19 2006 Yankees Hideki Matsui 25 6 19 1950 Yankees Tommy Henrich 24 6 18 1972 A's Dick Green 20 2 18 2005 Padres Mark Loretta 33 15 18
That old Yankees teams show up on here is no surprise: their AAA teams could beat up on half the AL most years. Still, the production wasn't all replaced; it was just that the Yankees rarely had just one bat that could labeled crucial to the lineup. Gehrig was replaced famously by Babe Dahlgren (8 Win Shares), Keller by fourth outfielder Johnny Lindell (15), Henrich by late-'49 pickup Johnny Mize (12), and Mantle by Hector Lopez in left field (11; Tom Tresh moved from left field to center field when Mantle went down). That's the level of stopgap you expect from a good team; if they had another superstar, they'd already be playing them, but a 12-Share guy can keep the team going quite well. Or you can go with the modern Yankee approach (as shown in 2004 and 2006 on this list) and just buy a new veteran to fill the slot. That works too.
The positional grouping is weird and possibly significant here. Corner outfielders and first basemen can get replaced reasonably pain-free, but a skill position is hard to replace, no doubt due to those positions rarely having players who swing 30 Win Shares worth of bat. Hartnett's being replaced by four rather bad catchers is a major exception; the next-biggest survived catcher drop is Javy Lopez's 14 in 1999. No shortstop makes this list, as the biggest shortstop drop is Rick Burleson's 16 from 1981 to 1982 (though his replacment, Tim Foli, was a starter many years himself). My original reason for looking this data up was to see how likely it was that almost all the Yankees' woes in 2008 were due not to pitching or drama or Joe Girardi, but Jorge Posada (drop of 21, from 26 to five) being "replaced" by Jose Molina (7) and Ivan Rodriguez (0 with the Yankees). As no team has survived a catcher injury like that and made the playoffs in almost the last 80 years, I'd say that had far more to do with the problems than any big news item. You just can't replace a good catcher; if you had two, you'd trade one for pitching or something.
It is for all of the above that I must tip my hat to Tony LaRussa. Not only did he have the biggest drop of all time in Rolen, he had the only third baseman to have it this bad (Travis Fryman's loss of 17 from 2000 to 2001 is the only third baseman within half), the worst center fielder drop in Dave Henderson, and the star with the most Win Shares the year before he got injured in Canseco. In each case, LaRussa didn't find all his production with the replacment, but they all performed credibly: Abraham Nunez (12), Willie Wilson (10), and Stan Javier (9). Javier was a useful player, so his production was no surprise; the previous year he had 8 Win Shares. But Nunez hasn't had more than six in any other year, and Wilson's 1991 was atrocious (5 despite over 300 plate appearances). Sure, prior to '91 Wilson turned in 10-15 Win Share years like clockwork, but when a 35-year-old with speed and defense as calling cards goes sour in the bat, you don't expect him to bounce back at 36. I didn't look at all LaRussa teams, but I wouldn't be surprised if you went back through and found a gaggle of 10-12 Share players that didn't do that well again.
Speaking of "didn't do that well again,"
There are many random players on this list who turned in career years right before they got injured. Jaha was never more than 19 Win Shares any other year, Dick Green was rarely quite so good, Rolen's 2004 is eight Win Shares better than any of his other years, and Loretta's 2004 is a career high by nine Win Shares. So some of this is sample size. As the teams couldn't count on those players to replicate their performances, they were a bit easier to replace when they got injured. It happens with every team at some point, but banking on players to repeat once-in-a-lifetime performances is the way teams miss the playoffs. These teams survived in part because they weren't built around the one-hit wonders. (Of course, the 1972 A's never found a second baseman and just cycled through them in September like they were interchangeable. That sounds rude to the players, but when three other 2B combine for six Win Shares, Dick Williams might have been right.) The Jahas and Lorettas of the world were going to fall back to earth regardless of whether they got hurt; this made them somewhat easier to replace, although not easy. In Loretta's off years, I would have taken him over Damian Jackson and Geoff Blum, but they could replace a 24-Share Loretta better than a 33-Share one.
Sha la la la...
So what does all this say? At this point, I'm willing to say that:
It's easiest to replace someone low on the defensive spectrum;
Halfway decent stopgaps can go a long way; and
It's good to have money.
Hopefully nobody gets hurt this spring, but if it happens, not all is lost. There are many near-misses due to injury, but there are several other success stories, and here's hoping your favorite team is one of them.*
* I suppose this means readers as a group aren't allowed to have more than four favorite teams in each league, and preferably one in each division. I suggest working on it after reading this article. Group projects are fun!
References and Resources
My injury information is out of The Sports Encyclopedia: Baseball, the annually produced reference book by Neft/Neft/Cohen. For the past decade the series has been somewhat neglected in terms of essay quality and proofreading, but to have basic stats for entire teams at a glance and in a lightweight book is still very handy, especially with the injury codes.
I also used B-ref for some information.
The Win Shares are Bill James's until THT started making them, at which point they switch over to THT's work.
And props to the cast of Family Ties for making a humorous situational comedy overcome one of the most insipid theme songs of all time.
Brandon Isleib is a lawyer and writes about stuff sometimes. He can be reached via the electronic mails.