How much injury risk is too much?by Derek Ambrosino
August 18, 2010
When it comes to embracing injury risk, I have to say that I’m more willing than most. I feel that bargains are to be had on players returning from injury, or players who are set to begin a season on the DL. I view players with higher injury risk as a way to increase a team’s upside. In many cases, I’d rather simply just worry about a player staying healthy than invest in players whose capabilities I’m reticent about.
When in a head-to-head league, I’m even more aggressive in terms of drafting players who are banged up to begin the year. My philosophy is that I do not need to have the best team in the league during the first quarter of the season as much as I need to do so for the final quarter of the season. So, this year in a shallow mixed, head-to-head league, I consciously assembled an injury-laden roster, figuring all would be all right come playoff time. As I was drafting, I wondered if I was overdoing it, but felt it was worthwhile to test the boundaries. Now, we’re approaching the stretch run, so let’s see how things turned out.
One of the risks of this strategy is that you are going into the season knowing injuries will be a problem, so if you experience unexpected injuries to boot, you can really find yourself in a pickle. So, did I get those unexpected injuries? Yes, I got all kinds of injuries. Sixteen of the 25 players I drafted have spent at least one stint on the DL this year; that’s beyond even my wildest expectations. Let’s look at how these injuries break down by likelihood.
Injured to begin the season
Known injury risk
Non-elevated injury risk
Named Ben Sheets
I suffered a pretty even distribution of injuries across risk categories. Also, I must say that perhaps my zealous infatuation with Nelson Cruz during draft season was partially due to underestimating his fragility; I did not see him as all that risky. Nelly and Manny have three-peated in DL trips this year.
Overall, despite these injuries, my team has been quite productive. My pitching staff has remained fairly healthy, and I’ve done a nice job of streaming to supplement needs on a weekly basis (shameless back-patting for spot starting Bud Norris for his 14K performance on Saturday). I’ve spent most of the season in second and third place, but as the stretch run begins, I don’t exactly have the juggernaut I was hoping for.
Part of the problem is that some of the injured players I drafted did not return to vintage form upon regaining their health. Berkman, Lidge, and, to a lesser extent, Reyes fit this bill. Some of the players turned out to be largely worthless regardless of health, like Ben Sheets and Chipper Jones. Some of the players have spent so much time hurt that it was like not having them at all. I’m thinking Manny Ramirez and Mike Gonzalez here. To be sure, all these possibilities were known at draft time, I just anticipated a greater balance of near returning to form, stinking it up, and being non-entities.
At the most basic level of analysis, among the players with elevated injury risk or pre-existing injury, only Lilly and Lidge are likely to finish the season ranked higher than where I drafted them. So, one might call this endeavor a failure. However, there is another factor to consider here, and that is replacement value. This is a shallow league, so there are plenty of quality bats on the wire. For example, somebody dropped Adam Laroche two weeks into the season after he had failed to homer in his first 50 plate appearances and looked like he was heading for one of his patented putrid starts. I snatched him up and he’s gotten much of my playing time at first.
Reaping the rewards of others’ impatience is also something I’ve come to expect of myself, so I also considered that dynamic when drafting the walking wounded fantasy gods of yore. This was just another reservoir from which I could draw talent to mitigate the effects of injury. When you factor in the production of replacement players, the Cruz pick will likely still pay dividends and the Reyes pick could flirt with breaking even.
Berkman and Manny were clear busts, but none of the other expected-to-be-injured players were supposed to be core components of my team, so their injuries didn’t hurt too badly. One fortunate thing (and not coincidental either) was that I drafted Ben Zobrist. Zobrist has certainly had a disappointing year, but his versatility has been invaluable. I knew I’d have holes to plug throughout the season, and Zobrist has acted as a super sub. Meanwhile, I’ve been active on the wire, playing match-ups and keeping close tabs on the category wars in my weekly battles, so I think I’ve done a good job of maximizing the utility of my replacement value by alternating between speedier players and bigger RBI threats as needed.
I should have a pretty strong team for the stretch run. Howard should be back. Cruz is expected to be sidelined for only the minimum DL bid, which means he should be back late first round of my playoffs. Bailey should be returning too. I hope Reyes will remain a factor, and whether Berkman and/or Manny can play contributing roles is still largely a mystery.
All things considered, I’m not sure whether taking this strategy to more of an extreme than I had ever done before made much difference in where my team is right now. The team leading the league has pretty much been running with a comfortable lead from the gate and did so largely by assembling a dominant pitching staff, a strategy I never employ. He was also the beneficiary of overall good luck regarding health of his players.
Perhaps I’m just echoing my bias, but I’m inclined to say that this experience bolsters my confidence in this strategy. In terms of individual outcomes, my attempt at execution largely went wrong, but the impact doesn’t seem awful. I’m still competitive and still have a chance of having one of the best rosters going into the playoffs. Had more of these decisions turned out well, I’d likely be neck and neck with the leader. So, perhaps I made a fine strategic play, but made some poor individual choices in terms of execution.
Still, it's not like there’s an infinite supply of injury-prone stars and players beginning the season on the DL who would enable me to toggle my choices. Perhaps, either you like the crop of players who fit this bill, or you don’t.
Most importantly, I will reiterate that embracing this much injury risk seems possible only in a head-to-head league where I can often get by, by the skin of my teeth, with savvy and hustle, where it’s viable to punt a category one week when outmatched, and try again next week. In a rotisserie league, the volume of injuries I had to deal with would have caused me to fall into widespread categorical holes that would likely have proven insurmountable.
So, the cardinal rule is at play again: Optimize your strategy for your league structure. And, it seems that shallow head-to-head leagues may enable you to take on nearly infinite injury risk.
Update from last week’s column: I was able to acquire Ryan Howard for David Price and Andre Ethier, and Ichiro for Cole Hamels.
Remember, this is a straight draft keeper league where you keep your five best players. Ethier was my fifth highest prized bat and David Price is a pitcher, and I don’t see the need to keep any starting pitcher who isn’t a nearly guaranteed top 25 player, because replacement value on starting arms is so high. I don’t consider Ichiro keeper-caliber, but he does make nice offseason trade bait. I plan to attempt to package him with either Nelson Cruz or Victor Martinez and send him to a team that needs a fifth keeper, netting me that other team’s best or second best player.
Derek Ambrosino aspires to one day, like Dan Quisenberry, find a delivery in his flaw, you can send him questions, comments, or suggestions at digglahhh AT yahoo DOT com.
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