Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Modeling For Injury Tendencies

As a natural extension of the Moneyball concept, Stan Conte of the Los Angeles Dodgers is attempting to build an algorithm to predict injury rates among ballplayers.

The ability to predict how players’ bodies will fare is a holy grail. With an actuarial approach, Conte seems to have a head start in the pursuit. He is trying to build a formula that will give teams a competitive advantage and help them avoid players who spend their days in the training room and not on the field.

“The insurance industry has made millions of dollars off figuring out how, when, where and why people are going to die, and we are trying to figure those things out about injuries,” Conte said.

Every major league team and scores of independent analysts are trying to understand why injuries strike certain players. But Conte said his effort was more advanced because his data has been compiled over 15 years as a trainer for the San Francisco Giants and now the Dodgers. He has had hands-on interaction with hundreds of players before and after their injuries, and his observations and medical records inform his hypotheses.

Conte also draws on the analytical prowess of David Zes and Adam Sugano, statisticians who teach at U.C.L.A., and Matt Marks, an employee in the Dodgers’ baseball operations department. They are building mathematical formulas that they hope will show the chances a player will be injured within the next season.
Okay, I will be the first to admit that I'm not exactly sure how this applies to the NFL. Not because I don't think it is valid, but rather because I expect that teams are already doing this, at least to some extent.

What I find particularly interesting though, and what probably ties directly in, is that some teams seem to tend toward fewer injuries than others, particularly at the extremes. We already know that at draft time players are selected for injury history. In most cases a significant collegiate or high school injury will cause draft stock to drop - or plummet - depending on its severity and likelihood to impact performance.

Some things we already know pretty well. Running backs are very likely to experience dramatic dropoffs in performance after seasons of heavy use; the rule of 370 coined by the Football Outsiders. We know that concussions progressively debiliate health and increase in likelihood. Exhibit A is Trent Green, but concussions also forced Steve Young from the game while still near his peak.

Other factors though are less clear. Is it really just luck that teams like the Ravens and Chargers tend to escape injury devastation annually, while teams like the Lions lead the league in players on IR every year? It is doubtful that this is mere coincidence. Is the key in player selection? Conditioning? Are there blocking and tackling techniques that reduce injury risk that some teams employ and others don't?

As a matter of public health I would love to see this explored openly. But then, I would love to see it explored openly period. It's a fascinating subject.


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