Thursday, July 16, 2009

Re: Modeling For Injury Tendencies

After putting up my 'injuries' article I realized that Jim had just posted this. I'm advancing it to the top to give it more face time.

Patch put up this great post, with a link to a fascinating article about trying to model injuries in baseball. I wanted to discuss it a bit; and it turns out the blog "comment" function is not a great way to do that. For one thing it limits your comment to under 4100 (4096?) characters, and that's a bit of a hindrance to a long-winded guy like me.

Here are three things I wanted to mention.

The guy profiled in the article has this quote toward the end:

Conte contends the long-prevailing belief in baseball that injuries are a matter of chance is misguided. “I refuse to think we are doing all these things to get them healthy, and it’s a matter of luck whether lightning hits or doesn’t hit,” he said.
He is wrong. Of course chance plays a huge role in injuries. A guy slides into second to break up a double play, and his spikes catch and he tears up his knee: this is chance. The exposure to potentially injurious situations is an inevitable part of sport, and there is great randomness there.

Of course there are other factors. Guys are more subject to muscle pulls as they age: we know a 32yo ballplayer is more likely to be sidelined by some nagging thing than a 25yo ballplayer is. We suspect that some pitching motions are more likely to cause shoulder or elbow problems (and teams have pitching coaches work with players). Cal Ripken isn't playing anymore. Etc.

But to expect to be able to eliminate the role of "chance" is silly. Medicine knows better. Actuaries know better! They don't eliminate chance; they make an ally of it, assembling large pools of risk and letting laws of large numbers work in their favor.

Patch asks:
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?
Maybe we want to reframe what we're asking here: because the Ravens did *not* escape injury devastation last year. FO called them the most-injured team in the league last year; I dunno if they were the "most" or just in the top 3 with the Steelers and someone else, but the Ravens were hit hard by injuries last year. They lost:
  • Their top *two* quarterbacks.
  • Starting right guard.
  • Starting right tackle.
  • Starting RB at various times during the season.
  • The #3 WR.
  • The starting nose tackle, frequently singled-out by teammates as their most important player on defense.
  • Starting strong safety.
  • A backup D-lineman.
And various other players. Ed Reed was not out of the lineup, but he was not himself for the first half of the season. Derrick Mason somehow was able to continue starting and catching passes with a separated shoulder. The Ravens were threadbare at TE, giving snaps to a converted LB.

These aren't minor losses: the 2008 Ravens got HAMMERED with injury. Yet they had a very good season. By contrast, the 2007 Ravens also got clobbered with injury: starting QB McNair had a groin, Boller missed some time too toward the end of the season, and they lost pretty much all their CBs. That team stumbled to a 5-11 record, basically playing out the string by week 9. The only game they really showed up for was against the Patriots. What's the difference?

The obvious joke is, losing Boller so Flacco has to start is addition by subtraction. There is also the potentially galvanizing effect of a new coaching staff on the 2008 squad.

Yet it seems to me the main difference is luck, and depth.

The 2007 Ravens were unlucky to have so many injuries clustered at the CB position. You expect to lose a couple guys, but by about 2/3 of the way thru the season, that team could not field an NFL-caliber secondary. They were starting guys off the street; and in one stretch the opponents included Phillip Rivers, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Matt Hasselbeck. On the other side of the ball, the Ravens had no real answer for McNair not being able to play anymore (or for their starting QBs committing 13 fumbles).

By contrast, the 2008 Ravens were lucky enough to have their injuries at positions where they had some alternatives. They lost Kelly Gregg and I think Dwan Edwards; but they were able to dig up Brandon McKinney and Marques Douglas. They lost Dawan Landry, but came up with Jim Leonhard (who finished 3rd on the team in tackles!). They lost (or benched) Chris McAllister, and Samari Rolle missed time as well, but they had Fabien Washington and Frank Walker (and others). They were lucky enough not to lose time from any of the LBs (Suggs had a shoulder injury in the playoffs).

It's a little unfair to Ozzie & his staff to refer to all that as "luck", since those guys who stepped up were all new roster acquisitions after the disaster of the 2007 season: they were got for that specific purpose. It was good planning. But everything could have unraveled for them if the injuries had been more concentrated in say the secondary, like it was in 2007. Ray Lewis didn't miss any time.

On the other side of the ball, the Ravens had Willie Anderson in place to take over for Adam Terry; they had Chris Chester to step in for Marshall Yanda. And of course, most importantly, they had Joe Flacco. That's a stroke of luck, for a rookie to be able to play that effectively. (Of course the organization specifically tasked themselves with addressing the QB position in the 2007-8 offseason, so it's not "luck" that they at least had an alternative to Boller.)

Luck, in terms of where injuries are concentrated; and then depth, to be able to weather the injuries they get.

Of course the 2008 Ravens are a big contrast with the Lions, in terms of depth. So are the Chargers, who've averaged 10.8 wins over the last 5 years. In this connection I wanted to say something about the draft. The Chargers and Ravens draft well; the Lions have not in recent years. The Patriots and Colts and Giants draft well; the Patriots are legendary for being able to find alternatives when players go down. Another example of a team that does not use the draft well is the Redskins; and the Skins annually struggle a bit, and disappoint their fans expectations. Which is always a source of pleasure to me.

As I say, I wanted to reference the draft. But almost all the "depth" Ravens I mentioned other than Flacco were either signed as free agents or (in the case of Washington and Douglas) acquired thru trade. I still think the draft is critical for depth. But I guess my example points up the importance of intelligent free agent signing. That's an important aspect of the Pats operation as well. The Pats usually have several low-profile but capable free agents (as did the 2008 Ravens); as opposed to the monster signing like Hayneworth. Intelligent free-agent signing is another aspect of player evaluation.

Teams don't necessarily escape injury devastation by escaping injuries. You build depth, thru your draft and free agency, so that your (inevitable) injuries don't devastate you. Then you hope to get a little lucky, that your injuries don't overwhelm your depth, either by being concentrated at a position so they grind thru all the depth there, or by happening to a guy who truly is irreplaceable, like Larry Fitzgerald or Peyton Manning or whomever.

The other piece of the injury equation is strength & conditioning. Peter King wrote something a few weeks ago, about how WR Roy Williams is participating in an offseason weight training program this year, FOR THE FIRST TIME:
the most amazing thing I've heard in the past month, and I've confirmed it with someone close to Roy Williams, is that the Dallas receiver was never on a consistent weightlifting program in his life before this off-season, when he got after it at Valley Ranch. "I'm serious,'' this acquaintance of Williams told me. "Roy never lifted before."
Is that possible? Have the Lions not had an offseason weight-training program? Well no:
Williams wasn’t the hardest working guy in the locker room (this is hardly shocking news), but he did take part in the lifting program. Did the trainers have to get on his butt to do it sometimes? Yes, but he did it.
But I can believe that the Lions offseason program over the past few years has not been as effective, or perhaps not as well-attended, as that of some other teams. I remember Marvin Lewis got a lot of credit his first season in Cincinnati, for getting the players involved in a program. Harbaugh made his first splash in Baltimore by the way he energized the team's offseason strength program, including lifting with the players himself.

The NFL is sort of the pinnacle of the profession for a strength & conditioning coach. (A guy I'm pleased to see made it is Tampa's Kurtis Shultz, formerly a Maryland basketball player and later the S&C coach for the Terps when they won their championship.) Every team has a program. But maybe the level of buy-in and participation, and possibly the design of the program itself, have an impact on team injuries.

Thanks Patch, great topic.


  1. The same thing is happening in Detroit this winter. By whatever metric is used, player strength is up 20% from the beginning of the program and the program was very well attended.

    I agree, strength training/offseason preparation probably plays a large role in injury prevention. I also suspect - as you point out - that roster age is an important factor as well. Young guys aren't nearly as prone to injury.

    In preparation for the article I tried to find injury data and it is sparse, so I worked from memory, inaccurately I guess. Even now I'm parsing a few week 17 injury reports from last year but they don't include players on IR, unlike MLB (with the 60 day dl).

    Honestly, this would make a great medical study. Collect data on teams from high school on up on training, injury volume and types. It is possible that certain types of injuries are very preventable. eg. maybe players who are karate black belts never get hammys (and maybe they do, just throwing that out there).

  2. Funny you should mention karate. About 15 yrs or so ago I was watching a baseball collision, or maybe it was a tumble in the outfield, where a guy went on the DL. And I thought for years that a valuable service to MLB teams would be, teaching their players to take falls: the kind of training you get in Judo or Aikido etc. I felt for a long time that some guys get hurt when they don't need to, just for not having a teachable skill.


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