Where the Mets Should Spend their Money
I will preface this article with a few major caveats. First, I have absolutely no idea how much money major league teams, the Mets specifically, allocate to their training staff and overall medical expenses. Second, I have no idea what the actual costs for running major medical studies are. Third, I know very little about sports medicine.Even with those caveats in mind, I have to think that a massive competitive advantage could be gained by allocating significant sums of money to a relatively exhaustive study on sports injuries, ranging from wear and tear on pitcher’s arms to recovery methods to forecasting injury potential. Increased and better medical personnel and equipment would also go a long way to improving a team’s success.The Mets recent injury woes have been widely publicized and detrimental to our on-the-field endeavors. Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes and Johan Santana are three of the Mets’ crucial players, and all three have missed significant chunks of playing time to injuries. It’s nearly impossible to compete when your top players cannot stay on the field. But even beyond the stars, a team would stand to win many more games if its average and marginal major leaguers could stay on the field. WAR is a great statistic partly because it compares major leaguers to the AAAA players and minor-league journeymen that populate the talent pool just below the typical major league level. It is those guys that teams are forced to call upon to replace injured players, whether stars or middle relievers. If a team could minimize the use of those players at the cost of serviceable big leaguers, in addition to keeping stars on the field, a team would win a lot more games.Obviously I’m saying nothing new in claiming that preventing injuries and avoiding replacement players is good for a team’s playoff hopes. But my question is why have teams not put more emphasis, of the monetary variety, on tackling this obvious means to success?There are just so many ways a big investment into sports medicine could manifest itself in on-the-field success. The general areas I would think the money could be spent (again keeping in mind I know little about sports medicine or the costs of running a study in the field):- Learning what sorts of physiological indicators exist to forecast injury potential. Are there certain genes that allow for better aging of ligaments, tendons, muscles, and so on that would lead to fewer injuries six, seven, fifteen years down the road? What sorts of injuries, and in what exact places and degrees (and a whole slew of other variables) create permanent injury risk that time won’t heal? Considering some pitchers come back very effective after major shoulder injury while others never regain their stuff, I think there is a lot of ground to be made up on this front. A team that could more accurately — even if only, say, twenty percent more accurately — predict injuries however far down the road would gain a huge advantage in trading and drafting, signing international free agents, and in the domestic free-agent market — basically any means of player acquisition.- Learning how to prevent injuries and getting the most of players’ bodies. What sorts of off-season training regimens best prepare a player’s body for the grind of a 162 game season? What sorts of training regimens are best to keep a player healthy in-season, without being too intense to further the harm of the six month (seven month, hopefully) grind or too lax to keep his body unprepared? What effective medicines or supplements (legal, of course) are there that could supplement(!) an effective training program? Obviously, a huge advantage could be gained in preventing injuries better than other teams. But it’s not just the preventing of injuries that is important; it is the maximizing of players’ bodies as well. Imagine if you could stretch your starting pitching staff out an extra third of an inning a game on average. First of all those starters would all be more valuable, but that’s an extra 54 innings that the bullpen does not have to pitch. Combined with similar gains with your relief corps, you could easily save 65 to 70 innings just by learning to stretch your pitchers out. That’s an entire reliever for a whole season. If a team could carry only six relievers instead of seven without losing any effectiveness, you could carry a six-man bench and gain a huge advantage there. An extra big, aging bat like Jim Thome or Vlad off the bench when you don’t have to worry about losing defensive flexibility would probably win you at least a couple late-inning games in high-leverage situations. Preventing injuries would be crucial for all players, but learning to stretch out pitchers more effectively would have positive snowball effects on the entire roster.- Learning the best recovery methods. This proposition is two-fold: creating faster recovery times, and creating better recovery methods for preventing re-injury down the line. The benefits of better recovery methods are obvious. Imagine if Johan can come back in early June instead of at the all-star break. That could be the difference between the Mets being a contender or falling out of the race. And we have to be wary of Johan’s shoulder in the back-end years of his contract. Losing Johan in those years would be a huge cost to the Mets, considering how much money he makes. Preventing re-injury is key.- Individual attention. Wouldn’t it make sense for the Mets to invest 500,000 dollars or so specifically on Johan Santana’s recovery? Could the Mets have kept once elite prospect Fernando Martinez healthy had we spent 100,000 dollars over the years specifically looking at his body and developing a proper, individual program that could have kept arthritis out of the knee of a twenty-one year old, which really shouldn’t be that hard? Every player in the Mets’ system is unique, and while developing better broad, organizational training strategies would undoubtedly be valuable, each player could greatly benefit from increased one-on-one evaluation. How many prospects flame out because of injuries and how many veterans see early declines because their bodies fail them? But more importantly, how many prospects could we save from flaming out and how many veterans’ careers could be prolonged by an increase in individual attention? You have to think the answer is a good deal greater than zero on both fronts.Baseball is largely about numbers, and a lot of those important numbers are preceded by dollar signs. The health of players is so crucial to a team’s success, and one bad string of injuries can derail an entire season; look no further than the 2009 Mets. I think more of those dollar signs should be allocated to preventing, forecasting, and recovering from injuries, both at an organizational and an individual level.The cost of gaining one additional win on the free-agent market is nearing 5 million dollars. If the Mets put an initial investment of 10 million dollars, and added 5 million dollars per year, on research into the human physiology and genome the results would outweigh the losses. Maybe I’m way off base and that’s not nearly enough money. Well, bringing in better medical and training equipment and a larger and better training staff (larger specifically for the minor leagues, where players could greatly benefit from more personal attention) would almost certainly outweigh the costs as well. Run more exhaustive medical histories on potential acquisitions and players already in the organization. Considering the acquisition of talent in the big leagues is hugely inflated compared to the rest of the work force, you have to think there is a way to more efficiently spend a good chunk of the Mets’ money on personnel that are not marginal major league players. Hell, hire Dr. James Andrews to be the Mets’ personal knee, elbow and shoulder surgeon, keeping him away from the rest of the league. That’s got to be worth a few wins. I don’t know how much things cost in the world of medicine, but there has got to be a way to take a few million dollars away from marginal free agent acquisitions and more efficiently spend it on a vastly improved organizational training structure.Normally when baseball fans debate issues of money, it’s who to spend it on. But I contend we should be spending less money on players and more on keeping the players we have on the field. You have to think an additional 5 million dollars a year to keep players healthy would go a lot farther than signing an additional marginal free agent or two. Depth is really valuable, but what’s even more valuable is not needing depth. It wouldn’t be a sexy way to spend the Mets’ cash, but a significant increase in funding for the Mets’ health department (which I would think 5 million additional dollars would be, even I don’t know how much we currently spend) would give the Mets a better chance at the playoffs than an expensive LOOGY.As teams are becoming more sabermetrically savvy, competitive advantages are becoming harder and harder to find. Perhaps better evaluation of the on-the-field performance is the old way to have an advantage over your peers, while keeping the best players on the field longer could be the new one.