The hurt talker

  • Molly Knight [ARCHIVE]
  • ESPN The Magazine | August 13, 2012

Stan Conte Bryce Duffy"In a post- Moneyball world," says Conte, "injury risk assessment is the final frontier."

This story appears in the March 5, 2012 "Analytics Issue" of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!

AT 5'O CLOCK IN THE MORNING on Jan. 19, Stan Conte woke to an email from Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti, his familiar alarm clock of the past six years. Before Conte had a chance to breathe, Colletti hit him with the name of a free agent and a question that Conte, as the club's senior director of medical services, has come to dread like no other:

"Yes or no?"

GMs, Conte says, always want him to provide definitive answers in absolute terms to million-dollar questions like: Are this catcher's knees healthy enough to last two years? Or: If I give this pitcher a huge contract, will his arm fall off after six starts?

And more to the point: Should I sign him?

Before joining the Dodgers in 2006, Conte fielded many similar predawn queries from GM Brian Sabean during Conte's seven seasons as the Giants' head athletic trainer. In Conte's mind, answering these questions is equivalent to asking a manager to guarantee his centerfielder will hit 35 home runs next season. Short of sorcery, there's just no way to know. Yet that hasn't stopped Conte from attempting to build a crystal ball anyway. "In a post-Moneyball world," he says, "injury risk assessment is the final frontier."

On this frontier, Conte is attempting to discover in advance who will get hurt and who won't -- or at least give accurate odds. With enough well-analyzed data from the past to inform roster decisions in the present, he believes, it's not outside the realm of possibility to assemble a team that goes an entire season without losing a day to the disabled list. For 15 years, he has tirelessly beaten on his computer, scouring rotisserie and news websites for such data. He does this even though he knows he may never be able to gather enough information to create a provable methodology, must be secretive about his occasional victories and is often powerless to control the roster, especially now that his bankrupt, ownerless team has no choice but to take risks on cheaper players. Since 2007, Dodgers players have spent the sixth-most days on the disabled list in the majors. No wonder Conte says, "Traditional baseball types tell me to just give up, that this is a waste of time because injuries are mostly bad luck." To which he has a retort: "Twenty-five years ago no one listened to Bill James either."

Conte doesn't seem like the kind of guy who would aspire to be a sabermetric visionary. He is tall and tan, with broad shoulders and a firm handshake, and he carries himself like a retired jock. He rides to and from the Dodgers' Glendale, Ariz., spring training facility on a Harley. But he gives his inner geek away immediately when he warns that he will lose track of time while discussing his research. "Stop me if you have some place to be," he says before pulling out a sheet of personalized Dodgers stationery that he'll use to diagram his ideas.

Traditional baseball types tell me to just give up ... Twenty-five years ago no one listened to Bill James, either.

-- Stan Conte

Since he knows it's coming, he brings up Jason Schmidt before he's asked about him. It's a wound Conte wears on his home screen. Every time he fires up the Internet on his laptop, it loads the career statistics of Schmidt, the $47 million pitcher he signed off on five years ago whose previously injured right shoulder lasted a total of 43 innings for Los Angeles. "It was obviously one we got wrong," Conte says. "But it's also pushed me personally, like, 'How can we do better?'"

Avoiding injuries at a better clip than the competition has been Conte's difficult quest since 1996, when Sabean took over the Giants and handed Conte a veteran team high on injuries and low on cash. Conte looked to see whether he could help lower the team's injury rates, which led him to surmise how San Francisco's DL stacked up to that of other teams. Trouble was, nobody kept those kinds of records. "USA Today published a list of guys put on the DL every Tuesday, but that was it," says Conte. "This was before everything was on the Internet, so I was trying to track down every paper copy of that newspaper I could find."

Then one day, a frustrated Conte was in the Giants CFO's office and noticed a big red book on his desk from an insurance company in Cincinnati. "It was literally called the Red Book," Conte recalls. "So I ask our CFO, 'What the hell is this?' And he says, 'Oh, the company does a bunch of stuff and they send it out every year.' I look inside and it had everything: time lost, DL dates, dollars lost. It was unbelievable." Conte immediately called the company to get every edition he could get his hands on. "At that point, I was the only trainer interested in any of this stuff," he says.

After reviewing the data, Conte couldn't believe what he'd found. Though most teams had full strength-and-conditioning programs for the first time, injury rates had increased every season from 1989 to 1999. He published his findings in The American Journal of Sports Medicine and gave a lecture on the topic at baseball's 2001 winter meetings. Other trainers were angry; they did not want to hear evidence that they might be getting worse at their jobs. "I was basically run out of there," Conte says.

Conte knew, perhaps better than anyone, that rising injury rates were likely not a trainer's fault. Injury numbers in baseball peaked in 2001, dipped the following year, then plateaued until 2006. They've been higher ever since. Conte says he has theories why, but he won't discuss them. But industry experts have noted that the window of lower rates could mark the peak of performance-enhancing drugs, which are thought to accelerate recovery. The Giants, whose clubhouse during Conte's years was no stranger to steroids, were among those whose injury rates fell. (Conte won't expound on the Mitchell Report, but it paints him as a whistle-blower who repeatedly tried to get players' private trainers off the premises.)

Post-steroids, as injury rates climbed again, Conte says he "began to realize that player selection was maybe more important than I previously thought." So instead of collecting only raw injury data, Conte started evaluating individual players through risk-management systems not unlike what a life-insurance actuary uses, plugging in variables such as age, position, service time and past injuries to determine the odds each would hit the DL.

Stan Conte
Bryce DuffyIn 2010, partly at Conte's behest, MLB introduced a centralized database of injuries.

There are many hurdles to accurate prognosticating. Conte's research deals in percentages. More a weatherman than a psychic, he can tell you that $22 million was lost in 2011 to oblique injuries that took an average healing time of 35 days for pitchers and 26 days for position players. He also knows that players almost always injure the oblique on the side they lead with (left for righthanders and vice versa) and that hitters account for 56 percent of those injuries. Finally, he can say that a player put on the DL with that malady has a 12.2 percent chance of being DL'd with it again. It's with numbers like this, however, that trouble starts. Due to a lack of data, Conte has no way of isolating other variables that predict aggravation of the injury.

Nor is there any way to predict a guy taking a fastball off the hand. For every Schmidt, whose history signaled risks, there's a Brandon Webb, the 2006 NL Cy Young winner who was so dominant four years ago that any team in baseball would have given him a long-term deal. "I've looked through his history a hundred times and he was almost perfect," Conte says. "No indication whatsoever he was going to break down." Webb has thrown exactly four innings since.

Case studies like Webb's keep Conte up at night. "He's incredibly hard on himself," says Colletti, his GM. "He's driven to be perfect in a field where you can never be perfect." Furthermore, Conte isn't allowed to reveal all the money and DL time he's potentially saved his club by warning his boss against signing players who wound up combusting. Says Colletti, who also won't name names, "There are probably seven to 10 guys each winter we've passed on where if you just glanced at their backgrounds, you'd have no idea they were about to get hurt -- and then they do."

Colletti certainly recognizes Conte's value, promoting him last fall from head athletic trainer to senior director of medical services, in part so that Conte could focus on injury analytics full time. Colletti says Conte is involved in all Dodgers personnel decisions. "Maybe more so now than ever because of the ownership situation, we have to be even more careful about who we sign," said Colletti. "We think this stuff is very important."

Major League Baseball is coming around too. In 2010, partly at Conte's behest, the league introduced a centralized database of injuries. Using this system, trainers can't pull up a guy's name and root around, but they can finally see the rate of right labrum tears or triceps strains across the majors.

This wealth of shared data often makes it easier to assess a player's medical records before a trade. Just three years ago, Conte might have had 10 minutes to eyeball a medical history before a potential deal with nothing else to go on but what a team's trainer had to say; now the database has made exchanging histories far more common. "If I just heard someone was a 'great guy' over and over again, I knew his medicals were a disaster," Conte says. "The great thing about printouts is they don't have an emotional investment in the player."

In the Dodgers' new methodology for acquiring players, in which DL projections sit next to OPS stats on the GM's yellow pad, the question can become not only "What is the chance Guy X will get hurt?" but also "How badly will my team be affected if he does?" It might be worth the gamble, Conte says, to add one high-risk, high-reward pitcher to a starting rotation of four reliably healthy hurlers, but it's suicidal to add two. Without many other options prior to last season, the cash-strapped Dodgers signed questionable deals with veteran pitchers Jon Garland and Vicente Padilla. Both promptly went down and combined to win one game all season.

Given that betting on baseball players is a lot like playing the stock market and not every team can afford blue-chippers, Conte's fundamental task is to identify the lowest-risk players available. This is one reason his analysis on whether to sign outfielder Matt Kemp to the richest contract in National League history last November was one of the easiest he's done. In addition to being great right now, Kemp has played in 365 consecutive games, MLB's longest active streak. Meanwhile, Conte warned against signing the player Colletti woke him to ask about. But of course he can't reveal whether his boss took his advice.

"I'm still throwing darts," Conte says. "But hopefully I'm moving closer to the board."

Molly Knight is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine. Follow The Mag on Twitter, @ESPNmag, and like us on Facebook.

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