- Molly Knight
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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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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."
In ESPN The Magazine, Molly Knight writes about Dodgers injury guru Stan Conte, who's out to reduce the $430 million the MLB lost to player injury in 2011.