Put down the pitchforks, guys – I swear I come in peace this time!
If you haven’t read Bob Dutton’s article about Jose Guillen from the other day, I suggest that you read it now. The take-home story from the article is this: it’s a minor miracle that Guillen is playing at all right now, let alone ranking second in the league with 5 homers and an .861 slugging average.
If Guillen really spent three weeks in a hospital with blood clots in both legs, that certainly explains the Royals’ outfielder buying spree this offseason. All winter I said that the Royals were acting as if the rules were going to be changed to allow a 26-man (or larger) roster. Guillen played the outfield last year as if he was in a wheelchair – but he really was in a wheelchair over the winter, and I can’t imagine that the Royals thought he’d be an active member of the roster on Opening Day.
But he was not only active, he’s been crushing the ball from day one. On Opening Day I noticed – as many of you did – that his bat speed seemed a lot quicker; he was actually turning on fastballs instead of topping grounders to the second baseman. Tonight he has a chance to tie Mike Sweeney’s team record by homering in five straight games.
There’s a lot to this story that doesn’t really add up – in particular, the fact that Guillen kept suffering leg injury after leg injury, seemingly for more and more trivial reasons (like the torn MCL suffered while putting on his shoes). If I understand the story correctly, he then had ankle surgery after the season, and then developed blood clots (a.k.a. deep venous thrombosis, a possible complication after surgery) in both legs, which is a little unusual unless he had surgery on both legs, which - although the details aren't clear - doesn’t seem to be the case.
But if there’s one thing I take from this story, it’s that Guillen – ahem – wasn’t well served by the team’s training and medical staff last year. Guillen’s legs looked awful all season, both defensively – last year he might have been the slowest outfielder I’ve ever seen – and offensively, where he admits now he didn’t have the strength in his legs to drive the ball. And remember, that’s before he ended up in the hospital for three weeks. Now, we have no idea if he shouldn't have been playing because playing made his injuries worse. But we have a very good idea that he shouldn't have been playing because he wasn't able to play.
And yet here he is, seemingly healthy, and undoubtedly crushing the ball. On Wednesday, BEFORE this article came out, I mentioned to my radio co-host Jason Anderson (Rany on the Radio returns soon!) that Guillen looks like a completely different player this year, and what looks on the surface to be a hitting success may in fact be a trainer success. As you know, the Royals have a completely new training staff with Athletic Trainer Nick Kenney and Assistant Athletic Trainer Kyle Turner. Is it a coincidence that Jose Guillen, coming off a potentially career-ending series of health woes, is on perhaps the hottest stretch of his Royals career?
Trying to evaluate a trainer based one on month of data is ridiculous; it’s like evaluating a farm system based on one day’s worth of box scores. And the health of a roster is dependent on so many factors, from the players’ work habits to the age of the roster to sheer luck, that sussing out the trainer’s role in all this is inordinately difficult. On that note, I understand the team’s reaction to my takedown of Nick Swartz last year. But my frustration with Swartz was the culmination of literally 20 years of bad results, from Benito Santiago’s broken hand in 2003 to Jose Rosado’s shoulder in 2000 to Jim Pittsley’s elbow in 1994. There’s a point where even with trainers, sample sizes become meaningful.
With the new training staff, the sample size isn’t even measurable, let alone meaningful. But let’s try anyway, and look at all the injuries that the Royals have suffered since spring training started:
- Alex Gordon broke his thumb trying to slide. A purely traumatic, unavoidable injury for which only Gordon deserves blame for sliding head-first. His thumb has healed on schedule, and if he were, say, Ryan Zimmerman he might well have been in the lineup on Opening Day. Instead, he’s Alex Gordon, who the Royals have become so frustrated with that seem to be treating him punitively – he’s rehabbing all the way down in A-ball.
- Rick Ankiel twisted his ankle somehow, and what seemed like a minor injury became somewhat worrisome when he ended up missing more than a week with it. But once Ankiel returned to the lineup, he hasn’t had any issued with his ankle, and has hit well so far this year.
- Alberto Callaspo tweaked his oblique muscle. A fully strained oblique muscle is a 4-6 week injury at the minimum, so this was taken very seriously, as he was held out of the Opening Day lineup to give it a couple of extra days to heal, even though his public pronoucements made it sound like he was ready to play. He’s been in the lineup since the second game, and has had no further issues with it.
- Gil Meche developed shoulder stiffness in mid-March, and we all feared the worst from a pitcher who hasn’t been right since he threw too many pitches in a series of starts in late June and early July. He was brought back slowly, and worked in some minor league games late in spring training, before he made his first start on April 11th. He wasn’t effective, but he did strike out 4 batters in 3.1 innings and was timed at 95 on the radar gun. I’m skeptical that he’ll hold up all season, but I’m impressed that he came back as quickly as he did in the first place.
- Mike Aviles came back at least 6 weeks ahead of schedule, and hit over .400 in spring training.
- John Parrish, who had torn his shoulder up and missed all of last season, not only was the biggest surprise to make the roster, but has been the most (only) effective middle reliever on the team so far.
On the minor league side, Dan Duffy had a sore elbow before he went AWOL, and Mike Moustakas strained his oblique muscle enough that he probably won’t be playing in Double-A for another two weeks. But looking at the track record so far, I can’t help but be impressed by the results. Players who suffered minor injuries were allowed to heal completely, and have yet to suffer any setbacks. A player who suffered a major injury returned to the field well ahead of schedule, and showed no lingering effects. Another player came back from a potential career-ending injury and is pitching as well as he ever has. A player who hasn’t looked right in two years looks like he was run through the Juvenation Machine this spring.
It’s way too early to have any kind of hard-formed opinion on the new training staff. But the results I’ve seen so far are truly impressive. Teams that underestimate the importance of health on a roster do so at their own peril. The Royals no longer are one of those teams, and it seems to me that their change in heart is already paying dividends.