Last evening, the Nationals announced that Adam LaRoche’s shoulder injury is worse than they had previously suspected; instead of a slight tear of his labrum, it’s a far more serious tear to his labrum, and his rotator cuff is also torn. Bill Ladson, usually a source of endless optimism concerning the Nationals, tweeted that he would be surprised if LaRoche returned to the Nationals before the end of the season.
The injury to LaRoche may not be devastating the way that he has hit this season (.172/.288/.258) but the feats that he has performed at first base are going to be missed. LaRoche had been the anchor point for the Nationals’ infield this season, digging out throughs from Desmond and Espinosa, and snagging flares and liners by the dozen. LaRoche had recorded 380 putouts with 0 errors this season before winding up with a potentially season-ending injury. The picture for his potential replacements isn’t terribly pretty.
From initial reports, it looks like Michael Morse will be playing first base in the meantime. Morse has just 16 starts at the position in the bigs, and while he’s errorless, the small sample size is impossible to ignore. If they wanted someone with a bit more experience at the position, there’s 43-year-old Matt Stairs, who has 242 starts at first, including 45 starts there in 2007 with Toronto, and 75 more with the Cubs a decade ago. Of course, Stairs has a batting average so low that one requires scientific notation to express (9.7 x 10E-02) properly. Another name bandied about is the recently-returned Rick Ankiel, though he’s never made a start at first, or played even an inning there, in his professional career.
But the bigger question is how did they get here? The Nationals have suffered two major injuries to its infielders this year, with Ryan Zimmerman rehabbing down in Florida, and now LaRoche looking at 2-3 weeks of PT and doctor visits before they even decide he needs surgery. Add to that Stephen Strasburg, and Jordan Zimmermann, and Jesus Flores, and you have a pretty serious track record of players who tried to push through injury, and were allowed to do so by the Nationals training staff.
So what’s happening here? Is this front office pressure to play, health be damned? I don’t suspect that it is, nor do I suspect that manager Jim Riggleman is insisting that these guys go out there every day even when they are not feeling 100%. Baseball is a tough physical game, and it takes a lot to play 162 games. The recent trend of older pitchers coming in for half a season has its basis in reality: the game takes a lot out of you. There’s pressure to make starts even when you’re not 100%.
There’s a lot to worry about when it comes to injuries like LaRoche’s, especially when it’s taken the Nationals 45 games to recognize that his injury is far more serious than the initial diagnosis. I’d be asking some hard questions of the training staff and team physicians about why the team seems to have such a problem figuring out who is actually hurt.
The Nationals made 11 moves to the Disabled List in 2010, and 17 in 2009, and while those numbers aren’t too far out of the ordinary for the league, there’s a lot to be concerned about given the number of players who’ve spent time on the 60-day DL.
I have to think the Nationals are going to be asking questions about their training staff, and about their physicians, about how they missed serious problems like Ryan Zimmerman’s “sports” hernia, and LaRoche’s badly torn labrum and rotator cuff. Or, at least, that’s where I’d start if I was working in data-driven environment. The Nationals have not always taken such a scientific approach to their operations, notoriously downplaying the role of statistics and data, to better work with the “heart” of their players.
You can only eschew science and data for so long before you wind up paying the consequences. So far, it appears that Mike Rizzo’s Nationals are working on gut feelings in their management and have kept the team going with only chewing gum and baling wire. LaRoche’s diagnosis is further evidence they’re struggling in the front office to make sense of all the information that they have.
You can put this on LaRoche for not being more aggressive in his own diagnosis, but the way he has struggled at the plate, it’s been fairly clear that what started as a little tear had gotten progressively worse. Why the team did nothing and relied not on the data and rather on their trust in the player surprises and disappoints. Let’s hope they can turn Morse or Ankiel into a productive first baseman in the meanwhile.