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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Phillies and Clay Buchholz: The Folly of Signing a Veteran with A Lot of Tread on His Tires

Signing Clay Buchholz to fill a hole in their rotation was a no brainer for the Phillies, or so they made it seem.  After all, he once was one of the top starters for the Boston Red Sox, the very-much-better-than-the-Phillies Boston Red Sox, and, heck, at 32 he should have something left and could well benefit from a change of scenery.  So, the team inked him to a one-year, $13.5 million deal with the hope that he could win double digits, eat innings and perhaps pitch well enough by mid-season that he would bring a prospect or two in a trade with a contender.  Sounds reasonable? 

Or not?

Well, Buchholz suffered a forearm injury in a start the other night, his second of the year, and he is out for the year.  $13.5 million for two lousy starts and a 12.27 ERA.  Tough luck?

Or not?

Read this article and then let's talk.  The argument here is that the Phillies, had they done better and more modern due diligence, could have predicted this injury and avoided the investment. 

Now, I don't know what the Phillies did in evaluating Buchholz.  Presumably, they brought him in, gave him a fitness test, tested his flexibility, evaluated old injuries and looked at film on him.  No, not tape of past games, but x-rays and MRIs, particularly on past problem areas.  And then they pronounced him fit.  Sounds reasonable?

Or not?

What if there are other ways to evaluate players?  Such as. . . looking at a succession of recent film of them in their workouts and in games and assessing what they do in workouts, all with a view of predicting whether what they do puts undo emphasis on a certain muscle group.  And, if an exercise regimen is not put in place to address that issue, the player will suffer an injury.  A classic example is former NBA player Grant Hill.  Injuries to an ankle plagued his career, so much so that he went to an advanced performance institute in California for an evaluation.  As the story goes, the way Hill moved and worked out affected his hips, and that effort ended up putting undue stress on the ankle he kept on injuring.  The institute prescribed a different workout regiment to address Hill's problem, and in the ensuing five years he missed only five games with the Suns, and none because of the ankle injury that had affected him previously. 

I understand the theory that "no one washes a rental car," but at $13.5 million for a year Buchholz was going to be a pricey rental.  And it's not that he had a ton of suitors.  Wouldn't it have made sense, then, for the Phillies to run him through the type of evaluation I described?  It could have evaluated Buchholz and anticipated this type of problem.  Or, did the Phillies believe that at $13.5 million Buchholz was an acceptable risk and that they have enough starters in the minors who could rise to the occasion should Buchholz get hurt?  But if that were the case, then why spend all that money on Buchholz?  The answer -- clearly, they want the minor leaguers to get more seasoning.

Fast forward to potential free agents, where you would want to perform this evaluation to protect your investment and to ensure that you can get the most out of  the player.  It stands to reason that a hot free agent might not agree to such scrutiny out of a (probably irrational) risk that the tests would uncover something career threatening.  Besides, free agency is an exercise in supply and demand.  The hottest free agents will get the least amount of scrutiny because, well, they're in short supply.

But is the problem statement all backwards.  Shouldn't MLB want to do this anyway?  Shouldn't the players' union advocate for this?  Players could get the best advice on fitness and excellence and that advice would benefit everyone, including the fans, who get tired of seeing pitchers break down year after year.  If I were a player, I would get this type of evaluation to help my performance.  Imagine the nagging injuries going away.  Imagine doing targeted exercises to improve muscle groups that can help avoid injury, precisely because of the player's anatomy and movements.  Sounds too good to be true, except that it is not.

So the Phillies now will have a not-completely-ready-for-prime-time starter come up to the big leagues to replace Clay Buchholz in the rotation.  The sad fact is that the Phillies could have avoided the problem altogether.

And they are not alone.


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