The Cubs Trainer vs. The Secretive Nature of the Industry

Gordon Wittenmyer in his Sunday Sun-Times article extolled the virtues of Cubs trainer, Mark O'Neal. It's a really nice piece explaining how valuable an athletic trainer can be to the ballclub. Beyond the obvious treating of injured athletes, the job involves organizing effective treatment protocols, reviewing medical histories and records and something as simple as honest communication of his medical opinions to both the athlete and management after assessing all this medical input. It took some time but he's created a sense of trust of his judgement from athletes and management.

The line between keeping the manager and GM fully informed and not betraying a player's confidence is not a tough one to walk, O'Neal said, as long as it comes with honesty, straight talk and the confidence he and his staff know what they're doing.

I remember Baseball Prospectus' medical writer, Will Carroll, extolling the virtues of other orgainizations medical/training staffs dating back to October 2004 with him awarding Tampa the first Dick Martin/Best Medical Staff award. Subsequent winners were Milwaukee in 2005 and 2007, White Sox in 2006, and the Pirates in 2008. I wondered why the Cubs were never a part of that discussion? One component of that award was days on the disabled list. Ding, Chicago we've had some problems.

The Dick Martin award which is presented by Baseball Prospectus, honors the Major League Baseball medical staff that has proven itself best at preventing injuries, rehabilitating players who do get hurt, and for contributing to the overall baseball medicine, knowledge base. The award was named for now retired Minnesota Twins' trainer, that BP wanted to honor for his contributions to sports medicine over a 30-year career in baseball. In Will Carroll's inaugural description of the award, he mentioned that one reason trainers were previously unrecognized was because of "the secretive nature of the industry." From these secretive roots the Cubs are still working through some remaining issues.

Have the Cubs progressed from Carroll giving medical "news" like this in spring 2006? There was the explanation that Prior's poor velocity was because of his mysterious flu-like illness earlier in the off-season:

Mark Prior, on the other hand, is more worrisome. He’s still missing his normal velocity in Arizona, making some wonder how an illness could continue to sap his strength. A shoulder injury would be an easier explanation, though sources with the team continue to insist there’s no structural problem.

Things have changed in the O'Neal era to the point that his staff has won the "Training Staff of the Year" at the recent winter meetings in Las Vegas. Now, I've not previously read about this award and it's not to be confused with the Baseball Prospectus Award (for the best medical staff) but a hard earned trophy on the shelf is...something to show the grandkids someday.

Have we swapped the Kerry Wood/Mark Prior aching-breaking our hearts for the Rich Harden/Milton Bradley version? Assessment of health risk in athletes is a complex equation. I was recently skeptical about this lovefest of honesty on the part of the medical staff when the Cubs announced Harden's MRI/Arthrogram last October had subtle laxity and then at the Cubs Convention in January they said Harden had a (rotator cuff) tear, albeit partial thickness. I doubt Mark O'Neal was involved in that loopy pathway of information. Still, misinformation to the press has been the burden this orgainization has carried for quite some time. It's a big upgrade if the trainers aren't a part of such deceptions. Mr. O'Neal's got more work to do on the "culture" if the Cubs are going to vie for the Dick Martin award.

Maybe the Wittenmyer article is an attempt to make nice with the Cubs after he ripped them in his blog after all the diagnostic misinformation in mid February when Harden's slower-than-everyone-else-program for spring training was all the buzz:

Can anybody tell me what the advantage is in omitting those details and being vague about these things? It's not like the Cubs have to protect the information for the purposes of shopping Harden or for any on-the-field competitive reasons (scouts have eyes).  I've covered three other teams in my career, and the ones that were most up front about these kinds of things had the fewest headaches with the way the information got out. And the fans stayed well informed, without the yo-yo effect.

Picking up Harden's $7M option as well as signing Milton Bradley to a $30M x 3 contract was weighed by Hendry after consulting head trainer O'Neal for his insight and hands on assessment as to how willing these athletes were to follow rehab protocols O'Neal was recommending. In Harden's case, a shoulder with a partial cuff tear or in Bradley's case preventative rehab for universal body-part breakdown. Certainly the transformation of Kerry Wood from broken down starter to reliable closer even with a partially torn rotator cuff happened on O'Neal's rehab watch (and Kerrry got there without the interference of a surgeon!). That's pretty convincing evidence from my viewpoint. Potentially award winning evidence of the value of an excellent trainer.

Having a good physician who makes correct diagnoses and can make good treatment decisions is just one facet of a patient/athlete's recovery from injury. As an orthopedic surgeon, I definitely rely on my physical therapists and ATC's to get the best outcomes for my patients. It's not just the rehab protocols but their insights into the specific medical problems and their judgement and feedback while treatment is ongoing. In the spotlight of professional baseball, it's the same but with Papparazzi. The Mark O'Neal era? It's not the same job as back in the day, taping Gabby Hartnett's ankles. It's a tough job getting the medical side of baseball right with all the noise from the media as a potential distraction from the task at hand. As a blog author (and die-hard fan), I guess that means myself included as noise-maker.

...and as quoted in the Wittenmyer article, Jim Hendry (I'm a GM, not a doctor) said:

''There are two or three relationships for a general manager that are most important to the success of the team. No. 1 is with the owner, No. 2 is with the manager and No. 3 is with your trainer. The successes and failures of a team rely a lot on the health of a team.''

I wish they would just give the press the correct information on diagnoses, medical tests and surgery results. Seems like a loophole that needs to be closed to complete the circle of honesty, integrity and truth...and someday (cue in the Laugh-In theme): The Dick Martin Award (oh, and a World Series trophy when you're putting presents in our post-season stockings Santa)

Please take a moment today to vote on the best Cubs Season Ever.


"I remember Baseball Prospectus' medical writer, Will Carroll..." sorry, i quit reading there. ptth. hehe... i don't mind carroll, but that little niche he tried to carve out for himself was hamfisted even if he put a lotta work into it over the years.

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In reply to by Rob G.

They just wrote the same stuff we've been discussing for the last 3+ months. Am I the only person in the Gregg for closer camp? Not that I think he'll be more effective than Marmolade, I just hate to limit Marmol to the 9th inning because he's so damn good and can get you outta any jam with 3 straight Ks.

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In reply to by CPH2133

Another reason that closer is one of the most overrated 'positions' in baseball. I want Marmol in the closer role solely because he's 'earned' it. But for the Cubs, I agree that he's better suited in a more flexible role.

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In reply to by Rob G.

the customary 6 spring training starts, or the customary 6 regular season starts?

Thanks, I like this article. Usually, I'm not into the medical info stuff; I'm more into faith healing, but this was an interesting read. Still waiting for a team theologian for the real hardcore healings. I'm always available, as I'm currently doing pro bono work. I guess at the end of the day, I wonder: What is the fight about? Why can I not enjoy baseball and baseball stats at the same time? Is it really that hard? Does it really wreck my understanding or appreciation of the game to know that Jose Guillen’s lousy on-base percentage kills a ballclub or to put a little bit of stock in the PECOTA projections? Does it really hurt a team to give due consideration to the advanced numbers that get better every day and the subjective views of smart baseball people? I don’t know. I don’t think so.

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In reply to by Rob G.

a big problem is the social aspect behind those numbers...especially for guys that get "cheated" in numbers by playing the game the way they're told. these guys have worked hard...really hard...that crap on the field is the fruit of their work more than it is their work. for us that is the work, though. for us it's not spending 200+ days with a crew on planes, buses, and's not paying your dues... it's also frustrating as hell to some of these guys (i've heard this myself) that a manager can use a player's talents in a way that will hurt those numbers they're being judged by. this is your geoff blums of the world and other role players who hit to a certain part of a field to move a runner because that's what they were told to do...not to go out and get a hit or a walk, but to attempt to do something else at the manager's discretion. your middle-lineup guys...that's a bit easier because they're there to do linear things for the most in what's set up or set themselves up. you're not going to see many #3/4/5 guys bunting a guy over or trying to hit to RF side when the pitch doesn't dictate it because the #4 guy is trying to move a guy on 2nd to 3rd. barry larkin nailed it...and in the article it was immediately dismissed. barry larkin should understand, though.

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In reply to by crunch

Which Larkin part did he dismiss?

Barry Larkin: ”And (the scout) will tell you why. He’ll tell you why. The guy with the stats, the guy with the numbers, he will not be able to tell you why. The straw hat guy? He certainly knows.“

I didn't get that he dismissed it, just said that scouts rely quite a bit on stats themselves and this notion that they are all-knowing and can predict the future is a bit of a misnomer.


“If I know you’re going to give me a quality at-bat, you might be hitting .215, but there’s a quality .215 that does not get translated in those stats.”

well that deserves to be dismissed because it's a dumb statement. There's a reason they're asking Geoff Blum to move the runner along, it's because he's probably not going to do something good if you let him hit for himself.

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In reply to by Rob G.

well the "bullcrap" comment was pretty dismissive. “If I know you’re going to give me a quality at-bat, you might be hitting .215, but there’s a quality .215 that does not get translated in those stats.” and that is exactly the point i was making earlier. he probably shouldn't have aimed so low with the ".215" because it kinda buries his point under a shockingly low number, though. im not even trying to defend h.reynolds weird jumble of statements or casey, but larkin's point was crystal clear to me. a middle lineup guy's numbers are cut and dry, but not everyone is a superstar and they're out there doing the stuff that you don't see counted in stats and in some cases you don't see the stuff they have to do that counts as a negative.

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In reply to by crunch

the myth of manufacturing runs has been disproven a 100 times over. It's easy to study (and there are plenty of stats for it) and has never shown to correlate to scoring runs or winning.

It's great when it works, and some writer can wax about how a team or players plays the game the right way, but it's generally insignificant. 

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In reply to by Rob G.

myth or not, when someone asks a role player to play his role it effects him. ...and barry larkin saying, in effect, "look beyond a number to how that number comes up" doesn't seem odd. it's sane. we all know there's many ways to hit .280/.340 avg/ob%...someone who can tell why/how they're getting those numbers is more important. numbers don't care about divorces, injuries, drinking/drug problems, depression, etc...much less physical/skill limitations of the player being studied.

Interesting Dempster/Lowe comparison from an fantasy baseball primer: "If you're looking for an interesting comparison to Dempster with regards to increased workload moving from a closer to a starter, how about Derek Lowe? He had 24 saves in 91 2/3 innings in 2001, then went 21-8 with a 2.58 ERA and 0.974 WHIP over 219 2/3 innings in 2002. So what did he do in 2003? Well, he did win 17 games, but his ERA rocketed up to 4.47 and his WHIP soared to 1.416. It didn't get much better in 2004, but his fantasy value has improved since moving to the National League in 2005."… ESPN's MLB page also has the Cubs' newfound lefthandedness as its front-page story today.

Q. How would you rate this collection of coaches to Dusty Baker's staff? Miles: First of all, this staff is a lot friendlier. Baker's staff seemed to have an us-against-them attitude when it came to the media, with Larry Rothschild being the lone exception. Chris Speier was an outstanding third-base coach, and remember, GM Jim Hendry brought him in. The current staff seems more intent on instruction and coaching than being friends with the players or defenders of the manager.

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In reply to by Rob G.

"Baker's staff seemed to have an us-against-them attitude when it came to the media" also, the sky is blue. baker not take media serious...never heard of such a thing.

Ironic, isn't it, that Wittenmyer would have gone from the covering the club that employed Dick Martin to one so notorious for its inability to keep key players healthy and then under-reporting or outright misrepresenting the facts? If O'Neal is, in fact, able to affect a change in this part of the Chicago Cub culture, he should get an award named after him.

Well-done piece, Joe.

On a whole other note, I'm curious how Davey is going to play this with the US being off until Wednesday. Has anybody heard who is starting that game? I can't seem to find it. I assume Lilly starts on Wednesday night in the final night of pool play and then Davey comes back with Peavy on Saturday & Oswalt on Sunday to begin the semifinal round. That's 6 days rest for both. That would also put Ted on 5 days rest if the US went into the loser's bracket and had to play Tuesday. Maybe Guthrie pitches out of the pen, too, on Wednesday in case you need him to start the next Wednesday? Just thinking out loud, I guess.

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In reply to by Rob G.

if you change Hoffpauir, Miles, Bako, Gathright into Soto, Theriot, Fukudome, Zambrano this lineup starts to shape out nicely

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In reply to by kmokeefe

I'm not sure if you're implying Z should be batting instead of Gath, or if you're saying "Z will be batting 9th because he's the pitcher"...but the first one is much funnier.

John Beasley: Fuku's plate discipline looks awesome so far. Hopefully he remembers to bring it to America. He hit really well at the beginning of the year. He just got into a funk and looked out of control with that slap-foul thing he does. I don't know, maybe he just wasn't used to a 162 game season or maybe he just needed to warm up to the big leagues. I've said all along Fuku will be fine and I stand by that. He won't be an Ichiro, but he won't be a dog, either.

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