PHOENIX, Ariz. – How important is a baseball player's injury history to the teams that employ them?

Dodgers head athletic trainer Stan Conte, speaking at the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) Analytics Conference on Thursday, compared his work to a form of scouting.

“Typically when I look at a player that we're looking to sign as a free agent, I'll use public domain information to get as much information as I can to give myself some idea of whether that guy is a low risk, a medium risk or a high risk in regards to injuries,” Conte said. “Then if we did in fact do a physical and look at his medical records if we're about to sign him, the whole thing may flip completely from one end of the spectrum to another on things we didn't know about — things that added up to some of the public stuff that made it a higher risk or even a lower risk.”

Injury prevention, and predicting injuries before they occur, are two topics that Conte and his colleagues around baseball can't know enough about. On that front, there have been positive developments.

Pitch f/x data allows teams to track the consistency of a pitcher's release point and velocity for potential injury red flags. Biomechanical data shows how a pitcher's body works together — properly or improperly — when repeating his delivery. Improvements in diagnosing injuries and treating them with surgeries have given players more reasons than ever to trust a team's medical staff.

In spite of these developments, preventing injuries has become a losing battle.


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“Injuries in baseball are going up,” Conte said. “They are not going down and they're not staying level. The last two years have been the highest amount of lost time in Major League Baseball ever.”

For the Dodgers, 17 different major-league players spent time on the disabled list in 2013, representing 24 different injuries and 1,110 games missed on the DL. Those figures don't take into account players who missed games due to injuries that didn't require DL stints.

Only Conte and his staff — Sue Falsone left her post as the Dodgers' head athletic trainer after last season — know with some degree of certainty how players' performances were limited as they played through injuries.

“Sometimes when I read some of the sabermetric articles about injuries and that type of thing, sometimes it's our players,” Conte said. “I go, 'Jeez if they knew that, they wouldn't say that.' ”

What's an athletic trainer to do? It starts with collecting more and better data.

Teams in general, and Major League Baseball itself, is more willing than ever to help on this front. MLB executive Chris Marinak said that the league is currently helping teams facilitate medical research around players' health and safety.

“We look at things like concussions, preventing certain types of injuries, just for the benefit of players and the league in general,” Marinak said. “Ten or 15 years ago it was the latest and greatest thing to have a stats guy in your baseball operations department. Now the latest thing is to have a medical guy in your baseball operations department.”

Conte said that the medical data on an individual player allows him to be a scout of sorts, because a player's injury history is the best indicator of future risk.

If the Dodgers are thinking of acquiring a player, Conte will evaluate that player's public and private data to assess risk. Each player falls into one of five risk categories: low, low-medium, medium, medium-high or high.

“We do kind of go back to the idea that players are stocks and teams are portfolios, and you can put so many high-risk guys in that portfolio, depending on what type of philosophy you have,” Conte said. “You don't want a high-risk, low-reward guy.”

A player's age is one factor that Conte will consider when evaluating risk, and that could be an instructive example in how the Dodgers are incorporating medical data into their personnel decisions.

According to baseball-reference.com, the Dodgers were the oldest team in the National League last year. After the season, general manager Ned Colletti said he wanted a younger roster. Replacing veteran second baseman Mark Ellis with 25-year-old Dee Gordon and 27-year-old Alex Guerrero certainly fit the mantra.

But there is a difference between injury prediction and injury prevention, and that's where baseball really has its work cut out.

“We're really working hard to try to prevent these injuries, but we don't seem to be putting the brakes on either,” Conte said. “We better figure out something.”