If Matt Kemp Hadn’t Been Allowed to Play Through Injury…

October 25, 2012 at 8:56 am | Posted in Matt Kemp | Leave a comment

I’m not a doctor. Neither are you. (Well, only most of you, as it turns out.) And more than ever this season, I’ve tried to be cognizant of the fact that we’re not in the clubhouse, we’re not in the front office, and we’re not privy to conversations happening between executives, doctors, coaches, and players. It might actually be a conservative estimate to say that 95% of what we hear players and executives say to the media is either a finely-tuned version of the truth or an outright lie.

That’s especially true when it comes to injuries, because it’s unfair for us to watch on television and expect to know exactly what’s going on inside a player’s knee or back or elbow. Hell, sometimes injuries catch us completely by surprise; for weeks, A.J. Ellis‘ September slump was chalked up to “running out of gas at the end of his first full season,” until we found out days after the season ended that he’d undergone knee surgery to repair his meniscus. (News which was broken by his wife on Twitter, by the way, because the times we live in are fantastic.)

This is all a long way of saying that while I know there’s so much we don’t and can never know… it still drives me up the wall to see a quote like this from Matt Kemp yesterday, regarding the left shoulder surgery he had on October 5:

“When I hurt it, I asked the doctors if I could damage it more by playing with it and they said no, so I kept playing, and when they got in there they were surprised that I could play with it. It was worse than they thought,” said Kemp in his first comments to the media since the operation.

This isn’t quite the same thing as “player attempts to hide injury and causes additional damage to both himself and the team by playing through it,” which we saw with Jerry Hairston this year and dozens of players in years past. With the team desperately trying to hang on in the playoff hunt, Kemp can’t really be faulted for attempting to play through pain and be out there for his boys. He’s a team leader, and that’s what leaders do.

The problem is that Kemp was even allowed to make that decision. I’m not suggesting doctors are magicians, of course, because the human body is a complicated miracle and it’s impossible to know exactly what’s going on, especially when you’ve yet to open him up and check inside. So to find out additional information once he’s on the table isn’t unexpected.

It’s just… despite all my caveats above, everyone knew Kemp wasn’t right. Everyone. And not only was he risking further damage to himself by trying to play through it, he was hurting the team by being awful down the stretch. Granted, it may not have mattered because it’s not like giving more playing time to Juan Rivera (his likely replacement in left, with Shane Victorino moving to center) is an improvement. But something that I think has been forgotten about Kemp’s season, which we’ll get to more in-depth in his upcoming review, is that it’s not as simple as “great in April, hurt through July, bad down the stretch”. Between returning from his second hamstring pull and running into that wall in Colorado, Kemp was once again very good. After that… not so much.

July 13 – Aug 28: .324/.373/.488 185 pa
Aug 31 – Oct 3: .214/.267/.420 120 pa

It got so bad that Kemp missed two games in a big series against San Francisco during the second week of September to go for another shoulder MRI. Even at the time, we were hardly disappointed he was out:

You want to know how rough things are right now? Dylan Hernandez reported a short time ago that Matt Kemp would miss the remaining two games of the Giants series after undergoing an MRI on his shoulder, and the response here isn’t “oh, no.” It’s “yeah, that sounds about right, and it’s about time.” It’s not strictly accurate that his recent slump has coincided with his adventures in the Colorado outfield, because he was on a bit of a “.250/.306/.321 over the previous two weeks” slide even before that, but it doesn’t take an advanced medical degree to see that Kemp just hasn’t been right since then, collecting just three hits in his last 32 plate appearances.

So, what, if anything, have we learned? That no matter how many times it’s been drilled into everyone’s head over the decades that “heroes play through pain,” it’s nearly a universal truth that hiding an injury or attempting to gut your way through it usually ends up hurting everyone in the end. For pitchers, that can mean a minor arm injury becomes a serious one (hi, Eric Gagne!). In Kemp’s case, even if this doesn’t have deleterious effects on his long-term health, the short-term impact is that he’s been a main contributor to the offensive struggles of the club.

Kemp came back and was even worse, hitting .192/.250/.288 over the next two weeks as the Dodgers continued to slide, and we couldn’t quite understand why he’d not been shut down. By the end of the month I’d pointed to his injury-fueled struggles as a much more important reason than Adrian Gonzalez why the Dodgers wouldn’t make the playoffs, and while Kemp briefly rebounded by hitting four homers in the month’s final week, he also ended the season on an 0-10 skid, including leaving half the state on base during the crucial loss in game #161.

Again, I can’t really blame Kemp for any of this. It’s not like his injury concerns were kept secret from the team, and you’d never expect him to pull himself out of the lineup in a pennant race. It’s just at some point the manager or the training staff or both ought to step up and realize that A) despite the greatness of the player, he is really, really not helping you and B) the long-term health of the franchise star you just signed to a $160m extension needs to be the priority, rather than a long-shot bid for the second wild card.

On the whole 2012 was a very difficult year for the Dodger medical staff, since only four teams lost more days to the DL than they did. I’ve generally tried not to put too much blame on the trainers for that, because when Ned Colletti is going to go out and sign older players with injury histories like Hairston, Mark Ellis, Juan Rivera, Ted Lilly, etc., that’s the sort of thing that’s going to happen. (It’s a miracle that Chris Capuano & Aaron Harang made it through unscathed.) In addition, it’s hardly fair to put Kenley Jansen‘s cardiac concerns on them. But this is one case where health concerns and the business of winning baseball games seemed to coincide, and Kemp was allowed to keep playing. It’s not difficult to wonder if his poor September was the difference in missing the playoffs by one game, and now there’s concern about his 2013 since the shoulder injury was worse than anticipated.

Again, we weren’t in the room and we don’t know what went into making the decision to keep him on the field. But from this view, it appears to be all downside, and that’s an opinion that was easy to have months ago; this isn’t revisionist history. Let’s just hope this doesn’t continue being a problem into next year as well.

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