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2008 Keys to Success, Part IV - Scott Rolen

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For Part I of this series, focusing on Vernon Wells, click here . For Part II of this series, focusing on the Jays' 5th Starter, click here . For Part III, focusing on Lyle Overbay, click here .

The Jays acquired Scott Rolen this January, sending Troy Glaus to St. Louis in a challenge trade of third basemen. Troy had played well for the Jays, but required nerve decompression surgery at the end of 2007 and had privately asked for a trade because he apparently felt that the turf in Toronto was aggravating his left leg conditions, most notably plantar fascitis (Bluebird Banter fun fact: plantar fascitis, before it was an injury common to professional athletes, was known as "policeman's heel.") For his part, Rolen had a very up and down career with St. Louis as well as a stormy relationship with lawyer/manager/baseball "genius"/personal judgment dumbass Tony LaRussa, and had performed poorly in his last season with the team, suffering a loss of power most likely due to a left shoulder injury upon which Rolen required surgery last season. Both players passed their physicals and the trade was completed, allowing each to get a new start in a new league (Troy played with Arizona briefly, but this is Rolen's first tour in the Junior Circuit).

In terms of contract, the Jays parted with Glaus, who was signed for $13 million for 2008 and had an $11.25 player option for 2009, which he exercised in order to consummate the trade, and acquired the 3 years and $33 million left on Rolen's deal (although as a veteran traded during a multiyear contract, Rolen could but probably will not for various reasons demand a trade or free agency after this season). With no one in the Jays system at 3rd base looking ready to make an impact in the bigs anytime soon, the Jays acquired some security at the hot corner - that is, assuming Rolen is healthy enough to take the field.

Here are Rolen's recent stats:

Year      PA    H     2B   HR   BB  AVG    OBP    SLG   BABIP    Iso-P
2002      667  154   29   31   72   .266   .357   .503   .275   .238
2003      657  160   49   28   82   .286   .382   .528   .309   .242
2004      593  157   32   34   72   .319   .408   .597   .329   .284
2005      223   46   12   5    25   .225   .323   .383   .252   .148
2006      594  154   48   22   56   .296   .369   .518   .307   .223
2007      441  104   24   8    37   .265   .331   .398   .293   .133

I include his 2002-2004 numbers to show how fantastic Rolen was in his prime, especially when you consider that he is widely considered one of the best fielding third baseman of his day and has been included in some discussions of the best of all time. I don't think anyone (other than himself) expects him to return to those levels with the Jays. The question is whether he can get back to some semblance of his 2006 numbers. Since 2006 was his last reasonably healthy season, the question is how healthy we can expect Rolen to be. Rolen's fielding stats have generally remained very good throughout his later career (which makes sense given his injury history, as we will see), so I think we can assume he will provide above average fielding and focus primarily on his batting. However, it is worthwhile to note that some fielding metrics, though always showing Rolen to be above average, show his fielding to be substantially better when he has been healthy over the past few seasons.

As the story goes, Rolen was humming along toward a potential hall of fame career when he suffered a serious left shoulder injury in a gruesome collision with Hee Seop Choi in 2005. Rolen attempted to continue playing but was unable to do so and eventually underwent surgery. What people might not remember is that Rolen had actually previously injured his left shoulder in a collision with Alex Cintron during the 2002 postseason. Rolen was diagnosed with a shoulder sprain and was unable to continue playing in the playoffs.

Rolen actually underwent two surgeries during the 2005 season. The first surgery to repair the shoulder was not successful and after attempting to come back later that season, he eventually underwent season-ending surgery to repair the labrum. This surgery appeared successful throughout the first half of the 2006 season, in which Rolen came roaring back to the tune of a .975 OPS, 14 HRs, and 28 doubles. His shoulder, however, began causing him increased discomfort as the season went on and eventually consigned Rolen to a lousy September, causing manager Tony LaRussa to temporarily bench him during the 2006 playoffs. Rolen's 2006 numbers in total, however, were still quite excellent.

Rolen's 2007, however, was another story. As you can see from the table above, Rolen's power completely evaporated, dropping almost 100 points of Iso-P (isolated power, determined by slugging % - batting average). He hit more ground balls and infield flies, his home runs/fly ball plummeted, and he walked less than he had in the past. Ultimately, Rolen underwent a third surgery on his left shoulder, in which scar tissue was removed, the shoulder joint was manipulated, and a bursectomy was performed.

I think it's clear that his shoulder is the culprit in Scott's poor 2007. His stats resemble very closely his injury-plagued 2005. Further, a left shoulder injury is more devastating for a right hand hitter because, as the lead shoulder, the left shoulder is absolutely critical to batting mechanics and batspeed. Mechanical problems would result and would decrease Rolen's strength and batspeed, while he would be expected to "roll over" more, leading to an increase in groundballs and less power on fly balls, which is exactly what we see. Further, many batters compensate for declining batspeed by "cheating" on the fastball, which would decrease walks without much affecting strikeouts, which is exactly what happened to Rolen.

The question, then, is how much positive effect a successful surgery will have on Rolen's future play. I asked an orthopedist friend of mine about the surgery (thanks Jonas!), and this is what he said:

The purpose of a bursectomy is to remove one or more bursa, which are fluid-filled sacs. Bursae cushion the adjacent bones, tendons, and muscles, and reduce friction in the joint. The typical reason for a bursectomy is that one or more of the bursae have become inflammed, a condition that will be familiarly known to many of your readers as bursitis. Shoulder bursae most commonly become inflammed due to overuse or traumatic injury and it is rare that infection is present with the shoulder. I'm not aware of the specific patient but you say he suffered a collision and that could certainly cause a swollen and inflamed bursa. What happens is that the bursa will swell due to the trauma and then it will become inflamed and irritated due to the extra pressure caused by the swelling. Bursitis can be extremely painful and will cause a decrease in strength and range of movement around the affected area. Bursitis is often treated with anti-inflammatories, but that will not substitute for the primary treatment, which is rest, immobilization, and protection of the area. Cryotherapy (doctors call ice to confuse your readers) is also widely used, as is physical therapy once the inflammation has calmed down. Cortisone injections can also be used. In addition, the fluid in the bursa can be aspirated (drained). A bursectomy (a surgery in which the bursa is removed) is usually a last resort for cases where infection is present or when the inflammation is chronic and recurring and more conservative treatment fails. It is actually a relatively new and quite aggressive treatment, but has showed success -- although, as you know as a sports fan, the shoulder is a very difficult area.

You also mentioned that the patient underwent manipulation and scar tissue removal - that doesn't surprise me given what you've said. Manipulation is basically what it sounds like. The patient is anethetized and his shoulder is forced to move with the goal of restoring full range of motion. It is most often used to treat frozen shoulder, a stiffness and loss of range of motion in the shoulder. Often manipulation is combined with arthroscopy in cases where inflammation and loss of range of motion are both present - the arthroscopy removes the inflamed tissue or adhesions (scar tissue) that are responsible for the loss of range of motion, and the manipulation restores the shoulder's range of motion. The scar tissue adhesions form after an injury and decrease the range of motion. It will cause the stiffness and loss of range of motion the patient in this case seems to be experiencing, and the bursitis will cause pain, which will restrict full range of movement even more and so on. Sometimes scar tissue will break up on its own, but other times, and often in the shoulder, it doesn't and has to be excised.

One would expect this treatment, speaking generally, would restore range of motion to the shoulder and remove the inflammed area that is causing the difficulties. I should add that these treatments are not really aimed at the structural integrity of the shoulder but are aimed at the loss of strength and range of motion caused by an injury that would often also affect the shoulder's structural integrity. You mention that this patient has a history with the shoulder and previously had the labrum surgically repaired. Whether this latest treatment would be successful would really also depend on the structure of the shoulder, and one would need an MRI and x-rays to assess that. If structural integrity in the shoulder has already been fully restored, this treatment could be very effective in restoring range of motion and strength in the shoulder. But if the structure of the shoulder is compromised, these types of problems could be expected to recur, (although the treatment could still be temporarily effective.) Of course, it is impossible to make a prognosis without complete information.

Haha, everyone get all that? I don't think it's particularly useful to look at Scott's projections for next season as I think his performance will hinge on the health of his shoulder. I have to say, this discussion does not fill me with confidence, although it seems as though Rolen should at least see some temporary improvement.

The bottom line for 2008 is that the Jays need Rolen. They don't have an adequate replacement at third base - Marco Scutaro and Russ Adams would be a fine temporary fill-in tandem but do not hit well enough to man the position on an everyday basis, and the only additional help from the minors would be perhaps from Curtis Thigpen, who hasn't played much third, or Sergio Santos. If healthy, Rolen will provide excellent defense to a pitching staff chock full of groundballers and will hit near the middle of the order, perhaps sixth, with lots of runners on base. He has been extremely effective at getting on base throughout his career (career OBP .372) and at hitting for power (career SLG .507), and the Jays need both of those skills this season. Perhaps most critically, he has been effective at hitting righthanded pitchers throughout his career, with a lifetime OPS v/ RHP of .865 and a .770 OPS against RHP even in his awful 2007. That is a skill the Jays really need to improve on from last season, where they hit a putrid .248/.315/.400 against righthanded pitching, "good" for last in the league. No matter how bad he is, Rolen figures to help that line as long he is on the field.