High Risk Starting Pitchers in the Post-Tommy John Surgery Death Zone

Injury prediction and prevention is most likely the next “Moneyball”/“The Extra 2%”/“That 1 Weird Trick to Help Boost Your Testosterone” (hint, it’s HGH) that you don’t really hear teams talk about very much. In fact, there is not a single thing that teams obstruct, mislead, and straight up lie about more than injuries (A.J. Preller says hi). One thing has trickled out, though, and that is conventional wisdom around the league holds that Tommy John surgery has a shelf life of about 7-8 years. This is by no means a fact, and every case is obviously different, but if a pitcher who falls in that range has also been having arm trouble recently, it seems to my civilian mind that is a recipe for disaster. Here are the pitchers who are at high risk for a 2nd Tommy John surgery and/or performance decline:

Steven Matz NYM, TJS date: May 2010 – I drafted Matz as my 4th starter in my latest 12 team redraft league. I say this to highlight the fact I don’t hate these pitchers and I’m not completely avoiding them, especially in redrafts. The risk becomes greater in dynasty and keeper formats for obvious reasons. Matz has long been labeled injury prone, and the concerns have only heightened since reaching the Majors. He underwent arthroscopic surgery this off-season to remove a large bone spur from his pitching elbow, which hopefully helps with the shoulder impingement that was bothering him all year and required a platelet plasma injection of its own. This May will be the 7-year anniversary of his first Tommy John surgery. Draft at your own risk.

Stephen Strasburg WASH, August 2010 – Strasburg was basically shut down in mid-August with a small tear in the pronator tendon, which caused his forearm to tighten every time he threw his slider. In an effort to remain healthy this year he will try to limit his slider usage, and if Spring Training is any indication, it looks like he might pitch exclusively from the stretch. I appreciate the willingness to try new things and recognize the elbow tendon grim reaper is looming, but even if the adjustments minimize the risk of injury, it increases the risk of performance decline. Strasburg’s performance wasn’t the problem when he was on the mound. There are more unknowns here than I am comfortable with when drafting an ace.

Danny Salazar CLE, August 2010 – Salazar’s elbow started bothering him around last year’s all-star break, eventually sidelining him in August after saying, “there’s something in my elbow and I don’t know what it is.” He was later diagnosed with the catchall “elbow inflammation.” His strikeout upside is worth hoping his elbow tendon can continue hanging on by what I’m sure is a thread, and he’s looked great so far this Spring, but don’t tell me you weren’t warned.

Jacob deGrom NYM, October 2010 – deGrom had season ending surgery in late September to repair ulnar nerve damage in his right arm. He had been experiencing forearm soreness for about a month before the surgery and his velocity was down all season from where he sat in 2015. It seems the surgery has worked so far, as he has dominated in Spring, so while he could be worth the risk in redrafts, I would be highly skeptical of him in Dynasty leagues.

Carlos Carrasco CLE, September 2011 – The problems have already started for Carrasco this season, as he experienced swelling in his elbow after his March 13th start. The MRI came back clean and he should return to action later this week, but considering the problems the first 4 guys on this list experienced in their 6th post-TJS year, it isn’t a great sign.

Rich Hill LAD, June 2011 – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a potential ace’s draft stock discounted more due to injury risk than with Hill this year. I’ve been ending up with him everywhere, but am preparing for under 150 IP.

Adam Wainwright STL, March 2011 – The torn ACL that kept him on the shelf for 5 months in 2015 might actually help preserve Wainwright’s elbow longer than expected. The bigger question is how effective he will be, as he took a major step back in 2016, and almost surely looks to be in the back nine of his career. I’m expecting an ERA under 4 this year, but a return to ace status would be a surprise.

Jordan Zimmermann DET, August 2009 – If I had been doing this list for the last two years, Zimmerman would have made the list both times, and both times you would have been keen to stay away from him. His velocity has now dropped two years in a row, and he pitched in only 105.1 innings last season due to injuries, although unrelated to his arm. He’s been getting pounded this Spring too, and even if you don’t buy into the extra injury risk, the performance decline looks to be in full swing.

John Lackey CHC, November 2011 – Lackey’s 2011 Tommy John surgery seemed to give him a late career jolt, as he just finished up his 4th excellent and healthy post-surgery year at the ripe old age of 38. He did hit the 15-day DL in August with shoulder tightness last year, but I’m not sure there is any increased injury/performance risk here that any other 38-year-old pitcher doesn’t already inherently have.

Francisco Liriano TOR, November 2006 – Liriano’s been a high injury/performance risk since going under the knife over a decade ago, and that has never been more true than it is for this season. Considering the very low draft price, though, it might be a risk worth taking.

Wei-Yin Chen MIA, 2006 – Chen’s velocity was down last year and he pitched only 123.1 innings due to a left elbow sprain that held him out for two months. He has already surpassed the 7-8 year timeline, but there are signs his luck is about to run out, if it hasn’t already.

Edinson Volquez MIA, August 2009/Jaime Garcia ATL, February 2008 – The list of starting pitchers who underwent Tommy John surgery before Volquez and Garcia and are still pitching effectively (without needing a 2nd TJS) is very short. Other than Liriano and Chen, the entire list literally consists of Anibal Sanchez and Scott Feldman. And I’m using the word “effectively” very loosely here. Both Volquez and Garcia would have made last year’s imaginary list, and while both stayed healthy, their numbers fell off a cliff.

Dice-K June 2011 – The clock might finally be ready to hit midnight on Dice-K’s long run of stateside dominance 😉

By Michael Halpern (@MichaelCHalpern)
Email: michaelhalpern@imaginarybrickwall.com
Twitter: Imaginary Brick Wall (@ImaginaryBrickW)

MLB Broke Its Own Strikeout Record … Again

Strikeouts have reached an all-time high in Major League Baseball for an amazing 9th straight season. It was not even limited to the playing field, the players took a big swing and a miss on the new CBA too (I kid, I kid). This was not exactly hard to see coming. Here is what I wrote in my Top 25 Starting Pitcher Rankings back in March:

“Strikeouts have absolutely exploded around baseball. MLB averaged 7.8 K/9 in 2015, setting a new all-time record. That broke the previous record of 7.7 K/9 set in 2014, which broke the previous record of 7.6 K/9 set in 2013. In fact, MLB has broken its own all-time K/9 and total strikeout record every season since 2008. You can find those all-time stats here. It’s actually pretty cool to look at. And the 2016 top 25 starting pitchers have all contributed more than their fair share into ushering in this new era of the strikeout. Will we see 7.9 K/9 in 2016?”

We did not see 7.9 K/9 in 2016. It rocketed straight through that to 8.1 K/9. Assuming you watched every at-bat of every game, like any good fan should, you saw 1,536 more strikeouts than you did in 2015. There was a total of 38,982 strikeouts this season. For comparisons sake, there were 175 strikeouts (0.7 K/9) in 1871, 20,212 strikeouts (4.8 K/9) in 1980, and 30,644 strikeouts (6.4 K/9) in 2005.

Coinciding with the spike in strikeouts, and probably the main reason for it, average fastball velocity has risen every year since 2008, as well, going from 90.9 MPH to an all-time high of 92.6 MPH in 2016. Higher velocity leads to more strikeouts which should lead to less offense. This mostly held true during the recent strikeout boom, with runs per game reaching lows in 2014 that we have not seen since the pre-steroid era. But 2016 was the year hitters started to fight fire with fire. They ripped the second most homeruns in baseball history, trailing only the steroid infused 2000 season by 83 homers, or .01 per game. Maybe batters started to realize that they better do damage when they do actually make contact. That means hitting the ball harder and in the air. Or maybe MLB executives took matters into their own hands, and juiced the balls. Either way, baseball has finally proven the old adage, “the harder they come in, the farther they go out.”

The only thing that could stop this current strikeout epidemic, or even hope to contain it, are injuries. Higher pitch velocities have been loosely linked to a greater chance of needing Tommy John surgery. Some pitchers like Masahiro Tanaka, who have already had an elbow scare, have transitioned into throwing their sinking 2-seamer more than their 4-seamer, sacrificing velocity for movement. Other than that, there does not seem to be an end in sight to this strikeout surge, especially with starters not being allowed to see a lineup a 3rd time through and the continued rise of bullpen specialization.

We are firmly entrenched in the era of the K, but luckily for fans of offense, hitters have started to adjust. After over 100 years of baseball, the game is being whittled down to its two most efficient outcomes, the strikeout and the homer. The only question left is, will we ever see 9.0 K/9?

By Michael Halpern (@MichaelCHalpern)
Email: michaelhalpern@imaginarybrickwall.com
Twitter: Imaginary Brick Wall (@ImaginaryBrickW)

2016 MLB Opening Day Preview

Only Major League Baseball can manage to make Opening Day confusing. It isn’t enough for them to have an extremely convoluted system for the amateur draft/international spending limits, team control/arbitration rules, free agency/qualifying offers, and for the all-star game/World Series home field advantage, but they also need to have two Opening Days! So which one is the real Opening Day? Neither. As the old saying goes, “if you have two Opening Days, you don’t have one.” Or is that for quarterbacks? Either way, here is what to watch for on the day formerly known as Opening Day:

Houston Astros at New York Yankees – Game has been postponed until tomorrow. Smart move for MLB and ESPN to bank on New York weather in April for their opening day, marquee game.

San Francisco Giants at Milwaukee Brewers – San Francisco has won the World Series every other year since 2010. They are due. As for Milwaukee, they are far off from competing for a World Series, but they have done a great job rebuilding so far. Talented young slugger Domingo Santana will bat leadoff today vs lefty Madison Bumgarner. Santana triple-slashed .288/.373/.577 in 52 AB’s vs. lefties last season.

Minnesota Twins at Baltimore Orioles – Lots of pure power in this matchup. Chris Davis, Adam Jones, Mark Trumbo, Pedro Alvarez, Byung-ho Park, and Miguel Sano are the headliners. Playing in Baltimore, this entire series could be bombs away if the weather cooperates.

Seattle Mariners vs. Texas Rangers – Battle of the aging aces! Felix Hernandez vs. Cole Hamels.

Washington Nationals at Atlanta Braves – Is there a more exciting pitcher/position player combo than Max Scherzer and Bryce Harper? I don’t think so.

Boston Red Sox at Cleveland Indians – The $30-million-dollar ace (Price) vs. the $4.7-million-dollar ace (Kluber). Gotta love baseball’s draconian team control rules.

Philadelphia Phillies at Cincinnati Reds – Tankapalooza. The winner of this game is really the loser, in the battle to the bottom of the standings.

Los Angeles Dodgers at San Diego Padres – If Yasiel Puig can get his act together, Kershaw/Puig can rival Scherzer/Harper for most exciting duo.

Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays – Drew Smyly vs. Toronto’s death on lefties lineup will be a fun one to watch. If Smyly shines in this one, the sky is the limit for him.

Colorado Rockies at Arizona Diamondbacks – The Arizona doubters will be ready to pounce at the first sign of weakness, so it is important for Grienke to get them off to a good start. On Colorado’s side, it will be interesting to see if Trevor Story can carry his Spring Training success over to the regular season.

Chicago White Sox at Oakland A’s  Strikeout artist Chris Sale vs. control artist Sonny Gray, in a classic battle of power vs. finesse.

Chicago Cubs at Los Angeles Angels – The Cubs have finally completed their 107 year rebuild. This could be the year they break the curse.

By Michael Halpern
Email: michaelhalpern@imaginarybrickwall.com
Twitter: Imaginary Brick Wall (@ImaginaryBrickW)