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Charging the Mound: Charging the TJS

Derek VanRiper

Derek is the Director of Media for, where he's been a two-time finalist for the FSWA's Baseball Writer of the Year award, and winner of the Best Football Article on the Web (2009) and Best Baseball Article on the Web (2010) awards. Derek also co-hosts RotoWire's shows on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio (XM 87, Sirius 210).

Jeff Erickson

Jeff Erickson is a co-founder of RotoWire and the only two-time winner of Baseball Writer of the Year from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. He's also in the FSWA Hall of Fame. He roots for the Reds, Bengals, Red Wings, Pacers and Northwestern University (the real NU).

Derek VanRiper is filling in for Liss the next two weeks while he's in magazine mode. He starts off this week's edition.

I'm pretty bent about the injury to Jose Fernandez.

By all indications, he is going to become the 34th pitcher since mid-February to undergo Tommy John surgery. 

My livelihood doesn't completely hinge on how well my team does in LABR, so losing Fernandez in an industry league pales in comparison to what this injury could mean to his long-term earning potential. Whether you have a share of Fernandez, or any of the other 33 pitchers already shelved by TJS this year, it's tough to stomach if you love baseball on any level. 

Jason Collette shared a graph that showed the number of Tommy John surgeries by year and I wanted to share it here:

I'll preface my thoughts with the standard "correlation does not equal causation," but there are a number of possible explanations for the rise and the answer may be some combination of the ideas below and things that are not even on my mind presently. 

1. Advances in modern medicine with the UCL replacement (Tommy John surgery) over time have made pitchers much more willing to have the procedure than they would have been 20 years ago. 

I can't imagine there would be much of a counterargument to this idea. 

2. Back in 2001, MLB implemented random testing for steroids and drugs of abuse at the minor league level. With the presumed decline of PED use over time as the scope of that testing increased, players are simply breaking down more frequently without the help of PEDs.

This idea in particular doesn't completely stack up for me -- I think about the significant injuries and rapid breakdown of players in all sports following steroid use, and that leads me to believe that the connection between declining PED use and ligament tears may be little more than a weak one. 

3. The way athletes train has been rapidly changing as sports science has evolved over the last 50 years, with accelerated advances in the past 15-20 years in particular. The result is a greater number of athletes overall that are bigger, stronger and faster than ever before. While the training has improved results (in this case think velocity, which has been on the rise), it has come without a complete understanding of whether the human elbow can withstand the mechanical wear and tear of throwing baseballs thousands of times at 95+ miles per hour.

Can we attribute these injuries to throwing programs that don't build arm strength in a balanced way? Perhaps the conventional wisdom for developing pitchers is just flawed at the present time. It's becoming increasingly clear that the problem will not be solved simply by innings caps or pitch counts. When I hear the phrase "perfect mechanics" I immediately think of Mark Prior. Mechanically, there may be several things that pitchers can do to lessen the risk, but very good, or even perfect mechanics are not the magic beans either. Maybe this trend can't be reversed. Maybe it can. I have little doubt that there will be a lot of well-funded research diving into the subject in the coming decades given the stakes. 

Therein lies the issue. 

IF there is a fix, it's not going to happen overnight. For the purposes of our game, we have to consider the current landscape when thinking about matters of strategy and roster construction. 

Will you be more inclined to follow Doug Dennis' recent LABR model and spend closer to 10% of your budget in auctions on pitching? How many NFBC owners with Jose Fernandez on their roster will cash in the Main Event this year? In those leagues, are you willing to re-think targeting two starting pitchers in the first five rounds? 

Without the experience of losing Fernandez, Kris Medlen and Patrick Corbin all in the same season in a 12-team NL-only league, I might have just continued to stay the course with the usual 30-35% spending allotment on arms, but now I am more likely than ever to change course. 

Is there anything actionable for you in season? Beyond the possibility of Andrew Heaney being added to the Marlins' rotation, will you be looking to divest from some of your more pricey pitching assets to stabilize your roster(s)? 

-----Original Message-----
Sent: Wednesday, May 14, 2014 2:08pm
To: Derek VanRiper
Subject: RE: Charging

Let's tackle your last question first. Is this trend, if it's a trend and not an anomaly, actionable in-season?

I don't believe that it is actionable. For better or worse, we still need to compete in the pitching categories, and we have a finite number of roster spots. I suppose it's possible to conquer the pitching categories by volume if you have deep reserves and the ability to stream, so that not any one starter is indispensable. But in LABR, for instance, you can't shuttle guys between actives and reserves in the single-league environments. Other leagues like Tout Wars and most of our home leagues have more flexibility, but fewer reserve slots. The leagues where this might be the most viable are your 10-12 team mixed leagues that allow trades and daily moves, and don't have an innings-cap. In those leagues, you can stream with abandon to compete in the counting categories, while being extremely vigilant to avoid bad matchups so as to avoid damage to your ratios.

But that comes with a cost. First, it's very labor-intensive, as you'll need to spend a lot more time analyzing the matchups and doing so in advance so that you're well-positioned to acquire these pitchers before everyone else. You might as well be playing Daily, but days in advance. And you'll have to do that, because your league-mates will be aware of what you're doing and will be competing for many of those same free agent pitchers.

So you could divest yourself of your aces and load up on hitters and lesser starters, hoping to catch up in volume, but in most formats it either won't work or will be awfully cumbersome.

But streaming options get hurt too, and sometimes they pitch hurt. And when they do, the results can be ugly. Just think if you had Tyler Lyons active Monday - and if you're trying to catch up by volume, that's exactly the type of pitcher that's going to be available to you. Lord knows I've heard Liss complain enough about Ivan Nova and Martin Perez trying to pitch through injuries, and how unlucky he's been.

Doug's plan is great and it has worked for him before, but it's no panacea either. Sometimes your number just comes up. If you invested in aces last year, unless you had CC Sabathia and Matt Cain, chances are it worked well enough. I think it would be fun to try a 90-10 plan (or the snake draft equivalent), but I'm dubious that it's more successful as a percentage of trials than other regularly used plans. Moreover, next year it or variants thereof are going to be more commonplace, lowering the likelihood of its success and continuing to inflate the price of hitting. The inflation of mid-tier hitters at NL LABR was already astounding this spring. I have to imagine it's going to be even worse next year.

Maybe there's another way around this? Could we start looking for pitchers that rely less on their fastball, or have a slower average fastball velocity but yet are still effective? Maybe having a staff chock full of Mark Buerhle types is advantageous in that they are more durable, and probably cheaper to acquire as a bonus? I recall reading somewhere this offseason - probably Gene McCaffrey's book but I can't remember the specific player he was referring to - that the odds of needing surgery skyrockets once a pitcher frequently hits 95+ mph on his fastball. I need to track that down before thinking that this is actionable.

A lot of smart people have tried to tackle the pitcher injury problem and as far as I know nobody has found a solution, other than advising not to throw overhand. How many sidearmers have needed TJS as a percentage? Why aren't there more sidearm throwers in the game anyhow? Is it a lack of mentoring? Platoon problems?

As far as NFBC strategy goes, I have three teams in that environment - two 15-team leagues and one 12-teamer. My best of the three teams is my Draft Champions team, which has 15 teams. I got locked out of the aces by the middle of the fourth round - this was a draft started in early February, where the trend of locking up aces was only starting. I didn't get my first pitcher until the sixth round there, but did get three in a row in rounds 6-8. That league has worked out well despite/because of that, even though one of those three starters was Mike Minor, who finally made his first positive contribution last night. To make a long answer short, yes, I'll definitely consider not taking two SPs in the first five rounds, especially if that's what the draft gives me.

And at the end of the day, isn't that what these drafts are all about? We're trying to find ways to profit, and usually that entails doing something different than everyone else. We need to make the puzzle pieces fit together so as to create a greater whole, getting those picks or purchases to work in combination with each other. If starting pitching goes back to being distrusted, I might just get three aces in five rounds just as easily as I'll get none.

-----Original Message-----
From: Derek VanRiper
Sent: Wednesday, May 14, 2014 6:17pm
To: Jeff Erickson
Subject: Re: Charging

I am willing to concede that there are many limitations with any attempt to remedy this trend (or anomaly) on the fly in-season. 

Perhaps it can be done without streaming. I am adamant that the lack of consensus in-season player values shapes the trade market in a way that is very unpredictable. Whether that is something that makes roto great, or more frustrating because of the time that is often expended in trade negotiations that lead to a dead end is still up in the air. 

If I wanted to have less invested in pitching, here is what I would be willing to adjust in season. At least on teams where you've been hammered by injuries to your pitching, I think it's prudent to seek out the 2014 surprises instead of the more proven arms. In most cases, the cost will be significantly lower, and the production won't lag that far behind more established starters. I feel as though the pitchers to target fall into two different groups. 

Hidden Aces

- Johnny Cueto: He's been there before, but the in-season value of his 2014 performance in a $260, 15-team mixer is $40. A 99.5% LOB helps, but his skills have been that of an ace again. 
- Ervin Santana: Numbers since start of 2013 are just as good as Jordan Zimmermann's, but I've never heard Erv receive a mention in the same breath as a top-20 SP. 

Rebound/Breakout Candidates

- Ian Kennedy: Think the D-Backs regret giving him away? Velocity is up, and a strikeout rate surge came with it (28.3%, career 21.0%). 
- Wily Peralta: Stuff is filthy, actually surprised he's not missing more bats, but 1.8 BB/9 is very impressive. Been doing it since mid-2013. 
- Dallas Keuchel: Are you a believer yet? Better K/9, BB/9 and HR/9 than Gerrit Cole through eight starts. 
- Garrett Richards: Pedigree and velo make it easy to get on board, carved up the Phillies on Wednesday afternoon. 
- Nathan Eovaldi: Paul Sporer nailed it on Eovaldi. Like Peralta, surprised his control has improved to this level (1.8 BB/9). 
- Corey Kluber: Flashed it last year, but 10.0 K/9 with control so far. Doesn't get much attention. 
- Jesse Chavez: At some point, I'll have to stop blindly fading him, right?
- Jason Hammel: More sliders, finally healthy and out of the hitter-friendly home parks of Colorado and Baltimore. Limited ceiling, compared to others here. 
- Jordan Lyles: Just making sure everyone is still awake. Let's not get carried away, but it's a nice story so far. Not sure the ending is going to be a good one. 

Targeting these types of pitchers implies that their respective owners are not properly adjusting their values based on the first six weeks, and individual results will probably vary. For what it's worth, my target line is either above Chavez or Hammel. 

Is there anyone missing from my groups above that you would be targeting for pitching help? Even if it's not as part of a greater plan to upgrade your bats while building a pitching staff rescued from the thrift shop, having undervalued targets is beneficial. 

Maybe it's just a matter of being more diligent in draft prep to identify some of these pitchers as your bottom-half targets, but being fast to move when something significant has changed in the early part of the season can also lead to a huge windfall. 

I think my issue with the idea (whether it's Gene's original work or someone else's) that pitchers averaging 95+ mph on their fastball are more susceptible to injury is incomplete. First, the subset of pitchers who qualify is very small. Second, there are a lot of other variables in play such as the usage of other pitches (specifically, sliders) and workload-related factors that could be in play. It may be a piece of the puzzle, but it may not be statistically significant with a larger sample, or the velocity itself may not be the actual cause of the injuries. 

Soft tossers seem like a market inefficiency to me. Jered Weaver's velocity has been a concern for at least three years now, but he keeps finding a way to get it done. Collectively, the fixation on velocity might cause us overlook a pitcher's ability to sequence, change eye levels, or simply attack hitters with pitches that are never straight. I am also of the belief that pitchers who can get a significant difference in velocity between their fastball and changeup can make a high-80s fastball play up adequately. In many cases, what you may mitigate in terms of injury risk with elbow or shoulder injuries by targeting a soft tosser, is an increase in other issues (knee, oblique, hip) that could be more likely to bother pitchers as they age. Buehrle has been the epitome of durable in his career, but Weaver, Bronson Arroyo, Dan Haren, Marco Estrada and now CC Sabathia are among the most soft-tossing starters in the game. That quintet has spent a lot of time on the DL over the past couple of seasons for a variety of different ailments. 

What other skills are crucial for you with the soft tossers? Specific pitches? Above average defenses behind them? Cavernous home parks? All of the above?

As for sidearmers, I was watching Steve Cishek pitch in a non-save situation Tuesday night (don't worry, I covered my eyes), and I was also thinking about the lack of sidearming starters. Perhaps it's discouraged when pitchers are young because it presents unique mechanical challenges and it's easier to simply push all young pitchers to follow the mold and try to learn a more simple and repeatable delivery? Maybe we'll see it as a part of a long-term set of adjustments that are made to counteract elbow trouble. The strain on the elbow certainly looks like it's significantly less in someone like Brad Ziegler when his delivery is slowed down. I think part of it is the obsession with normal. Why don't more players look goofy the way Hunter Pence does when he's doing pretty much anything on a baseball diamond? How many dad or Little League coaches would let a young hitter swing the bat like Ichiro? If your premise is that technique is overrated, I can get behind that, but maybe that's because I have run like a duck my entire life. 

I felt like the room was too rigid during NL LABR (myself included) with closers and top-tier players (myself excluded). Several owners were locked in on not paying for saves, and those who were willing to roster closers ended up getting a lot of value. The inflated middle tier was a function of relative deals at the top, as many owners were sitting with too much cash after the first 75-100 players were sold. Fortunately, I was aggressive and avoided that situation. The more I play roto, the more I see the importance of being flexible with strategies based on the unique nature of each draft and auction. Maybe it's just having a greater number of paths that you're willing to take after the foundation is built. 

-----Original Message-----
Sent: Thursday, May 15, 2014 8:01pm
To: Derek VanRiper
Subject: Re: Charging

I like your idea of capitalizing on in-season value changes. Todd Zola from always calls this "buying high," and Scott Pianowski from Yahoo is also a frequent trader using this practice (he's already traded for Charlie Blackmon in Yahoo! Friends & Family).

In fact, I probably got too little for Johnny Cueto in the Mixed LABR just a couple of weeks ago. LABR's mixed league is a 15-team league that drafts online in February, and I was drafting out of the 15-spot. After losing Josh Hamilton I was short on power, and probably short on power generally, and was off to a great start in starting pitching. I got Cueto at 14.1 in the draft, so I thought it was a great time to cash in. After turning down Nelson Cruz straight-up for him (oops!), I countered by asking for Pedro Alvarez, who went at 5.10 to Doug Anderson. Huge profit in terms of draft value, right? But maybe I was mistaken in even thinking about that? If we were drafting today, does Cueto go higher than that? Or is his health still a big enough worry that he'd fall to around that spot today?

For about a month last season, Kluber was starting to get the attention that Danny Salazar got at the draft table, but then he got hurt and wasn't great in September. He's turning heads again now, especially with a great start in Toronto, which is no joke. He might be the most affordable on your list, besides Keuchel. The team context will depress Keuchel's price, but I've already bought him in two leagues - the NFBC Main Event, and my AL-only home league. I wish I had him in more places. He misses bats and he's beaten the Tigers and Rangers in his last two starts. I whiffed on Ian Kennedy - probably had a blind spot because he hurt me so badly in the NFBC last year. What a jerk.

Here's a couple more pitchers to consider:

- Robbie Erlin. Maybe it applies to home starts and lefty-heavy lineups, but he's had two good starts in a row and I've always had a soft spot for him.

- Drew Pomeranz. Finally freed from Coors Field and now has a great team context. I'm a little worried about seeing him on the road, and when he's stretched out enough to face a lineup the third time through.

- NotSoHiddenAce - Masahiro Tanaka. Cueto has been the best pitcher in baseball, but Tanaka isn't that far behind. Are we still taking the "let's wait until it heats up and/or teams have seen him a second time" stance, or is he among the top-10 starters right now? Who wouldn't you trade to get Tanaka right now?

Glad you jumped in this week DVR with Liss in Magazine Mode. Let's do it again next week.