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Mound Musings: Dealing with the Pain

Brad Johnson

For more than 25 years, pitching guru Brad "Bogfella" Johnson has provided insightful evaluation and analysis of pitchers to a wide variety of fantasy baseball websites, webcasts and radio broadcasts. He joined RotoWire in 2011 with his popular Bogfella's Notebook.

Dealing with the Pain

Injuries are a part of sports, and they certainly play a part in fantasy sports. As you build your team, you typically want a little depth. Those bench players will hopefully provide at least a small boost while a regular rehabs an injury. It's part of the plan. But what happens when injuries become a major factor in your season? I've never really bet on that contingency. Maybe that time has come. Perhaps injuries to starting pitchers are happening often enough that fantasy players are being forced to work that possibility into their roster plans. Let's take a look at what is possibly causing this pain ...

If we know it's likely to happen, maybe we can plan for it.

Every season a few pitchers go down with significant elbow and shoulder problems. Their major league teams and fantasy owners have long had to deal with that possibility. However, in recent years, the frequency of occurrence, especially for elbow injuries requiring Tommy John surgery, has been steadily (and alarmingly) increasing. With that increase there has been considerable discussion and analysis, looking for the reasons why, and in many cases, looking for a way to predict who and when.

Can we come up with a cause and effect relationship? Is it too many innings too soon? Do questionable mechanics play a role? Are pitchers throwing too many sliders? Is there too much velocity on today's fastball? I'm going to answer, "yes" all of those things, and more, can contribute. And to some extent, they can be fixed or at least modified. But I think (along with many experts) the roots of the problem run much deeper. You have to go all the way back to youth baseball, Little League, high school and even college to tap into the initial contributors to the injuries. In essence, many believe overuse and lack of proper rest in a player's early years begins a pattern of wear and tear that will lead to a surgical procedure later in their careers.

Did you know that the incidence of elbow surgery is higher among high school and college pitchers than professionals? Statistically, more than 1-in-4 professional pitchers in the major leagues today have had or will have Tommy John surgery at some point. That's epidemic. And, while there are factors that make some more likely than others, its happening often enough that I have to say all pitchers are at risk. But, that's not what I am here to debate. Whatever the cause, and further, whatever the contributing factors that increase or decrease the likelihood of an injury requiring Tommy John surgery, the bottom line in fantasy baseball is finding a way to deal with it.

Consider Jose Fernandez, Patrick Corbin, Jarrod Parker, Matt Harvey, Kris Medlen, Matt Moore, Martin Perez and Jameson Taillon. That's a pretty good fantasy rotation - but not this year. All of those guys are out for all or most of this season. So, what's an owner to do? Should I stop spending auction dollars or high picks on pitchers? That has been suggested, but are there alternatives, or things to watch for to try and avoid the disaster of losing one or more top tier pitchers during a fantasy season?

Here are some ideas to consider:

Diversity and Depth -
Personally, this is my preferred approach. Rather than not spend on pitching, I like to spread my investment out a bit. Maybe I don't spend so much on a proven "ace" but I do make sure I have enough depth to weather an injury storm. The past couple of seasons I have increased the number of starting pitchers I carry by one. Note, most leagues I play in are very deep and have expanded rosters so available replacements on the waiver wire are typically very high risk and very low reward. The deeper the league, the more important it is to plan ahead regarding major injuries to key pitchers. As an example, arguably the best pitcher on the wire in one of my leagues is the Twins Ricky Nolasco (2-4, 1.53, 5.50). If you had just lost Jose Fernandez for the season, would you feel comfortable with Nolasco as his replacement? I think I'd rather leave Fernandez in my lineup. I am to the point that I assume I am going to lose at least one pitcher for the season, or most of it, and I draft with that in mind, looking to have a reasonable replacement at hand when the time comes.

One and Done -
I haven't heard of an organization confirming this approach, but I have heard a lot of people speculating. If you buy into elbow issues being long term wear and tear eventually resulting in the need for reconstructive surgery, and you see that an increasingly high percentage of those having the surgery return to their pre-surgery form, does it make sense for an organization that will be investing millions in an arm to draft someone they know needs Tommy John surgery, get it done and out of the way early on, and then develop that prospect pitcher to his peak level? Are teams starting to look at Tommy John surgery as "resetting the clock" on a blue chip arm? If you can buy into that, and to some extent I do, look for pitchers who have already recently had the surgery - maybe in the past 2-4 years - and have not experienced any recurring elbow issues. Theoretically, they have started over on the wear and tear clock. Pitchers who have had the surgery once are less likely to need it again before their careers come to an end. However, if a pitcher has had Tommy John surgery more than once already, I typically scratch them off my draft candidates list as too risky. An example is Kris Medlen. He underwent a second Tommy John surgery and I would avoid him in the future unless I was getting him at a HUGE discount.

Too Many Innings, Poor Mechanics -
The Verducci Effect (a big increase in innings pitched from one season to the next) and the Inverted "W" delivery are just two of the factors some people associate with higher risk of injury. I won't dispute their impact, albeit I have had a hard time equating a significantly higher risk with any of the reported contributors. It seems to me that being a pitcher - especially a highly-regarded young pitcher who has very likely been pushed throughout his career, starting in youth baseball - is at risk to have his elbow (or shoulder, but that's another story) give out. I watch for spikes in innings pitched compared to the previous season, and I do prefer pitchers who don't fall into that "max effort" category on every pitch, but I don't arbitrarily eliminate someone who finds his way onto one of those lists. Give me that guy with the smooth, refined, repeatable mechanics who doesn't come out of his shoes on every pitch, but I will also at least consider the guy who comes at hitters with his hair on fire.

Some Other Notable Rotation Ramblings:

Following our elbows make me cringe theme, Andrew Cashner has a sore one but the Padres are saying (hoping) it's just inflammation and won't require surgery. I really like Cashner, but he has a well-deserved "fragile" tag so monitor him this week to see if he starts throwing again.

Another top-tier starter went down this week as well. Cliff Lee has an achy left elbow, and like Cashner, the Phillies are saying it's nothing serious and should only keep him out two to three weeks. As long as they start throwing again within a few days there is a good chance they will avoid a prolonged absence.

I have watched Andre Rienzo for a couple of years and he fits nicely as that depth pitcher on your roster. He's not a big strikeout guy, he pitches for a mid-level team in a home run happy home park, and he doesn't give you a lot of anything. That said he does have the "do no harm" profile.

Trevor Bauer put up respectable numbers against an always dangerous Tigers lineup. Is it time to jump on board? If he can keep throwing strikes I would lean to saying yes, but that is hard to predict off just the one outing. With his pedigree, it would be hard to ignore him, but understand there is still risk attached.

It could be time to start a Jeff Samardzija (0-4, 1.09, 1.46) watch here on the Musings. Now through ten 2014 starts, four of which, including the most recent, where he has not allowed an earned run, and he's winless. That's amazing.

The Marlins quietly moved Andrew Heaney up to Triple-A New Orleans this week. He fared well against opponents at Double-A Jacksonville and they no doubt feel this is the time to see how he handles the top minor league level. If all goes well this suggests a June or July call-up is probably in the plans.

A guy I followed pretty closely in the Twins system is scheduled to resurface this weekend with the Blue Jays. Liam Hendriks is not an ace and doesn't have overpowering stuff, but he caught my eye in the minors because he could spot any pitch any time. He quit doing that in previous trials, maybe he has learned?

Endgame Odyssey

The Astros named a closer. OK, so today that closer is Chad Qualls. I won't risk large sums of FAAB cash betting it will last, and they may not generate enough save chances for it to matter. They also signed Kyle Farnsworth. I'll pass. ... It's possible the Orioles have opted to sacrifice the yet to be realized potential of Zach Britton as a starting pitcher and will let him close games. If they do make that commitment, and it looks like they are doing just that, he profiles well for the job, and I would have to pursue him. ... Meanwhile the A's have affirmed what had already become somewhat obvious of late - Sean Doolittle is going to be their primary closer for the immediate future. ... First to go down was Nate Jones and with Matt Lindstrom now on the disabled list too, likely for three months, the White Sox could turn to a pretty weak committee of righties Ronald Belisario and Jacob Petricka and lefty Scott Downs. ... The Indians are really proving to be a wheel of fortune scenario. John Axford is still out, but neither Bryan Shaw nor Cody Allen has jumped on the opportunity to seize the job. If no one steps up big, that leaves the door more open for Axford to get another chance. LaTroy Hawkins has not been especially sharp lately, allowing at least one run in three consecutive outings. The struggles coincide with improved performances from Rex Brothers so keep an eye on developments. There has been no hint of a change, but it could happen at any time.