Odds are if you have more than one fantasy baseball team, then you’ve already had a pitcher go down with Tommy John surgery this season. Heck, even position players like top prospect Miguel Sano have had it in 2014, so it’s getting really hard to avoid it. It’s bad enough that MLB teams have to scurry to find replacements for two-fifths of their projected starting rotation, but what about fantasy addicts?
Most fantasy managers don’t often use #5 MLB starters in the first place, preferring to roster the higher ranked guys. When those #2 and #3 guys go down on your roster — or god forbid, your #1 whom you drafted in the second round — the impact can be devastating. All the other #2 and #3 SP are already rostered, so you’re now left picking up the #5 SP on a team to be an active contributor on your roster instead of a bench warmer or waiver wire fodder.
There has been a notable increase in Tommy John surgeries in recent years. A USA Today article states that “from 2000-11 the average number of these surgeries among major leaguers fell just short of 16, then the figure skyrocketed to a record 36 in 2012 before dropping to 19 in 2013.” What’s more, “If Tampa Bay Rays left-hander Matt Moore opts for Tommy John elbow surgery as expected, he will be the 13th major league pitcher to have the ligament-replacement operation since spring training. That’s only six fewer than all of last season, and three under the annual average from 2000-2011, according to an industry-commissioned study.” And that’s just major leaguers; Beyond the Box Score did a study in 2012, and their bar graph per teams shows almost an equal number of minor leaguers compared to major leaguers.
For years, the market trends have said to stay away from pitchers early in drafts, and to focus on hitters. It’s been quite a while since fantasy magazines have had the debate about whether Johan Santana should be considered for the #1 overall pick. How does a big injury, especially TJS, factor into valuing pitchers moving forward?
Some Interesting Notes
First I want to point out a few points made from various articles and sources.
Here’s more from the USA Today article.
- “A study published in December in The American Journal of Sports Medicine showed an 83% rate of return to the majors among 179 pitchers who had the operation, and a 97.2% rate of return to pitching in the pros. Only five pitchers in the sample failed to make it back.” [Of note is that it doesn’t state how many of these players pitched equally well or better than before.]
- “We mathematically, statistically, scientifically have proven that the kids who play baseball year-round are three times more likely to end up on a surgery table by their 20th birthday that those who don’t,” says Fleisig, citing a 10-year study targeting teenagers who pitch more than 100 innings in a calendar year.
In connection with the last bullet point, Dr. James Andrews recently talked on MLB Network Radio.
- The “majority” of TJS injuries he sees in youths are HS seniors or college freshmen.
- Big risk is year-round baseball — not just playing but competing year round, with little to no rest.
- Part of the problem is trying to overpitch and throw 90+ mph, as well as poor mechanics and throwing breaking balls at early age. The “red line” for TJS in HS pitchers: 88 mph.
- Regarding Jameson Taillon, Pittsburgh did everything they could to limit IP, and he never had a mechanics red flag. Dr. Andrews speculates that overuse as amateur could have contributed to the injury.
As experienced and well-learned as Andrews is in the field, I feel it’s worth pointing out information from this article about Patrick Corbin, who underwent TJS this year as well. From his background, either he’s the rare exception to the rule Andrews proposes, or else it’s still impossible to pin down specific causes to the injury.
- Corbin reaching the majors was a “unique journey from a player who didn’t play [in] high school until his junior year.”
- He did play in Little League, but he didn’t professionally compete as much when he was a youngster when compared to most big-time prospects, and “he hasn’t thrown as many pitches as players that have grown up playing year-round.”
This piece on the myths of Tommy John surgery is worth reading in whole, but here is most of the summary section for those in a hurry.
- “83% of people undergoing Tommy John surgery have been shown to return to play at the same level or higher, without an increase in velocity, in 11.6 months.”
- “Despite popular belief, if you have Tommy John surgery you are not guaranteed to return to your previous level without complications, and rehab is not a quick and easy process that results in improved velocity.”
How Are SP Values Affected?
I’m posing the question, but honestly there’s no simple answer. The market trends of the past decade, which emphasize hitters over pitchers early, would point to the rash of TJS as more proof that SP are very risky propositions early in the draft. There’s a good chance that after the huge TJS spikes in 2012 (36 MLB players) and 2013 (19 players), more fantasy managers are going to steer clear of pitching in the next few years. The fact that HR are in decline also points to the benefits of grabbing big sluggers early rather than wasting picks on pitchers.
However, it’s precisely because HR are in decline that pitchers have seen a rise in value. Or rather, offense as a whole has been diminished since MLB got the roids era under control (because it’s obviously not ended). As such, we’re seeing stronger pitching aces and improved stat lines from starters across the league. With those improved stat lines comes more fantasy points, whether you’re gaining in roto category rankings or playing in a points league. There’s a reason Kershaw has been a better value than even Trout and Cabrera in many formats. Therefore if the trends are swinging toward pitching, but pitchers are also a bit more risky due to TJS (and fewer good pitchers are available because they’re shelved), it makes the healthy #1 and #2 starters even more valuable in my book.
How do you avoid Tommy John victims? I don’t think you can. Dr. Andrews’ claims about pitchers having to avoid injury and strain in high school could prompt those super-obsessed fantasy managers to start scouring the Internet for high school and college stats of any young pitcher before drafting them, checking for missed time due to injury as well as IP limits. If Andrews is correct, it may be possible to gain a slight advantage by doing this. However, most fantasy owners won’t go to that length — and just because Dr. Andrews says it, that doesn’t make it hard fact. I’ll point to Corbin as the example of someone who didn’t have a crazy workload as a kid, yet he still succumbed to TJS. With that said, here are my own thoughts and pointers on SP value moving forward.
- An injury to one of your picks in the first five rounds sucks, regardless of position. It doesn’t matter whether your first pick was Kershaw or Beltre in 2014. Beltre may end up on the DL and miss some time, which likely gives you a huge offensive hole at a sometimes shallow position. If you picked Kershaw, you’re losing at least a month of top-3 SP production. Either way you slice it, injuries to your best players can sink a season. I’ll grant the fact that fewer position player injuries require them to miss most or all of the season, whereas TJS means you won’t see your pitcher until the next calendar year at earliest. However, position players also play in more games than pitchers, so six weeks of an elite hitter on the DL can still greatly affect your offensive counting stats.
- Make sure a SP is recovered from TJS and pitching again before you buy on him. Beachy and Luebke have been the poster children for recent pitchers who struggled to come back. Luebke never made an MLB start between surgeries, and Beachy made all of five starts. By following this rule, that makes someone like Dylan Bundy suspect until I see him perform well through all of 2014.
- Don’t overthink it. However, even point #2’s basic strategy doesn’t save you from disaster, because this year I pegged Kris Medlen as someone to invest in after he was two seasons removed from TJS. And look at Jarrod Parker, who’s had his second TJS before the age of 26. Like I said, you can go crazy looking for ways to avoid the surgery. Don’t. You can’t fall into the trap of micro-analyzing every pitcher and looking for that hidden tidbit of information. But even after all the studies on TJS and UCL injuries, there’s still no clear answer. Here’s a final quote from the USA Today article: “Fleisig has examined UCL injuries for more than a decade and, like his collaborators, expected their numbers to decrease with better knowledge of their causes and of proper mechanics. That hasn’t been the case.” The experts can’t solve the problem, so how can you?