Why so many pitcher injuries this season? Prospects help fill the void
You hear major league teams say it all the time: “You can never have too much pitching.”
Even more so this year, with so many pitchers hit with injuries over the first quarter of the regular season.
If the injury bug seems like it’s biting way worse than usual, that’s because it is. If you need further proof, just check out Roster Resource’s complete injury report on FanGraphs.com.
It’s not simply the number, it’s also the importance of who is getting hurt.
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On the shelf
With the Rays’ Drew Rasmussen (flexor strain) and the Reds’ Nick Lodolo (calf) the latest victims, 12 of the top 50 starting pitchers on draft day (according to the NFBC) are currently on the injured list. Three of them — Robbie Ray, Jeffrey Springs and Luis Garcia — are out for the season due to Tommy John elbow surgery.
Jacob deGrom, Brandon Woodruff and Max Fried have been outstanding but will miss at least a few more weeks.
And it doesn’t help that three top-50 starters have yet to make their 2023 debuts because of injuries that cropped up in spring training.
— Carlos Rodon looked like he was close to returning from a forearm strain he suffered in spring training. However, he revealed a chronic back issue is now his primary concern — and it’s pushed his first regular-season appearance for the Yankees back even further.
— Triston McKenzie was shut down during his final spring start with a shoulder strain that eventually landed him on the 60-day injured list. He’s eligible to be activated on May 29, but he only recently began throwing bullpen sessions.
— And after making it all the way back from Tommy John surgery last September, Tyler Glasnow was slowed by an oblique strain shortly after he reported to camp. On the verge of being activated, he was pulled from his second rehab start as a precaution. It’s not clear whether that was a setback or just a hiccup.
Is there an explanation for this tidal wave of injuries? That’s a question we seem to ask every year.
In 2021, the prevailing opinion centered around the increased workloads from a COVID-19 shortened 2020 season.
Last year, we were worried about the lockout and the impact of an abbreviated spring training.
This year, the implementation of a pitch clock for the first time in MLB stands out as the most obvious reason.
But let’s not overlook the one thread that ties everything together. Pitching is a stressful activity, and repeatedly throwing a baseball with tremendous spin and at high velocity is going to take a significant physical toll.
As much as we try to analyze the factors that contribute to injuries, we’re never going to be able to know for sure which pitchers are going to break down. We have to be prepared to find capable replacements when our luck runs out.
Few happy returns
If the wave of injuries to top starting pitchers wasn’t enough, many of those who’ve remained healthy have simply underperformed.
The Brewers’ Corbin Burnes and the Yankees’ Gerrit Cole were in a virtual tie for the first pitcher off the board in fantasy drafts this spring. While Cole (5-0, 2.22 ERA, 62 strikeouts) has been stellar, Burnes (4-2, 3.35) has seen his strikeout rate plummet and his walk rate rise, leading to some uneven results.
Sandy Alcantara of the Marlins (1-4, 4.91), Aaron Nola of the Phillies (3-3, 4.53) and Dylan Cease of the White Sox (2-2, 4.86) all had average draft positions in the top 50 overall but have struggled mightily in the early going.
Throw in the Mets’ veteran tandem of Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, who’ve combined for less than 40 innings over the first quarter of the regular season, and only three of the top 11 starters — Cole, Spencer Strider and Shane McClanahan — have come anywhere close to their draft-day value so far.
And just for the record, only five starting pitchers have outperformed the Cole-Strider-McClanahan trio in Roto Value (15-team, 5×5 format, according to BaseballHQ.com) through Sunday’s games.
Zac Gallen, Diamondbacks ($34): 6-1, 2.35 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, 70 KJoe Ryan, Twins ($32): 6-1, 2.16 ERA, 0.84 WHIP, 57 KEduardo Rodriguez, Tigers ($30): 4-2, 1.57 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, 47 KClayton Kershaw, Dodgers ($28): 6-2, 2.36 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 56 KMitch Keller, Pirates ($28): 5-1, 2.38 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 69 K
Of that group, only Gallen was even among the top 30 starters in ADP this spring.
Dipping into the prospect pool
With all the starting pitchers falling by the wayside or failing to live up to expectations, there must be a way to fill the void. In many fantasy leagues, some of that burden is falling on the shoulders of previously unproven prospects.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen a steady trickle of young arms make their way to the majors.
When the Rays lost Springs, they turned to their top minor league arm, 22-year-old Taj Bradley. He responded by tossing three solid starts — with an impressive 23 strikeouts to just two walks — before he was sent back down. With Rasmussen joining the injured list, Bradley will likely be up for good.
One of the few bright spots in Oakland has been fireballing right-hander Mason Miller. But after making his MLB debut on April 19 and fanning 22 batters in 21 1/3 innings in his four starts, he landed on the injured list with elbow inflammation. Not a good sign.
The Guardians have one of the deepest farm systems, especially when it comes to pitching. Right-hander Tanner Bibee and lefty Logan Allen made their debuts over a four-day span in late April. Both have pitched well enough in their four starts to stick in the rotation, which will make for interesting decisions when McKenzie and Aaron Civale are healthy.
Bryce Miller of the Mariners has been the best of the bunch so far, allowing just one earned run in 19 innings (0.47 ERA). Perhaps even more impressive, he has an 18-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, resulting in a 0.42 WHIP. An unsustainable .164 batting average allowed on balls in play won’t continue, but he’s more than capably filled Ray’s spot in the rotation.
Then last week, the Marlins promoted 6-8 righty Eury Perez from Class AA; he struck out seven and allowed two earned runs in 42/3 innings. He’ll likely have a cap on his innings this year, but the 20-year-old has the highest ceiling of them all.
Has the well run dry? Elite prospects Andrew Painter of the Phillies and Ricky Tiedemann of the Blue Jays are currently dealing with injuries of their own. The Dodgers have Gavin Stone and Bobby Miller waiting in the wings if needed. Perhaps the next big thing could be another Guardian: right-hander Gavin Williams has already spurred a promotion to Class AAA, yielding just three earned runs and striking out 41 in 301/3 innings.