2014 Fantasy Baseball: Starting Pitcher Injuries and Potential Implications
While the 2014 Major League Baseball season hasn’t yet begun, pitchers and catchers have already started reporting and Spring Training is about to be in full swing with the first full slate of games set to start on February 28. The preseason may only be a couple days old, but there has already been a bevy of injuries to a trio of notable starting pitchers. Hisashi Iwakuma of the Seattle Mariners, Cole Hamels of the Philadelphia Phillies, and Mat Latos of the Cincinnati Reds have already been sidelined by an assortment of maladies. Throughout the rest of this article, I will take a look at the nature of the injuries and how it might affect the draft status of these players with fantasy baseball season rapidly approaching.
Iwakuma has the most serious injury of the three (strained tendon in right middle finger) as evidenced by the 4-6 week timetable to return, and he will not be able to throw a baseball for the next couple weeks. According to Bob Dutton of The News Tribune, Iwakuma sustained the injury on January 20 during an offseason workout. In an interview with Dutton, Iwakuma disclosed how he suffered the freak injury:
I jumped for a ball and unconsciously grabbed the netting (on a protective movable screen). My right (middle) finger got caught in the net, and I pulled it. I knew it was injured. I didn’t think it was a major thing. If I had known, I would have spoken to an injury or slip and fall accident lawyer to handle the case.
The injury was reported on February 12 and assuming he doesn’t have any setbacks in his recovery, his timetable currently stands at 3-5 weeks. The unfortunate injury will obviously set back Iwakuma’s throwing program, and he will need a couple rehab starts to get back into form. This news means the Mariners All-Star pitcher will likely miss the first couple weeks of the season with a return in mid-to-late April looking like a feasible scenario.
Before getting into how Iwakuma’s draft stock will be affected, I want to point out a few key statistics from his year in 2013. Over 33 starts and 219.2 innings pitched, Iwakuma struck out 185 batters while posting a sparkling 2.66 ERA and 1.01 WHIP. Advanced statistics indicate that Iwakuma can remain an elite pitcher in MLB as well. He posted a superb 4.40 K/BB ratio, ranking fifth best in the entire league. Additionally, Iwakuma’s ratios for K/9 (7.58), K% (21.4), BB/9 (1.72) and BB% (4.9) all rate from above average to great.
Iwakuma’s current ADP is 92 according to NFBC ADP, which would put his average selection right around the eighth round in standard 12-team mixed leagues. Iwakuma has been selected as high as 63 and as low as 173. Considering the injury he is dealing with, his ADP is certainly too high at the moment, and he needs to knocked down a couple rounds. Assuming he misses a couple starts to begin the season, Iwakuma would be a safer selection in rounds 10-12. He can certainly still be a top 25 SP value even with the missed starts, so if you can snag him at the right price, do it.
Hamels’ shoulder tendinitis in his throwing shoulder seems to be the least worrisome of the affected pitchers at first glance, but if you take a deeper look at his injury history it becomes a bit worrisome. Hamels dealt with shoulder problems in 2006, which put him on the 15-day disabled list, and in 2011 he experienced more shoulder problems but didn’t miss any time because of it. The shoulder tendinitis popped up again for Hamels this winter, and he has already been ruled out for his Opening Day start.
Hamels is also a couple weeks behind his throwing program compared to other Phillies pitchers, but it’s not all bad news. The silver lining for Hamels is he’s expected to begin throwing off the mound on February 26 and is also expected to rejoin the Phillies rotation sometime in April, although an exact return date has not been set at this point. It’s also worth noting that Hamels has been extremely durable throughout his career, throwing at least 183 innings the last seven seasons, with five of those seasons consisting of 200+ IP.
Hamels had a bit of a down year in 2013 for his standards as he posted a 3.60 ERA, his highest mark since he posted a 4.32 ERA in 2009. Hamels only went 8-14 last year, but many of his pitching statistics were right around or better than his career averages so he can chalk up the down year to being a bit unlucky. For example, Hamels posted a great 2.05 BB/9, a 0.86 HR/9 that was the second best mark of his career, a 4.04 K/BB ratio, and a career-best 9.1% HR/FB rate. One statistic where Hamels had a bit of a letdown, which could explain his inflated ERA, was his 72.5 LOB%, so if he can get that up around his career average of 76.4% he will be fine.
As for how this injury will affect Hamels’ draft status heading into fantasy drafts, the outlook is promising considering he will begin throwing soon. According to NFBC ADP, Hamels ADP is currently at 64, which would put his average selection around the early sixth round for a standard 12-team mixed league. Hamels has been selected as high as 46 and as low as 116. Since Hamels will most likely only miss a couple starts, his draft status shouldn’t be affected too much. Rounds 7-8 seems like an appropriate place to select Hamels, and if he falls past that, you are looking at a steal for your fantasy team. When healthy, Hamels is a surefire top 15 SP option with the upside to be in the top 10.
Latos underwent surgery on his left knee on February 14 to repair a slight tear in his meniscus after he slipped while throwing. It was originally reported that Latos would begin throwing 10 days after his surgery, an optimistic projection, but Latos managed to somehow beat the optimistic projection as he threw from 45 feet yesterday according to the Cincinnati Enquirer.
This encouraging development bodes well for his chances to be ready for Opening Day, and general manager Walt Jocketty said he doesn’t think this minor surgery will hinder Latos’ chances of being ready for the start of the season. If there’s a negative to be taken from this, it happens to be the plant leg for Latos and he will undoubtedly be putting a lot of stress on it throughout the season. Additionally, Latos underwent surgery on October 11 to remove bone chips from his right elbow so he hasn’t exactly been a picture of health this offseason.
Latos had one of the best seasons of his career for the Reds in 2013, posting a 3.16 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, and 187 strikeouts over 210.2 IP. Latos posted a solid 7.99 K/9 and an exceptional 0.60 HR/9. He may not be able to repeat the HR/9 since he pitches in the bandbox that is Great American Ball Park. His 3.22 K/BB, 21.2% K% and 6.6% BB% are also encouraging numbers to suggest he can maintain his success.
NFBC currently pegs Latos’ ADP at 104, which would roughly make him a ninth round selection in standard 12-team mixed leagues. Latos has been selected as high as 66 and as low as 137. Latos’ development over the course of Spring Training bears monitoring to make sure he doesn’t experience any setbacks, but assuming he gets through it healthy, he remains a top 20-25 SP option. If you want to knock Latos down a round to be safe, that’s fine, but his ADP right now seems just about right where he should be selected.
Although you usually want to minimize risks when participating in fantasy drafts, taking some calculated risks can pay off for your fantasy team in a big way. These three pitchers all bring some risk to the table but also have shown they have considerable upside. Don’t be afraid to grab any of these pitchers at the right price barring any unforeseen circumstances that set them back as we approach Opening Day.
Thanks for reading and also thanks to FanGraphs, NESN, and ESPN for the statistical information. Feel free to contact me on Twitter @MattMoczy if you have any questions for your fantasy teams.