Stephen Strasburg and the Risk of Injury to Pitchers
The big news around baseball today is that Washington Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg will require Tommy John surgery, putting him on the sidelines for at least the next year. The Nationals took Strasburg with the first overall pick in the 2009 draft, and signed him to a MLB record $15.1 M contract, which included a record setting $7.5 M signing bonus. Strasburg was considered the consensus top prospect in the 2009 draft, although there were concerns over future injuries hurting his value.
Tommy John surgery isn’t a career killer anymore. The recovery time is usually around a year, including rehab time, and more often than not the player returns to close to where he was prior to the injury. For reference, Nationals’ starter Jordan Zimmerman had Tommy John surgery on August 10th last year, and made his return to the majors last night, a little over a year after his surgery. By all accounts I’ve seen, Zimmerman returned to the level that he was at prior to the injury.
The Pittsburgh Pirates recently signed three hard throwing right handers, landing Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie through the draft, and signing Luis Heredia through the international market. Taillon and Allie both throw in the upper 90s, like Strasburg, while Heredia throws 92-93 MPH at the age of 16, with the chance of increasing velocity in the future. The injury to Strasburg, combined with the recent signings of three high-velocity arms by the Pirates has a lot of Pirates fans wondering one thing: are Taillon, Allie, and Heredia destined for the same outcome as Strasburg?
Injuries are impossible to predict. Plenty of people predicted Strasburg would have injury issues, but the main issues predicted were shoulder injuries, a much more serious problem. That’s not saying that people weren’t predicting Tommy John surgery, but there’s a big difference between predicting something, and suggesting something that happens to come true. Let’s not forget that plenty of people had Tim Lincecum pegged for a major injury, an injury which has yet to happen. Randy Johnson was always seen as an injury risk, and never had Tommy John surgery.
It’s pretty much a guarantee that any big name pitcher drafted or signed is going to be met with the “how soon until he sees Dr. James Andrews” question. It was asked when Jameson Taillon was signed, it was asked when Stetson Allie was signed, and it was asked when Luis Heredia was signed.
Injuries are impossible to avoid sometimes. There’s no rhyme or reason to how they come about. People focus on high-velocity prospects like Taillon, but pitchers with lower velocity also experience injuries. You can take a slow and steady approach, and the injuries will still happen. That’s because pitchers get injured. There’s no simpler way to put it. The body wasn’t designed to whip the arm around in a pitching motion at the speed required to throw a 90-100 MPH fastball, 100 times per game, 32 times per season, 20 seasons in a row.
For that reason, I don’t think you can, or should, avoid pitchers like Taillon, Allie, Heredia, or Strasburg. Odds are that at least one of the three top pitching prospects signed by the Pirates will suffer a major injury during their career. If that happens, we can only hope that it’s an elbow injury which requires Tommy John surgery, as the implications of that injury aren’t as big as a shoulder injury.
People tend to focus on those negative odds, and come to the conclusion that drafting or signing a pitcher is too risky. What people ignore is that the odds of one of the big three pitching prospects realizing their potential are probably the same as the odds of one of those three pitchers getting injured. The Pirates spent $11.35 M on their big three pitching prospects. If just one of those pitchers turns out to be a top of the rotation pitcher, expectations will be met. If two of those pitchers realize their potential, expectations will be exceeded. And while everyone envisions a future rotation with all three starters, the odds of that happening are probably worse than the odds of the Pirates winning the World Series in 2011.
If you spend money on a pitcher, you’re taking the risk that the pitcher won’t work out, with injuries playing a big role. That doesn’t mean you ignore pitching prospects. If you ignore pitching prospects you eliminate the risk involved, but you also eliminate any chance of landing a future ace. In light of the news about Stephen Strasburg’s injury, you may be wondering why the Pirates spent so much on three top pitching prospects. While the odds of a major injury are definitely present for each prospect, the odds are also present of each prospect realizing their potential and becoming a top of the rotation starter. You can’t have the odds of success without risking the odds of failure. All the Pirates can do is take the risk and hope for the best out of their big three pitching prospects, and if the best ends up being that they only land one top of the rotation pitcher, then the risk will have paid off.