The Mets are going into 2017 with a large number of question marks surrounding their pitching staff. Matt Harvey’s problem with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome and Zack Wheeler’s fight to establish himself after missing two full seasons recovering from multiple elbow surgeries are the two biggest concerns. Of course you also have the questions regarding Steven Matz’ health, deGrom’s offseason elbow surgery, and to a lesser extent Gsellman’s shoulder surgery. Granted, Gsellman’s surgery repaired his glove arm.
None of this should be news to any of you. Today I want to briefly touch upon two aspects of the Mets pitching which I have found particularly interesting going into the season. One negative piece of news, one positive. I’ll start with the negative so we can finish on a high note.
Pitchers Returning From Two Missed Years
Getting data for missed time isn’t the easiest process, and for this data I want to thank Jeff Zimmerman. He was able to run a query to find a number of names for pitchers who missed two consecutive seasons in major league baseball since 2002. I went through and removed three names: Colby Lewis, Scott Atchison, Alfredo Figaro and Keiichi Yabu. I know these four guys missed time due to playing in a different league. Three in Japan, and one in Mexico. It is somewhat amusing that Keiichi Yabu was the one who played in Mexico. Anyhow, I think the rest of the names missed due to injury. Feel free to correct me if I’ve made a mistake.
Also note! All of these names are players who had MLB service time, then missed two years, then had MLB service time. Steven Matz and Jameson Taillon are two examples of players who were injured in the minors, missed two years, and returned. I am sure there are a large number of players who fall into that camp, probably a lot more than there are guys who fit this major league requirement. Unfortunately, I don’t have the ability to easily search for those minor league players, so we will have to live with these major league guys.
Alrighty, so, a lot of these guys were either mediocre due to chronic injury, or plain old mediocre. So, let’s just pull out the names which are somewhat interesting:
Joey Devine: He was a top prospect, drafted 27th overall, but didn’t quite make it as a starting pitcher. By “didn’t quite make it” I mean “he was clobbered.” He is the only pitcher to allow grand slams in his first two career starts. Ouch. Well, he was traded to Oakland where he had one of the most successful seasons in relieving history. He allowed .59 ERA, 23 hits, and a 49/15 K/BB ratio. Wow! He has the lowest ERA for a pitcher with more than 45 innings pitched since ERA became an official stat. This guy is the answer to two very obscure baseball trivia questions.
He was on the fast track to becoming a closer. That is, until his arm popped in 2009 and he required Tommy John Surgery. It took him two full seasons to recover. He returned in 2011 to have a pretty okay 23 innings, nowhere near as spectacular as his 2008 campaign but still pretty good. In April of 2012 he had a second Tommy John surgery and hasn’t pitched since.
Jeremy Bonderman: The first player to be drafted as a High School Junior. You may have heard about this draft pick, it is the one that caused Billy Beane to throw his chair through a wall. Anyways, he spent one year in the minor leagues prior to his major league debut. That’s crazy to think about. Anyhow, he had great stuff, threw 97 mph with a great slider splitter, but he suffered with inconsistency. You can barely hold it against him, considering how ridiculously young he was. In all honesty, he probably should have had an extra few years in the minors to help him round out as a player, and to wait for him to mature a little.
I bring up maturity due to the way his career took a turn for the worse. He was struck on the wrist by a line drive, and opted to pitch through the pain. That is never a good idea. Shortly thereafter he began to suffer elbow problems. A few months later he had surgery to remove a bloodclot in his arm, and then put on the disabled list again due to lingering shoulder pain. I’m not a doctor, but this sounds like it may have been Thoracic Outlet Syndrome? I don’t know, it was pretty serious though, and he went unsigned in 2011 and 2012 as a result. He played for the Mariners and Tigers in 2013, but hasn’t pitched since.
Mike Hampton: The Mets traded Roger Cedeño, Octavio Dotel, and Kyle Kessel to the Astros for Mike Hampton just prior to Christmas in 1999. Hampton had a solidly above average year with the Mets, helped shore up the rotation and played a major part in reaching the World Series. Especially with his spectacular start in the NLCS clinching game. After the season he gifted us the privilege of arguing the merits and quality of the Denver school system, a topic I think we can all agree was criminally underreported at the time. This conversation prompted one of Sandy Alderson’s greatest rants.
Anyhow, he signed a record breaking 8 year, 121 million dollar contract with the Rockies and the Mets somehow got David Wright out of the deal. I call that a win for the Metsies. Hampton was a disaster in Denver, and the Rockies traded him to Atlanta (think of the children!). In Atlanta he had a few mediocre seasons followed by back to back Tommy John Surgeries in 2005 and 2006. He returned to pitch partial seasons in 2008 and 2009, and in 2010 he left the game for good after pitching his final seven innings with the Diamondbacks.
Dustin McGowan and Arodys Vizcaino: I don’t have anything in particular to say about these two guys. It is noteworthy that both are still in the game. In fact, McGowan had a great year in 2016 for the Marlins, which was unexpected.
Pitchers Who Missed Two Full Seasons
|Name||Season Injured||IP In year of Injury||MLB IP Year of Return||MiLB IP Year of Return||Total IP Year of Return||Career Max Single Season IP|
Where does this leave Zack Wheeler? Well, you can see that almost all of these stories have sad endings. Except maybe McGowan who has absolutely turned his career around in the past few years. None of these guys were able to return to form. None of them returned as starting pitchers.
This doesn’t mean returning as a starting pitcher is impossible. Matz has done it. So has Taillon. Many other minor leaguers have probably done it. This list of major league pitchers, though, they are all sad stories.
Granted they don’t all have the same issue. Some have Tommy John problems, others have what may have been Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. Some appeared to be returning to health, only to get derailed by another injury. This data isn’t conclusive by any stretch, but it is a window.
I am choosing to look at the top seven guys here by maximum innings pitched. They have at least 150 innings pitched in at least one season in their career, so they were at some point a starting pitcher. These guys averaged 45.9 innings pitched at the major league level when returning from their two missed seasons. They averaged 93.5 innings pitched if you include minor league time. Billy Traber threw the most innings upon his return, 167.2. That was also his single season record inning total for his career.
Last year Jameson Taillon threw 165.2 innings after returning from his two year lay off. This appears to be just about the maximum realistic innings total.
If you were to realistically project Wheeler, you would expect between 45 and 170 innings pitched. As for quality, I’m not sure. Many pitchers struggle with command upon their return. Wheeler struggled with command prior to the injury, so that’s probably not going to synergize well. You need to be patient with him, and recognize that the risk of a second injury is very, very real.
The Good News!
I don’t want to leave you feeling totally gloomy after all of that, so I want to highlight a bright spot shining on Jeurys Familia. This spring he has been lighting up the radar guns, throwing 99 and 100 miles per hour with some frequency. Now, when you tell me a guy is throwing harder in spring training, I automatically assume it could be a hot radar gun. However, even if you assume that, Familia is throwing significantly harder than usual. Take a look at this chart:
The x Axis is Spin Rate, measured by Statcast. There is some measurement error on spin rate, so take it with a grain of salt. The vertical axis shows pitch velocity measured by Pitchfx. Those numbers you can trust. I’ve circled the region around 99 and 101 mph, which is where they claim Familia has been throwing during the World Baseball Classic.
Okay, so assume the radar gun is giving him an extra mile per hour. Assume it is giving him an extra two miles per hour. That is still above his average by a significant margin. Familia has thrown 671 pitches in the past two seasons, 139 of these were thrown with a velocity higher than 98 mph. Only 37 of them were thrown with a velocity higher than 99 mph. We’re talking about the very top of his upper limit on velocity here. Take those 100 mph pitches they are reporting, subtract 2 mph, that is still in the 79th percentile of his pitch velocity.
Familia is throwing harder than usual. Maybe it is due to the adrenaline of pitching in the WBC and representing his homeland. I don’t know. But if he can keep this up, it would be pretty amazing. It would also be scary, due to the increased injury risk. The Mets don’t need any more injuries.