Everyone likes a comeback story. Especially if you snag one at a discount on draft day because they either fell off the radars or they were deemed too risky.
There are a number of intriguing bounceback candidates in 2008 (Bedard, Wainwright, Bonderman, etc.) so we thought we’d look back over the past couple of years to see if there were any learnings that can help in assessing this year’s crop.
We focused the analysis on pitchers who went from 2,500+ MLB pitches in 2004-2007 to < 2,000 MLB pitches in the following year (so no pitchers like Yovani Gallardo who are coming off injuries but haven’t thrown a 2,500+ pitch season or guys who just had a bad year like Aaron Harang). If the pitcher fell under 2,000 pitches because they were moved into a primary relief role, they were removed. To keep it fantasy relevant, we required a 4.50 or less FIP in the 2,500+ pitch year. We then looked at the year after the ‘down’ year and determined it a success if they managed at least 2,500 pitches and a FIP no more than 0.50 greater than the earlier full season.
This doesn’t seem like it would be rare in the age of Tommy John Surgery but it’s evidently tough to bounce back. Of the 29 candidates, only 4 bounced back successfully the next year. A 5th pitcher bounced back in 2 years. The successful ones were:
2005/2006/2007 – Curt Schilling, Kelvim Escobar
2005/2006/2007/2008 -Zack Greinke
The list of failed comeback stories reads as follows (year represents failed bounceback year):
2007 – John Patterson, Bartolo Colon, David Wells, Mark Prior, Glendon Rusch, Josh Towers, Matt Clement, Brian Lawrence, Brett Tomko, Gustavo Chacin, Victor Zambrano, Mark Mulder, Jason Johnson, Tomo Ohka
Many on this list were avoidable come draft day but I’m sure several of these players may induce winces from prior years’ useless draft picks. So looking at the five successes, what do they have in common?
- Pitched in September/October of ‘down’ year – 4 of the 5 (Randy Johnson excluded) pitched in the prior September with three of them (Schilling, Escobar, Greinke) pitching in relief. A positive sign that they had gotten through most of their rehab (mental in Greinke’s case) and could be ready by the beginning of the following season. Only 11 of the 24 who failed in their comeback pitched in September/October.
- Non-Arm Injuries – 3 of the 5 (Escobar and Duke excluded) had non-arm/oblique injuries – Schilling (ankle), Randy Johnson (back), Zack Greinke (mental). Only 2 of the 24 failures had non-arm injuries (John Thomson – finger, David Wells – knee).
My initial feeling was that the better pitchers were more likely to have successful comebacks. But only 2 of the 5 successful comebacks had less than a 4.00 FIP in their last strong year while 13 of the 24 failures had sub-4.00 FIP.
On the Tommy John front, it’s common knowledge that it takes a pitcher about 18 months to fully recover. But there aren’t as many success stories among MLB starting pitchers as you’d think. Mike Hampton (2005) and Victor Zambrano (2006) never came all the way back. John Smoltz (2000) and Ryan Dempster (2003) returned strongly but initially as relievers. John Lieber (2002) and AJ Burnett (2003) are recent pitchers who had success within 2 years of Tommy John surgery.
So let’s take a look at the bounceback contenders for 2009. Despite the poor track record of comeback pitchers, I feel a little irrationally exuberant about this bunch. The key is that it worth rolling the dice on either your 4th or 5th starter on a guy who can be great. You can always get the dull, safe ones via the FA wire.
|Player||Pitched in Sept/Oct||Injury||Comments/Advice|
|Adam Wainwright||Yes||Finger||Wainwright is the perfect comeback candidate. The finger injury derailed his 2008 season but won’t have any lingering effects for 2009. Given he came into 2008 fitting our risky profile to a tee – well over 27% breaking pitches (35%), a near 2,000+ MLB pitch increase b/w 2006 and 2007, his first year over 2,700+ pitches – the finger injury might have been a blessing in disguise as he was able to rest his arm. Draft him with confidence. A great 4th starter. Solid 3rd starter. Potential 2nd starter.|
|Anibal Sanchez||No||Shoulder||It’s been over 2 years since his impressive rookie run that included a no-hitter. Relied a lot on sliders in his first go-around which might be tough until he’s built up more arm strength. Will likely start slow but keep an eye on him in May/June and pick him up if he has a good couple of starts in a row. Think Nolasco 2008 as the upside.|
|Brad Penny||Yes||Shoulder||Shoulder injuries are a combined 0-for-11 at comebacks between 2004-2007. See Pavano, Colon, Prior, and Jason Schmidt. Oh, and he’s moving from the cozy NL West to the crazy AL East. Avoid him except in AL-only leagues where he’s worth a flier.|
|Chien-Ming Wang||No||Foot||The foot injury shouldn’t be an issue for Wang. Moving from ace to 3rd starter can only help him as he doesn’t have to go against other aces. Solid 5th pitcher in mixed leagues primarily because of his Wins.|
|Chris Capuano||No||Tommy John (May 2008)||This is his 2nd TJ surgery. No idea when he makes it back in 2009. Ignore in mixed leagues. Doubtful in NL-only too.
|Chris Carpenter||No||Elbow||He’s pitching well in the Spring. Hard not to be skeptical but hard not to love the upside. Worth the risk as a late draft pick if you haven’t rolled the dice on a Liriano or Bedard.|
|Chris Young||No||Broken Face, Forearm||Love that this guy’s home park is owned & operated by the National Park service but I’m not as optimistic as others. His fastball has lost velocity the last four years and is now below 88 MPH. How much mileage can he get with providing unique angles to batters and getting fly ball outs? Can you think of another pitcher ever who had long-term success with that profile? Proceed with more caution than you would naturally. Think 4th/5th starter instead of 3rd starter.
|Dustin McGowan||No||Shoulder||He was originally slated to return in May but had a setback in Spring Training. Keep on your radars and stash in deep bench leagues if he shows progress.|
|Erik Bedard||No||Shoulder Cyst, Inflamed Hip
||Missed a Spring Training start with a sore butt. Supposedly his shoulder – the biggest concern – is doing okay. If healthy, Bedard could be a top 10 pitcher. From 2004-2007, he was good for about 8K/9 IP and around 24-28 starts. Definitely worth the risk after the 12th round but better make sure you don’t parlay him with another risky pitcher. Unless you’ve got multiple DL slots and a deep free agent pool.|
|Francisco Liriano||Yes||Tommy John (late 2006)||Now over 2 years removed from Tommy John surgery. Pitched 190+ IP last year between AAA and MLB – finishing strong in September. Promising to hear that he’s becoming less reliant on the slider and more on the changeup. Definitely draft-worthy but I’m seeing him drafted as a 1st or 2nd starter in mixed leagues. I consider him more of a 3rd or 4th starter with great upside and, thus, he probably won’t be on any of my teams.|
|Jake Westbrook||No||Tommy John (June 2008)||He went to Dr. Freeze in June 2008. He probably won’t be fully thawed until 2010. Don’t expect to see Jake in the Jake this year.|
|Jason Schmidt||No||Shoulder||He did take the mound this spring which itself seems like a feat. The Dodgers have him penciled in as the 5th starter because using ink would be irresponsible. I smell toast.|
|Jeremy Bonderman||No||Blood Clot in Shoulder||He’s reported shoulder soreness but he is supposedly okay and scheduled to pitch on Saturday. Pitchers recover from blood clots but I just suspect Bonderman will have other issues. And he hasn’t had a good year since 2006. Ignore in mixed leagues. Worth a flier in an AL-only league.|
|John Smoltz||No||Shoulder||The word is that the Red Sox will take it slow and that he may be back on June 1st.
Love Smoltzy but 42, coming off a shoulder injury, and moving to the better hitting league are a worse threesome than the Jonas Brothers. Smoltz will likely fare better than that lame joke but I wouldn’t invest much hope or free agent money on that.
|Josh Johnson||Yes||Tommy John (2007)||Pitched strong in 2H 2008 in 87 IP in 2008 (7-1, 3.68/1.35/77 Ks). Averaged 93+ on his fastball, 2 MPH faster than he pitched in 2006. Projection systems aren’t ranking him too high or crediting him with any more than 100 IP. I’m more bullish than that.
Well worth drafting. I’d take him over Nolasco in a heartbeat. He should be good value as a 4th/5th SP in mixed league and could deliver 2nd/3rd SP value if he stays healthy.
|Kelvim Escobar||No||Shoulder||So far so good this Spring but who knows with Escobar. If his arm feels good, he can be a positive contributor. Keep an eye on him in mixed leagues and risk a $1 in AL-only.|
|Rich Hill||No||Steve Blass||Pitchers don’t go to Baltimore to resurrect themselves. They go to bury themselves deeper. Cue ‘The Wire’ theme….”When you walk through the garden, you better watch your step…”
|Tom Gorzelanny||Yes||Finger||He was awful last year – including a ridiculous 0.96 K/BB ratio because he threw nearly threw 6 BB per 9 IP. But I think some of this may have been after-effects from a taxing 2007 when he threw 3.300 pitches in his first complete MLB season. His best case is probably 130 Ks. and a 4.30 ERA. Ignore in mixed leagues but take a flier in NL-only.|