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:

2005/2006/2007Curt Schilling, Kelvim Escobar

2005/2006/2007/2008 -Zack Greinke

2006/2007/2008 – Zach Duke, Randy Johnson

The list of failed comeback stories reads as follows (year represents failed bounceback year):

2006 – Jaret Wright, Carl Pavano, Rich Harden (note: bounced back 4 years later), John Thomson, Odalis Perez, Mike Hampton

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

2008 – Chris Carpenter, Jason Schmidt, Josh Johnson, Jason Jennings, Clay Hensley

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 SaturdayPitchers 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.

  1. Jim says:

    What about Gallardo?

  2. Josh says:

    no love for my boy John Maine?

    thanks for the pitching research this winter. you already saved me from drafting from Ervin in 3 leagues before the injury report.

  3. Simply Fred

    Fred Barker says:

    As always, great research. You are the best. So, trust your high heat. Only four of 29 passed your test. Let’s stick with that ratio. Only two from the 2009 list of 16 will survive. I’ll go with Liriano and Johnson. (Wang easily should be healthy and get the wins–lack of strikeouts the obvious drawback.)

    How do you come up with such unique ways to get us the info that really makes a difference in our picks???

  4. Simply Fred

    Fred Barker says:

    I was wavering on Johnson. That extra 2 mph tipped the balance. Again, thanks. (Are you an alien?)

  5. Colin says:

    @Josh: Josh I’m looking to target Maine this year as well. 13-15 wins easy.

  6. Fantastic analysis as usual. There are some other Bouncebacker considerations though. Would you also lump in Gallardo, Chamberlain, C. Young, & King Felix with the Bedard, Carpenter & Litiano (are you sure about him?) upside 3rd/4th Starter group? Or may any of those be a safer (#2 Pitcher) cut above? Valuable stuff Grey, thanks again.

  7. @Josh: I like Maine. He didn’t qualify for this list as he threw well over 2,000 pitches last year (~2,500).

    @Fred Barker: Thanks. I think the two best bets are Wainwright and Wang because their injuries weren’t arm-related. But I’m bullish on Josh Johnson and Liriano too (note: Liriano doesn’t really count on this list anyway as he’s never had a 2,500+ MLB season and he pitched so much last year in AAA).

    This research dovetailed on the risky pitcher analysis where I leaned heavily on FanGraphs for pitches/season, types of pitches, FIP, and velocity info. What a great resource.

  8. @zombie: Thanks. I limited the analysis to those that had an MLB season with 2500+ pitches and < 4.50 FIP and then failed to surpass 2,000 pitches in the last 1-2 seasons. Gallardo and Chamberlain have never thrown that many pitches in the majors. Felix threw over 3,000 pitches last year. But you're completely right on Chris "Tall" Young. Not sure how I missed him. I like him as a 3rd/4th starter - will add him to the list. As for Gallardo, Chamberlain, Felix in 3rd/4th starter....I don't think Felix lasts that long but he'd be a great 3rd starter. I think of him as a 2nd starter. I like that Gallardo is coming off a knee (vs. arm) injury but I don't like that he's suddenly the ace of the staff. Yeah, he'd be in that same bucket. Joba is more of a 4th starter for me. When he throws 150+ IP in a year, I'll push him higher.

  9. Just added Chris Young + Tom Gorzelanny (he sneaks in based on the criteria).

    Also added a parenthetical so readers stop fretting where Gallardo is…

  10. IowaCubs

    IowaCubs says:

    Very well done, Rudy. Just skimming through this, but wanted to let you guys know that this type of thing is exactly the type of thing that I love to read on this site.

    Razzball: Come for the humor, stay for the cheesecake.

  11. sean says:

    @Rudy: another awesome post. I really appreciate the statistical ying to Grey’s persuasive yang. My favorite part: Love Smoltzy but 42, coming off a shoulder injury, and moving to the better hitting league are a worse threesome than the Jonas Brothers. Gotta love a Spartan and gotta love a scratch golfer, but it doesn’t mean dooode is going to find El Dorado in Boston.

  12. sean says:

    Slightly off-topic, but what’s the feeling on here on Tommy Hanson? I picked him up off of waivers for as a stashee, dropping my last pick of Carlos Carrasco. He looks much more poised to nab a rotation spot than Carrasco, who has had a forgettable spring thus far.

  13. Tom says:

    I went with Felix Hernandez, Wainwright and Johnson as my first three starters, and I was so pleased with all the bats I could pick up during the early rounds. Is this a bad idea, given that Wainwright and Johnson are both comeback candidates? Also, what’s happening with Ian Snell this year? Worth a flier?

  14. James says:

    Great post!

  15. Simply Fred

    Fred Barker says:

    Focus on the mechanism. The “Assessment” was that only four of 29 were successful bouncebacks. We don’t want to target a bunch of these players.

  16. Eric W says:

    @sean: I love grabbing tommy in deep drafts but the more spring goes on the more it looks like no matter what he does he is going to be sent down to trip A.

  17. Chris says:

    You sound rather passionate about Johnson over Nolasco. Can you elaborate on this, given Nolasco’s outstanding performance in 2008? Is it a ceiling issue?

  18. pharmdriz says:

    @sean: It’s basically what Eric W said. The Braves are hoping to get Tommy Glavine to begin as the 5th starter since they won’t need to use him until the middle of April. If he craps the bed, Jo Jo Reyes has shown enough this spring to make people believe it’s clicking for him, so he’d be the first to get the call-up from AAA. Hanson is obviously better than both of these schmohawks this year, but the Braves are expected to take it at least a little slow with Hanson since he’s sorta the team’s best pitching prospect since….well, Wainwright I guess.

  19. Josh says:

    you guys are getting too popular. site was down for a little while.

  20. @IowaCubs: @sean: @James: Thanks!

    @sean: I don’t think Hanson will have much value in 2009. He was great in AA last year but the Braves have enough depth (Lowe, Vazquez, Jar-Jar, Kawakami, Glavine, Campillo, Jo-Jo) that they can let him pitch in AAA for most/all the year.

    @Tom: That’s a common strategy. I like those three. They COULD provide the value you’d expect from top 3 starters but you’ve taken on greater than average risk. Based on Point Shares, I’d say those three will give you about average W/ERA/WHIP where ideally they provide above average and help provide slack for the rest of your pitchers to increase counting stats. You may need to pick up another top starter as the year goes – you can deal from your hitting strength at that time…

  21. Tony says:

    is anyone interested in playing in my yahoo 12 team H2H league? Draft is this SUNDAY, $100 buy in, your keeps are ian kinsler and carlos quentin and you’d draft in the 4th slot…. we’re really struggling for a 12th man, its never happened before, we might actually need TWO more guys so if you have a buddy let me know! (one guys says our draft time 9AM is too early and is whining and saying he might bail) anyways, the leagues been a great league for about 8 years, we usually have 1-3 new teams each year but the core stays… Next year is a total redraft as well, so if you’re interested in staying…. LET ME KNOW ASAP my email is [email protected]

    sorry to post on here for this but we’re getting desperate and i know there’s some great guys on here and some that would really compete since this league is VERY COMPETITIVE,

    thanks! TY

  22. Frank Rizzo says:

    I’ve been taking Bedard extremely late in mocks (even though the idiot was my 1st pitcher off the board in 2008) loving the value and potential. Then I saw this on Wednesday….

    Wed, Mar 11

    Mariners.MLB.com’s Jim Street reports Seattle Mariners SP Erik Bedard (hip) was scratched from his start Wednesday, March 11, due to a sore right hip.


    I may be steering clear completely. The hip cost him almost as much time as the shoulder last year.

  23. Eric W says:

    @Frank Rizzo: I may be wrong here but i think it was actually his ass and the opposite cheek from the hip he hurt last year.

  24. Frank Rizzo says:

    @Eric W: Thanks Eric. How old is this guy? My 90 year old grandma has stronger hips than him.

  25. IowaCubs

    IowaCubs says:

    I’m assuming your site is still up and running, though I had some trouble with it earlier…. said your site was down for a while.

  26. Christopher says:

    @IowaCubs: Site was down, huh? Oddly enough, my intel tells me that at the same time, every FLB expert at ESPN was in a “closed door meeting” at that exact same time, something about “training” or “career development” or some such…coincidence? I think not!

  27. Josh says:

    and suddenly Alex Gordon and Alexis Rios are on the cover of ESPN FBB.

  28. Maitland says:

    This is off topic, but I was wondering if people had thoughts about the strength of the players in the middle of the first round compared to some of the other early rounds. Have a trade offer that would have me dealing my 3-4-7 round picks for the #6 pick overall. My picks in the other rounds would be #s 25, 48, 73. Seems like this is a lot of depth to give up, but I like the idea of getting Grady or Ryan Braun.

  29. @Maitland: I’ve never been in a league that lets you trade draft picks but I feel like I’d be the type that would trade top picks to have more at mid-levels.

    Here are the #25, #48, and #73 picks using ESPN’s ADP: Ian Kinsler, Nate McLouth, and Joakim Soria.

    Sizemore/Braun are better than McLouth, no question. But enough to compensate for Kinsler and Soria compared to their replacement 2B (Kelly Johnson) and RP (Chris Perez)?

  30. Johnny says:

    I see Greinke went from the 2008 bounceback to the 2009 injury concern list. Zack is working very hard on his changeup. If that continues then I think there should be less concern on him getting injured or losing effectiveness.

    Bonderman – I see you have blod clot listed. The real problem was an impingement which they fixed by removing a rib, adding some honey garlic sauce, and …

    The long term looks good for Bondo since for a few years he didn’t have much feeling in his hands effecting velocity and feel for breaking pitches. And removing a rib is a very simple procedure.

    Short term I’m not so confident. How long does it take for him to build up a seasons worth of arm strength, get his feeling back, etc.?

  31. IowaCubs

    IowaCubs says:

    @Rudy Gamble: Thanks, Rudy… Keep in mind that we haven’t set a clear date and could change it to Sunday, March 22nd or Saturday March 29th. Still waiting to hear back from most of the group.

    By the way, Ausmus is the Bossmus.

  32. James says:

    @Grey – wouldn’t 70 less innings probably speed up Young’s heater? Next year I would be worried, but this year not so much. He is being drafted in the middle to late round, and has number two stuff.

  33. James says:

    The above should be dircted to Rudy…

  34. Colin says:

    Rudy what is your line for Gallardo this year? I’m really high on this guy. Another dominating performance today again. I want to draft this guy but I am not sure he will get back to me in the 3rd round. We have a 7 team NL only league with 8 keepers each. Billingsley is probably the top pitcher available. I draft last and could probably get Beltran an Fielder back to back. I have no pitcher keepers, so would you recommend chancing not getting Gallardo and go for the 2 big boppers or grab one along with Gallardo with my first 2 picks? I think this kid is going to be stellar this year and would love to have him on my squad. Thoughts on this? Thanks.

  35. Scott says:

    Just for the record . . . when Rich Hill walks through the garden, he better watch his BACK.

    Man, I loved that show.


  36. Simply Fred

    Fred Barker says:

    Gallardo certainly has the stuff. However, facing the aces this year he projects to about ten wins. If that’s enough for your team, draft him.

  37. Johnny says:

    @Rudy: Sorry, I was thinking of the points share list when thinking of Greinke.

    About Bonderman here are a couple of excerpts from an ESPN article
    “It was only a season and a half ago that Bonderman seemed to be on the verge of stardom. Then the mysterious tingling in his fingers began, and he wasn’t the same guy. His velocity began sinking. His movement disappeared. And no one knew why.”

    “Unfortunately, though, he had to stagger through nearly a full year of frustration and discomfort first — until one morning he woke up and found a lump the size of a softball below his armpit.”

    He was breaking out in 2007 and looked like an ace until the blod clot. I certainly think he is worth a gamble on this year.

  38. @Johnny: Hmm, I’m thawing. Could be worth a mixed league flier but I wouldn’t want to start the year with him and another guy on this list…

  39. Johnny says:

    @Rudy:Agreed. Definitely wouldn’t want to count on him. But could provide some very good late round value.

  40. Simply Fred

    Fred Barker says:

    Rudy, properly prefaced his projections as “irrationally exuberant.” That part should be heeded by readers. It would be CRAZY to pick more than even one from this year’s bounce back list. If only 4 of 29 of the historical test sample actually succeeded, what do you think the chances are that ANY ONE OF US, could have picked those particular 4, or even 2 of the four? I’m not sophisticated enough to do the calculation, but I do know that it is next to NOT-A-CHANCE! Go back and look at the list of 29 and try to believe that you would have picked Escobar, Greinke, Duke over Zambrano, Carpenter, Schmidt. If you must pick ONE.

  41. Doug Ault says:

    @ Rudy:I just completed a deal sending Nolasco for Johnson.It’ll be interesting watching this play out.

  42. Doug Ault says:

    @Rudy:Then I moved Dempster for Maybin,livin on the edge ;-)

  43. love that move too. you’re goin’ all-in, rudy-style…

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