Choosing fantasy baseball players is a little bit like choosing who to marry. In both cases, we’re making a commitment to somebody while trying to make our best prediction of the future using incomplete and sometimes unquantifiable data. I know, they’re not completely the same. Unless you’re the most polyamorous m’fer around, you’re probably not choosing 50 people to marry one year and then starting all over again a year later. But to each their own. Listen, the point is that we have to engage in some level of risk assessment in both of these situations. Taking this ridiculous analogy one step further, I would say that injury risk is similar to love, in that we know it’s there but we can’t quite measure it. This inability to measure injury risk has led some in the fantasy baseball community to throw up their hands and essentially say that it doesn’t exist, that we’re wasting our time even trying to predict it. That would be like when my 5-year-old daughter spreads her arms really wide, says “Daddy, I love you thiiiiiis much!” and me responding with “Sorry honey, get back to me on that once you’ve done a full regression analysis and are able to provide me with a statistically significant p value.” Seriously though, I don’t need a singular metric to know something to be true. Thankfully, there are super smart people that have done research on this topic and confirmed that there is validity to the idea of certain players being at higher risk for injury. I’m not going to get into the details here but I encourage you to go read this article by Russell Carleton as well as Jeff Zimmerman’s extensive work on the topic over at Fangraphs. Another factor that has made it difficult to assess injury risk has been the tedious process of trying to track down a player’s injury history. Thankfully, Derek Rhoads (@drhoa3) has solved this problem by creating the Injury Timeline Tool, which is a database of every injury that has caused an MLB player to miss time. This tool has made my life easier and I hope to make your life easier by using this data to help you identify some risky players to avoid in the early rounds of your fantasy drafts. For the purpose of this article, we’ll be using the IL day thresholds that Jeff Zimmerman has found to be predictive of an accelerated decline in player performance (120 days for pitchers, 200 days for hitters).
Lifetime IL Days: 489
NFBC ADP: 18
There’s no denying that Darvish has been more lights out than all of Texas since the second half of 2019. While I can’t argue against the skills that he’s displayed during that time, I can’t bring myself to invest that high of a draft pick in a 34-year-old pitcher with a history of elbow, neck, and shoulder injuries. One of the elbow injuries I’m referring to is the Tommy John surgery that Darvish had back in 2015. Darvish is now five years removed from going under the knife, which means that he’s outside of the “Tommy John Honeymoon” phase that Will Carroll, formerly of Baseball Prospectus, described in this article back in 2013. Carroll stated that after five years, pitchers become susceptible to the same type of overuse injuries that occurred prior to Tommy John Surgery. Darvish had further issues with his throwing elbow in 2018, suffering a stress reaction that limited him to 40 innings that season. Darvish came back strong to put up 178 innings in 2019, which is essentially what the major projection systems are penciling him in for again this season. I’ll easily take the under on that innings projection. First of all, the Padres have already indicated that they would use a 6-man rotation in 2021. That makes sense, given the fact that San Diego’s rotation is loaded with other high-risk pitchers such as Blake Snell, Dinelson Lamet, and Joe Musgrove. The Padres also have the depth to pull this off effectively, as they can rotate pitchers like Adrian Morejon, Ryan Weathers, and MacKenzie Gore through that 6th rotation spot. Personally, I’d bring Darvish’s innings projection down closer to the ZIPS projection of 150 innings, and that’s without any major injury issues. Even though I expect him to put up excellent numbers while he’s pitching, that reduction in innings obviously takes a huge chunk out of Darvish’s valuation. Taking a risk on a player like Darvish in the second round is the type of pick that can absolutely tank your fantasy team and has the potential to leave you feeling almost as miserable as the citizens of Texas did earlier this month.
Lifetime IL Days: 465
NFBC APP: 66
I’ve always loved me some “Cookie.” Both the kind that we eat as well as the Mets’ new right-handed pitcher. But see, I’m trying to cut back on sugar as well as older, injury-prone pitchers in 2021, meaning that I’m passing on La Galleta this season. I know people are excited about Carrasco this year because of the trade to the Mets and subsequent upgrade in home ballpark. These are all certainly positives, as well as the fact that Carrasco came back from leukemia and looked very much like the old Carrasco in 2020. While the surface stats from last season look great, Carrasco’s decline in Zone % (a career-worst 40.1%), does raise some slight concern. The relatively low Zone% led to a career-worst 9.6% walk rate, which doubled Carrasco’s walk rate from 2019. Maybe that’s small sample noise or maybe that’s an indicator of future injury issues, as Jeff Zimmerman has found that a low Zone% can be a precursor to injury. Carrasco is another player that is now outside of his “Tommy John Honeymoon,” as he had the surgery back in 2011. There’s also the “Mets gonna Met” factor that we have to consider. I can just envision Carrasco going on the IL for a minor injury, the organization completely fucking it up, and Carrasco missing the entire season (I don’t really put much stock in that, I just like playing on the angst of Mets fans). Steamer has Carrasco projected for 174 innings and I’ll be taking the under on that projection as well. The Mets are another team that has depth and will be focused on keeping their pitchers fresh for what they hope is an extended postseason run. I highly doubt they’re going to push Carrasco the same way that the Indians would have, not to mention the fact that all organizations are generally going to be more cautious with pitcher workloads coming off of the shortened season. I don’t think the innings will be there and I also worry about Carrasco experiencing a skills decline in his age-34 season. If you absolutely do need that “Cookie,” I encourage you to fill up on your meat and potatoes first by getting at least one rotation stabilizer like Gerritt Cole or Aaron Nola in the first few rounds, or maybe even following up your dessert with a healthier snack like Kyle Hendricks or Jose Berrios. Personally, I’ll be taking a hitter in this range. However, if I absolutely need a pitcher around this pick, I’d rather go with the younger and healthier one in Sonny Gray.
Lifetime IL Days: 364
NFBC ADP: 78
Despite him missing the entire 2019 season due to Tommy John surgery and testing positive for COVID in July, Salvy came back even better in 2020, putting up a .333 batting average with 11 home runs and 32 RBI. The batting average was certainly an outlier for Perez, as it was supported by a .375 BABIP. My one-year-old can probably crawl faster to first base than Sal Perez can run to it, which is my way of saying that Perez is not going to sustain close to a .375 BABIP over a full season. I think it’s also fair to say that Sal Perez’s plate discipline is”not tremendous,” which is another reason why I’m looking at last season as an extreme outlier in the average department. While Perez is only entering his age-31 season, one look at his injury timeline page shows that he’s experienced quite a bit of wear and tear on his body throughout his career. Perez has already undergone left knee surgery, Tommy John surgery, and has missed time with various hand, thumb, wrist, groin injuries. Listen, there’s no doubt that Salvy is a gamer and has shown the ability to play through a lot of these ailments. I just worry about investing that much draft capital in a catcher with that significant of an injury history, especially when I’m taking him at his ADP high-water mark. If I absolutely need one of the top-tier catchers, I’d rather wait a few rounds for Yasmani Grandal.
Lifetime IL Days: 558
NFBC ADP: 75
We have the leader in the IL clubhouse. According to Hyun-Jin Ryu’s Injury Timeline, the Blue Jays’ left-hander been on the IL for over 500 days, 300 of which have come as result of injuries related to his left shoulder. Ryu had surgery on his throwing shoulder in 2016, resulting in him missing almost that entire season. Since then, Ryu has missed time with hamstring, groin, and neck ailments, though it’s unclear if those IL stints in 2019 were true injuries or whether they were cases of “Dodger-itis.” Ryu escaped LA last year, signing a 4-year, $80 million contract with the Blue Jays prior to the season, and actually proceeded to have the first fully healthy season since 2013. Ryu proved to be worth the investment in year 1 of his deal, as he pitched to 2.69 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP in 67 innings for Buffalo…er, Toronto. While there is probably some regression coming for Ryu in terms of his ERA, everything under-the-hood looks pretty legitimate. I don’t doubt that he’s a really good pitcher, I just don’t mess with 34-year-old pitchers with a history of leg and shoulder issues, especially when they pitch in the AL Beast. Throw in the fact that the Blue Jays look like they’ll be playing their games in hitter friendly venues in Dunedin and Buffalo and I’m completely out y’all. I’d personally rather wait a couple rounds and take a chance on a player with similar risk but, in my opinion, higher upside in Joe Musgrove.
Lifetime IL Days: 204
NFBC ADP: 115
Check out my deep dive on Buxton here.
Feel free to leave comments below and tell me why you agree or disagree with these early-round fades. As always, thanks for reading!