In my last column, I went over some players who were being taken too early or too late on average in standard roto drafts. One of the players being taken too early, I felt, was Marlins starter Jose Fernandez, who underwent Tommy John surgery last season and is expected to make his 2015 debut in June. Fernandez is one of a handful of notable starting pitchers coming off of an injury. Let’s go over some of the others.
o Matt Harvey, New York Mets
Harvey took the baseball world by storm in 2013, posting a 2.27 ERA with a 191/31 K/BB ratio over 178 1/3 innings. The Mets took extra precaution, shutting him down after his 26th start on August 24. Still, after the season, he underwent Tommy John surgery, a seemingly more common event for young pitchers these days. Harvey is expected to be ready by Opening Day in Washington on April 6, though he may not make his first start until the Mets’ home opener on April 13.
Jeff Zimmerman did some research and number-crunching for The Hardball Times last June and found that pitchers decline across the board in their first season back from TJ surgery. He found that ERA generally increases by about six percent, home run rate per nine innings by seven percent, walk rate per nine innings by five percent and strikeout rate per nine innings falls by about 4.5 percent.
What does this mean for those of you considering picking up Harvey? Temper your expectations. In Yahoo drafts thus far, he is being taken 77th on average, right behind Julio Teheran and a few spots ahead of Alex Cobb and Jeff Samardzija. In reaching for Harvey that early, one is taking a risk that he will buck the trends as elucidated by Zimmerman.
o A.J. Griffin, Oakland Athletics
Griffin proved dependable in 2013 for the A’s, racking up exactly 200 innings with a 3.83 ERA and a 171/54 K/BB ratio. In rapid-fire succession, the club lost both Griffin and Jarrod Parker to Tommy John surgery but are hoping to get both back in June.
As expected, Griffin is going undrafted, but he’s someone whose name you’ll want to keep tabs on as his 2015 debut date gets closer. By that time, all of the obvious upstart players – last year’s group included Alfredo Simon and Jason Hammel – will be off the board along with anyone else in the markedly above-average category, so injured pitchers returning will provide a nice way to bolster your staff. Griffin should rack up enough strikeouts to get by along with an ERA around 4.00.
o Jarrod Parker, Oakland Athletics
Parker has been decent since joining the Athletics’ rotation in 2012, putting up a 3.73 ERA, but he hasn’t shown the bat-missing capabilities he displayed in the minors. Complicating things, he underwent Tommy John surgery for a second time last March. As mentioned, he should join Griffin in returning to the A’s sometime in June.
As opposed to Griffin, Parker is a wait-and-see candidate. If his velocity is back around 92 MPH and his K/BB numbers are in line with or better than his career stats, he will be worth considering in a streaming role. If he’s playing a weak lineup, particularly one that’s right-handed heavy, he’ll be worth picking up for a start.
o Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies
Amid all of the trade rumors surrounding the Phillies, often lost is the fact that Lee is returning from a flexor pronator strain which knocked him out of June as well as August and September. When he was able to take the mound, Lee posted a 3.65 ERA, his highest mark since 2007 when he was with the Indians. His strikeout rate fell slightly while he maintained his trademark sterling control.
Lee is being taken 117th on average in Yahoo leagues, just ahead of Andrew Cashner and slightly behind Masahiro Tanaka. Given that Lee hasn’t had a serious arm injury since, well, ever, it remains to be seen how lofty or low our expectations should be. It’s worth noting he showed a fastball velocity decline of more than one MPH last season. If he’s 88-89 MPH as opposed to 90-91, it might be worth skipping over him in favor of someone younger and healthier.
Lee has had problems accruing wins on the Phillies before, but they should be hard to come by considering the roster they’re putting out going into 2015. If Lee shows he’s healthy, the Phillies could trade him during spring training. A move out of Philadelphia and the hitter-friendly confines of Citizens Bank Park would boost his fantasy value a bit.
o Masahiro Tanaka, New York Yankees
It’s always a risk signing a foreign free agent as the baseline for comparisons is different. In other words, it’s difficult to tell how a star player in Japan or elsewhere will fare in the major leagues as the level of talent is highest in MLB and lower anywhere else. Players like Ichiro Suzuki and Yasiel Puig are on the upper end of the bell curve when it comes to foreign talent. However, it couldn’t have worked out much better for the Yankees as they watched Tanaka burst out of the gate to a 12-4 record with a 2.51 ERA and a 135/19 K/BB ratio in 129 1/3 innings before suffering a partial tear of his UCL.
The Yankees and Tanaka opted for rest and rehabilitation over surgery – something Roy Halladay and Ervin Santana successfully did – and expect him to be a candidate for the American League Cy Young award in 2015. Tanaka is being taken 112th on average in Yahoo leagues, 34 spots after Matt Harvey. At that spot, the Yankees’ right-hander should provide a lot of value even with his injury risk.
o Kris Medlen, Kansas City Royals
Like the Athletics, the Braves suffered a pair of similarly-timed pitching injuries when Medlen and Brandon Beachy both underwent Tommy John surgery in March last year. For Medlen, it’s his second time undergoing the procedure. Referencing Zimmerman’s aforementioned research, limiting the field to two-time TJ surgery recipients reduces the sample size significantly, so it’s tough to say exactly how a second surgery affects a pitcher. In a column for Baseball America last April, J.J. Cooper wrote, “the prognosis doesn’t seem all that different than that of a typical Tommy John surgery recipient.” He added, “it’s likely we’ll see even more two-time surgery survivors going forward.” So, we should expect the typical slight ERA, strikeout and walk declines evident of first-time recipients of the surgery.
The Royals are expecting Medlen to return in the second half of the 2015 season. He’ll be freely available in July and, if he shows his old stuff – an above-average ability to miss bats and pristine control – he’ll be worth grabbing in July in anticipation of his return.
o Brandon Beachy, Los Angeles Dodgers
The right-hander, who just recently inked a deal with the Dodgers, joined Medlen in undergoing his second Tommy John surgery. When he has been healthy, Beachy has been very effective, owning a career 3.23 ERA with a 275/86 K/BB ratio in 267 2/3 innings. And he’s still only 28 years old. Beachy will make his 2015 debut sometime in May or early June if all goes according to plan. If Beachy is able to stay healthy, he should regain considerable fantasy value in the second half of the season.