The battle between pitchers and their UCLs is a common theme in baseball these days. Whether it's high schoolers, college players, or those at the highest of levels, barely a month goes by without hearing about another pitcher going down and needing Tommy John surgery.
Although it is certainly a detriment to the game, and a mentally draining, often excruciating experience for patients (see Shawn Brody’s excellent series on ‘The Tommy John Experience’), through the miracle of modern medicine, players often do recover fully from the procedure.
Below is a look at the pitchers who went under the knife in 2015, may have partially played in the big leagues in 2016 as part of their recovery, and look on track to throw a full workload of innings as what we hope will be close to their full pitching selves.
Yu Darvish, Alex Cobb, Garrett Richards, Lance Lynn, and Zack Wheeler are the five star pitchers slated to return from TJS this season. Each comes with a varied medical history as well as different expectations. Here is a look at how the preseason projections view each starter. For the below chart, FanGraphs Steamer projections are used for the projected innings and fWAR.
|Player||Team||Age||2016 IP||2016 fWAR||2017 Projected IP||2017 Projected fWAR|
|Yu Darvish||TEX||30y 6m||100.1||2.7||195||4.4|
|Alex Cobb||TB||29y 4m||22||-0.1||128||1.7|
|Garrett Richards||LAA||28y 8m||34.2||0.7||145||2.5|
|Lance Lynn||STL||29y 9m||--||--||130||1.9|
|Zack Wheeler||NYM||26y 8m||--||--||71||0.7|
Of the list discussed today, Darvish is clearly the best pitcher of the bunch. With a track record of sustained success on multiple continents, he returned to pretty much true form in his half season in 2016.
Last season Darvish posted his best walk rate (2.78 per nine innings) since entering into the Majors in 2012, and kept up an incredibly high strikeout rate that ranked second among all pitchers with at least 100 innings (only behind the late Jose Fernandez, another TJS patient). Darvish is three years removed from his only 200+ inning season, but he should be able to put in a full season’s workload.
As Darvish goes in 2017, so likely do the Rangers. Texas finished with the best record in the American League despite having only a +8 run differential (very much middle of the pack). The projections are bullish on Darvish and project him for a full starter's workload and a return to his 4.5-win ways. He will be a key player if the Rangers hope to hold off the revamped Astros and Mariners. In a competitive AL West, Darvish holds the keys if Texas is to repeat as division champions.
The Rays had a rough 2016, finishing in the basement of the American League East. Cobb had an equally forgettable year that included a recovery from his May 2015 Tommy John Surgery and about forty innings of rehab across three different levels.
In Cobb’s Major League career, he has never thrown more than 166.1 innings, though he has been effective in posting between two and three wins. While he’s not a high-strikeout flamethrower, he is effective at limiting hard contact (career 29.4 percent hard contact rate) and manages to keep the ball regularly on the ground (56.3 percent ground ball rate).
Prior to his surgery, Cobb was coming into his own as an above-average pitcher who didn’t need to be flashy to be effective. He heavily relies on off-speed pitches, including a sinker and a splitter, supplemented with a curveball. Avoiding 98 MPH four-seamers as well as high-velocity sliders may give Cobb an advantage in his recovery.
The Rays are projected to be a .500 team per FanGraphs Depth Charts. Cobb will likely be on a limited workload, but his 130-150 innings will be crucial for the Rays. Steamer projects Cobb for 128 decent, but not spectacular innings. With his repertoire, he should be able to outperform the modest projection in his recovery year.
Richards is preparing for a full season back in a lackluster Angels rotation. He is pegged as the number one starter for LA despite being projected to pitch only ~150 innings. In his last full season, Richards threw 207 near league-average innings. Although he relies on a 96 MPH four-seam fastball, he doesn’t generate the strikeouts that someone like Darvish does. Richards’ best value is as a good-not-great innings eater. The profile would fit well as a mid-rotation starter, but the Angels simply don’t have the pieces around him to be competitive.
FanGraphs projects the Angels to be an 83-win team, which means in a vacuum, if they get a few breaks, they could make the playoffs. It’s a rosy projection for a team that has little talent to offer outside of the best player in baseball, and whose top pitcher is coming off TJS. Having said that, however, Richards could be the key to their success.
Jeff Sullivan wrote about the importance of Richards not only in the context of the Angels’ 2017 season, but as a test-case for other pitchers with torn UCLs and whether or not they will require surgery.
Lynn’s importance shot up last week amidst the announcement that Alex Reyes, the Cardinals’ 22 year old top prospect, went down with a torn UCL. Lynn will be a key member of the rotation now that St. Louis has to compensate for the loss of the flamethrowing Reyes.
To be able to rely on the usual Lynn line puts the Cardinals in a favorable spot. In his four full seasons (2011 through 2015), Lynn threw at least 175 innings and posted between 2.8 and 3.7 wins above replacement. With strikeout stuff and a propensity to not give up the longball, he is an effective pitcher who can help the Cardinals stay competitive in the National League.
Because he had his surgery in November of 2015, he should not be on too much of an innings limit. Lynn was in the discussion as one of the breakout pitchers in early 2015. Craig Edwards over at FanGraphs even went so far as to compare him to Max Scherzer. While Lynn does not have the power fastball of Scherzer, he does have a career 8.71 K/9 rate.
The Cardinals will be playing second fiddle to the Cubs in 2017, but Lynn’s return to form as a reliable and effective starter can help ease the sting of losing Reyes for the year.
Wheeler is rapidly becoming the ‘has been who never was’. Constantly beset by injuries, Wheeler has not thrown one pitch for the Mets since he posted 185 solid innings in 2014.
Although he averaged over a strikeout per inning in his 32 starts, Wheeler has a big hill to climb to become a reliable starter for Terry Collins’ Mets. The Steamer projection of 12 innings is significantly lower than anyone else on the list, largely because the best predictor of future missed time is previously missed time.
The Mets ought to be competitive even without much help from Wheeler. With one of the strongest one-two punches in baseball (Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom) the Mets showed in 2016 they can be successful without Wheeler. He’d be a great ace in the hole if he can prove he can stay on the field, but with each passing missed start, that is looking less and less likely.