Roy Oswalt’s Back Scare

After only throwing 37 pitches through two innings, Roy Oswalt left his start last night due to back soreness. This is definitely disappointing news for the Phillies’ starter, considering he’s already had one DL stint this year as a result of back pain, but I have to say, I wasn’t expecting this sort of a quote from him after the game:

“I’m going to do what’s best for the team, if I can’t pitch, I can’t pitch,” Oswalt said. “I’m not going to keep going out there and keep being a liability for the bullpen to have to pick me up. If it’s gotten to that point, it’s gotten to that point.”

Woh! Talk about retirement? Doesn’t that seem just a leetle bit extreme?

As it turns out, possibly not.

Oswalt has been talking about retiring after the 2011 season for years now — and he hinted as such before this season started — so it’s not as though retirement is far from his mind. Unlike other players, who can hang around the majors for years chasing after money and the Hall of Fame, Oswalt seems to derive his enjoyment of the game from the competition — and if he can no longer compete on the highest level, why stick around?

Not only that, but his back injury could be worse than mere “tightness.” An MRI earlier this season showed that he has two degenerated discs in his lower back, and he claims to feel pain no matter what he’s doing: “sitting, standing, walking, pitching, or sleeping.”  One of my close friends has dealt with chronic back pain for the past five years, and it’s easily one of the most persistent and painful injuries that you can have. You don’t realize how much stress we put on our spines until you have a constant reminder jabbing at you every second of the day.

There’s no way of knowing how much pain Oswalt is in — and how badly he wants to keep playing — but I want to focus on the second part of his quote: “I’m not going to keep going out there and keep being a liability for the bullpen to have to pick me up.” Since when did posting a 3.79 ERA and 3.80 FIP make anyone a “liability”?

There’s no denying that this has probably been Oswalt’s worst season of his career. His strikeout rate is at an all-time low (5.3 K/9) and he’s only getting batters to swing and miss on around 7% of his pitches, so his FIP and xFIP both sit at career highs. But that speaks more to how good Oswalt has been over his career; he still has a 2.3 K/BB ratio and a high groundball rate (48%), and his 3.79 ERA doesn’t look unsustainably low. His fastball velocity may be down this season, but he hasn’t lost his command (2.3 BB/9) and he’s mixing in his changeup more often, keeping hitters off-balance. Sure, Oswalt with a bad back isn’t as good as he used to be, but this version of himself can still compete in the majors at a high level.

Oswalt has an MRI scheduled for Monday, and if his injury turns out to be somewhat serious, there’s really no way to tell how he’ll react. At 33-years-old, he’s still young enough to have surgery, rehab, and come back to pitch in the majors for a few season, but will he want to do that? Judging from what he’s been saying, probably not.

One thing is for certain, though: Oswalt can still compete. He’s an above average pitcher, even with his back, so he shouldn’t sell himself short. The Phillies are blessed with enough rotation depth that they can let him have an extended DL-stint to get better, so I’d hate to see him end his career so abruptly. Stick around a bit longer, Roy — you’ve still got it.




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Steve is the editor-in-chief of DRaysBay and the keeper of the FanGraphs Library. You can follow him on Twitter at @steveslow.


22 Responses to “Roy Oswalt’s Back Scare”

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  1. zach says:

    Just looking at his season fip and era don’t do his recent struggles justice. His Arizona start was the beginning, he’s struggled since then

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  2. OremLK says:

    He’s been dealing with the degenerated disc problem since 2009 in Houston (you’ll note that 2009 was the second-worst season of his career). Several cortisone shots chased it away temporarily for 2010, but now it seems to have returned with a vegneance.

    I don’t know if surgery is even a viable option for this problem–I feel like I have read in the past that core strengthening and coritisone shots are about the only reliable methods of managing it, but I could be incorrect on that count.

    Regardless, he isn’t the type of chase a spot in the Hall of Fame or squeeze every penny he can out of the game. He just likes to compete and win, and I’ve gotten the impression that he’s only been hanging on for a couple more shots at the World Series before he retires. I do expect him to at least try to deal with the back problem enough to help the Phillies in the postseason, assuming they make it there, but after that I wouldn’t be surprised if he does just what he’s been saying all along and retires.

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  3. Heyward says:

    He was placed on the DL today before the MRI

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  4. Antonio Bananas says:

    What is Philly gonna do with him and Hamels in the offseason is what I wanna know. Lots of money already tied up, Hamels is probably looking for a $100M contract, Oswalt will be affordable if his struggles keep. Will he even be worth it? Gotta imagine he’d be wanting at least 4 years.

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    • jim says:

      4 years? the dude is seriously considering retirement NOW, what are you, insane?

      going year-to-year like hiroki kuroda has been with the dodgers doesnt seem outside the realm of plausibility

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    • hk says:

      Philly will sign Hamels to a long-term deal and decline Oswalt’s option. When they acquired Oswalt last year, they probably thought they’d keep him through 2012, but when they signed Lee this offseason, that thought probably changed. Blanton is signed for next year and Worley seems capable of holding down the 5th slot, so declining his option and Ibanez coming off the books will help them partially absorb the big increase in Lee’s salary from this year to next and the start of Howard’s ill-fated contract extension. Their front office is lucky that they (a) pretty much print money and (b) have a top 5 rated list of prospects, because those factors combine to help reduce the impact of a lot of questionable decisions made by Amaro.

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      • Antonio Bananas says:

        So, when 60% of those prospects are failures and only about 10% (so like 1) are really good, but they have 100M locked up in Lee, Halladay, Hamels, and Howard, and they’ve had a few seasons where they aren’t the darlings of the NL and their payroll is down you still think they’ll be good?

        I think you’re overrating their farm system too. Top 10 for sure, but I just did a google search “2011 farm system rankings” and most have them 7-9. Their system has a lot of raw tools, some good prospects like Singleton, and then Brown who is a concensus top guy. I think Brown is overrated personally. I think he’ll be good, Adam Jones maybe, but not someone who will save a team that has 70 million dollars towards pitchers, 2 of which well past their prime, and a first baseball who’s value (power) is declining and Ks a lot.

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      • Antonio Bananas says:

        I was wrong about assuming how much Oswalt will want. However, my point still stands that they’ll have a lot of money locked up in either pitchers (a very fickle position by nature), old pitchers (even more fickle), or Ryan Howard, a guy obviously on the way down.

        They’ll have to consistently have a legitimate top 5 farm and not make any free agent mistakes to keep this up.

        I honestly don’t think they care though. They’ve been very good for about 5 years now and are really good now. If I were a Phillies fan, it’d be worth it to win another title even if they are mediocre from 2013-2016.

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      • hk says:

        Antonio,

        You’re right about the system in that they were consistently (Fangraphs, Keith Law, Baseball America) top 5 before the season, but now that Dom Brown has had enough AB’s that he is no longer considered a prospect, they have dropped to top 10, but not top 5. And, of course, most of their prospects won’t pan out. However, some will pan out, which will enable them to fill some slots cheaply, and others will probably be traded before we find out whether or not they pan out.

        As far as 2013 is concerned, they’ll have $100M committed to Halladay, Lee, Hamels, Howard and Utley, which will leave them $80M or so to fill the other 20 spots. For comparison purposes, the Braves, the Phillies’ current main divisional competition, will have $13M committed to Dan Uggla and have about $80M to spend to fill 24 spots. Don’t underestimate the ability to spend $180M on payroll…it helps overcome a lot of front office mistakes. Watch out if the Phillies ever get a competent GM.

        Finally, while it is appropriate to assume Halladay and Lee will begin to lose some effectiveness in their age 36 and age 35 seasons, it is not a reach to assume that they’ll still make for a formidable top 3 with Hamels. It’s hard enough to project to 2013 that I won’t even bother looking at 2014. Too much will happen with injuries, transactions, prospects, etc. to even worry about three years from now.

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      • Antonio Bananas says:

        you keep using the 180M payroll that they’ve had one year. They’ve only had it this year. That won’t last. When they stop being consistent world series contenders, that number goes down. Don’t assume just because they spent 180M this year that they can or will do that every year. Even the Red Sox don’t spend that much and they’ve been way more successful over the last 10 years.

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      • Antonio Bananas says:

        They said they’ve pretty much maxed out their payroll at 180M. Which means that after however many consecutive sellouts, after NLCS appearances, a World Title, big transactions to increase interest, etc (basically the peak of interest) they maxed out their resources at 180M. so there is no savings, the Rays saved up so they could sign all their draft picks this year. Next year, Philly will use whatever money they have available next year. If they go deep in the playoffs again, maybe that’s again 170-180M. Once they start to taper off though, once they’re no longer at that peak, it won’t be 180M. Especially if they keep using up all resources every year without saving.

        However, as I said, right now they have such a great opportunity to win, and have been winning for about 5 years, that it doesn’t matter. If I’m a Phillies fan I want them to use up every dime now and not worry about 2013 and beyond.

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  5. zach says:

    Oswalt 4 years?! Not a chance. If he has anything left in the tank, I could see him agreeing to a team-friendly 2 year deal. Or retiring

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  6. Raj says:

    It wouldn’t surprise me if he’s out for well over a month, perhaps even the season. He has played through these back issues before and pitched effectively…not so much anymore. I suppose it was only a matter of time before they caught up to him.

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  7. jim says:

    48.6 WAR… he’d never get in the hall, but that’s definitely borderline

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  8. mgonzo777 says:

    I don’t think it’s time to have the put a fork in Roy Oswalt conversation. This is a very treatable back condition that does not require surgery but it will take some time to let the irritation calm down and strengthen up the core muscles to keep his back from flaring up again. Roy doesn’t look like the workout type so maybe he doesn’t exercise as much as he should to stay on top of his back condition. This is the kind of thing you have to work at everyday to be as pain free as possible. Oswalt’s rescue trip to Mississippi was the absolute worst thing he could have done for his back. I’m sure he did all kinds of awkward heavy lifting and he said he sat in his bulldozer for hours at a time clearing wreckage which is murder on a lower back condition.

    He’ll probably be out for a month or so rehabbing his back but he can definitely come back from this healthy, and once his arm gets stretched out, he might even touch 95 again. This is all contingent on the results of his MRI of course. If any of his discs have torn or bulged his back condition will be a whole different animal.

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  9. bender says:

    It would remind me a little of when Randy Johnson retired while still having a lot of talent.

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  10. CircleChange11 says:

    Oswalt is one of the most beautiful drop and drive type pitchers. Look at a picture of his mechanics when he front foot has landed and his forearm is vertical (throwing arm).

    He is incredibly low, lower back arched, lots of torque. Now, imagine being in that position with some bad discs.

    Dude has incredible hip/core strength to be able to pitch out of that position.

    I hope this isn’t the end for him. But given his mechanics, a back problem could be a very big deal. On the other hand, if it’s discomfort all of the time he may just say “gonna hurt anyway, might as well pitch”.

    Oswalt is flat out a stud. From demeanor to skill to big games. There’s a lot to like about the guy.

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  11. JamesDaBear says:

    Oswalt wasn’t making a judgment on his ability to pitch. He thinks he’s a liability to the pen because his team can’t rely on him to pitch deep into games. Hard to fault his logic there.

    Can Oswalt come back as a reliever and help his team win a World Series that way?

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  12. mgonzo777 says:

    Well the MRI came back showing slightly bulging discs and stiff facet joints. They are going to shoot Roy up with some steroids and pain killers to loosen up the facet joints and calm his back down. Then he is going to probably do a few weeks of physical therapy to strengthen up his core and if then he is able to, go off on a rehab assignment. The big problem for Oswalt is that this has gone past the “deal with pain” stage as the discs are putting pressure on his nerves and he feels it in his legs now. This is causing muscle weakness and spasms and Todd Helton is a perfect example of how this condition can sap athletic ability. So his ability to pitch is definitely in question now.

    Power comes from the legs and if Oswalt can’t plant his feet and drive off the mound without his legs giving out he will be no good to the Phillies either as a reliever or a starter. The doctors told him that his discs are going to rupture at some point but I think they are just explaining the worst case scenario if he pitches with untreated bulging discs. If he puts a band-aid on this thing and tries to be a hero he is going to get hurt again, except much worse. Roy and the Phillies should really play it safe and keep him out for more than a month because bulging discs can recede if given ample time, and if he gets his back in a good enough place, Oswalt can manage the back irritation that he will receive when he starts pitching again. There is also the outside chance his back could also be much worse than anybody is letting on and he might need surgery anyways after trying non-surgical treatment.

    Roy has a $16 million club option next year so it’s going to come down to whether he wants to play for another contract or lay it all out for this year. He also has to think about living a life of agony if he really screws up his back. The guy’s still got it. He could be an excellent pitcher for another four or five years if healthy.

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