A few weeks back, I talked a bit about holding or targeting players with season long injuries in ottoneu leagues. The idea in that piece was to treat injured players like Prospects – you can’t be sure when they will be back, nor can you be confident in how they will perform.
When players are underpriced (say you have a $1 Patrick Corbin), you might as well hold them (or target them in trades). But when prices rise to more typical levels (say a $10 Corbin), there may be a different path forward, particularly for pitchers returning from Tommy John surgery.
This piece by Eno Sarris covers a few issues that suggest that the best time to buy a pitcher coming back from his season off.
The focus of the article is on Indians’ phenom Danny Salazar, who was held out of game action for a full year after his surgery. But Eno throws out a couple interesting stats. One is that pitchers who come back sooner than that have not had a great history when it comes to staying healthy. Maybe Brandon Beachy and Daniel Hudson would have gotten hurt again regardless, but there is at least a chance that the early return was a problem.
Next, Eno mentions an article in the 2013 Hardball Times Annual that discussed pitchers returning from Tommy John surgery. Eno notes that pitchers see their strikeout and walk rates both get about 5% worse in their first year back, then turn back to their career norms by the following season.
What that tells me is that, unless you can get a big discount on a pitcher returning from surgery, the best time to target them is at least midway through (or perhaps even after) their first season back.
First of all, you eliminate a big period of risk – let another owner buy in before the guy has thrown a pitch and let that owner suffer the risk of the repeat injury. Second, you can watch for the 5% worse K and BB rates in that first season back. Even if the pitcher pitches well, if those rates don’t match career norms, you have good reason to believe that they will improve the following season.
What that means is that you can, theoretically, “overpay” based on the pitcher’s current performance, confident that they will be even better in year two.
Let’s look at Adam Wainwright as an example. In his first year back from surgery, Wainwright walked 2.36 per 9 IP. He pitched very well, but his 2013 was even better – largely thanks to a decline in BB/9 to 1.30. Had you been able to get Wainwright for a low price in 2012, that would have been great. But had he gone for full price, despite the return, you could have waited, made a move to trade for him before the deadline or in the off-season, and gotten an even better pitcher than you paid for.
The downside, of course, is that you are outsourcing the risk which means you are limiting your profit. The biggest profits come when the biggest risks pay off. Sure, getting a $30 player who is about to be a $35 player is great, but getting a $5 player who is about to be a $35 player is even better. So the question you have to ask yourself is how risk averse you are feeling.
If you can afford the risk (and if the discount is big enough), I still recommend grabbing a player while they are away. If you would rather have the sure-thing, wait until the guy re-establishes himself in his first year back, and then target him as a player likely to improve the next season.
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