When news broke on Wednesday of Adam Wainwright‘s season-ending injury, it obviously was quite distressing news for Cardinals fans. Not only was Wainwright the ace of the Cardinals’ pitching staff, but the Cardinals are projected to be thick in the race for the NL Central, making his contributions all the more valuable. While Wainwright isn’t costing the Cardinals much this season, the list of pitchers that will be competing to replace him isn’t anything to get excited about. If I were a Cardinals fan, I’d be watching this video over and over and over again, drowning my sorrows in fond memories and root beer.
But Wainwright’s injury isn’t traumatic only for Cardinals fans: no matter what team you root for, this news is frightening. Wainwright is a relatively young pitcher (entering his age 29 season) and he’s pitched 230 innings each of the previous two years. He’s been a perennial Cy Young contender, and never had significant arm issues before. If this sort of an injury can happen to him, well, who isn’t at risk?
This is probably old news for the majority of FanGraphs readers, but this point can’t be driven home often enough: pitchers are fickle creatures that are always at risk for an injury.
Jeff Zimmerman’s been doing some ground-breaking work on injury projections for pitchers, and according to his numbers, even the most durable pitchers are still 30% likely to come down with an injury in any one season. This number might seem high at first – there are players like Roy Halladay and Greg Maddux (selection bias!) – but pitching is an unnatural act that pushes our bodies and shoulders literally to their breaking point. Our bodies simply weren’t built to hurl a 5 ounce ball over 90 MPH, not to mention add spin to the ball by twisting the arm. And this isn’t a just a matter of doing this once or twice: major league pitchers have thrown thousands of pitches before they even reach the majors.
As such, pitchers are treated with care and caution every step of the way. Teams rarely invest large chunks of money in pitchers; in fact, of the 26 players in major league history to receive a contract of $100M or greater, only 6 of these players have been pitchers.* “Joba Rules” are created to keep promising young pitchers from flaming out, while teams try to avoid the “Verducci Effect” by slowly increasing a pitcher’s innings total from season to season.
And yet despite all this caution, pitchers still flame out. Joba Chamberlain got injured despite the best efforts of the Yankees, and young pitchers fail so frequently that the common refrain is “There’s No Such Things As A Pitching Prospect” (TINSTAAPP). Pitchers don’t age the same way position players do: while position players typically peak at age 27-30 and slowly decline afterward, pitchers don’t follow any average path. Some peak at age 23 and rapidly fall of a cliff, while others are mediocre for their entire career before bursting out in their mid-30s.
Adam Wainwright’s injury stinks for Cardinals fans, but it should be heeded by other fanbases as a well. Giving large contracts to pitchers before they reach free agency is unnecessary; heck, if I were a General Manager, I’d be leery of giving any pitcher more than a four year contract. What would happen if your ace got injured? How confident are you that they’ll keep producing at this level? Could they go the way of Scott Kazmir or Mark Fidrych? These aren’t just questions Cardinals fans should be asking: they’re questions all baseball fans should keep in mind.
*The six pitchers to receive contracts greater than $100M? C.C. Sabathia, Johan Santana, Barry Zito, Mike Hampton, Cliff Lee, and Kevin Brown. Both Brown and Hampton had injury issues during the length of their contract, while Santana’s had recent issues as well. Not a great track record, no?
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