Baseball without injured aces? Be careful what you wish for

BySam Miller ESPN logo
Friday, May 5, 2017

There aren't many good days in the war on pitcher injuries, but Monday was particularly bleak.

Noah Syndergaard headlined the damage, as the Mets' 24-year-old ace was diagnosed with a partial tear of his right lat, which could keep him sidelined for three months. Syndergaard is, physically, the perfect pitching machine: He throws harder than any other starting pitcher, out of a massive frame, with control so good he hadn't walked a batter in 2017 before his injury-compromised start Sunday. Now he's hurt and you can't watch him.

But what made Monday so striking was the sheer range of casualties. Toronto's Aaron Sanchez, a 24-year-old who won the AL's ERA crown last year, was put on the DL with a split fingernail -- just about the smallest and stupidest body part that can break. The Angels' Tyler Skaggs, a tantalizing 25-year-old whose development has been slowed by a series of injuries, was announced to be out 10 to 12 weeks with an oblique strain. Boston's Steven Wright, a knuckleballing All-Star who performs his job with less physical exertion than some bullpen coaches, was deactivated because of a knee sprain (and, as we found out Thursday, will miss the rest of the season). Perpetually injured Dodger Hyun-Jin Ryu, who finally clawed back into action after missing almost two entire years with shoulder injuries, was put on the DL with a hip injury. Even Ginny Baker, of the fictional Fox drama "Pitch,"was told her career was over; the last thing she did before the show's cancellation was grab her elbow in pain in the middle of a no-hit bid.

It's gray skies over every good pitcher you can spot. But there's an awkward silver lining here -- very awkward, super awkward:

Baseball kind of needs these injuries.

There's a broad consensus that the way baseball is played in 2017 is aesthetically dull. There are great things about the sport, plenty of things that are better now than they were 10 or 100 years ago, but baseball's agonized-over pace-of-play problem is as much about the play as the pace. The league sets strikeout records every year, in part because pitchers throw harder every year, in part because bullpens are loaded with even more dominant one-inning relievers every year. Some 111 relievers struck out at least a batter per inning in 2016 -- almost four per team -- compared to nine leaguewide in 1992. More strikeouts mean a more stationary game, less action, less ball-in-play time, less Andrelton Simmons. More strikeouts also mean deeper counts, more pitches per plate appearance and more incentive for batters to try to draw walks, a game-lengthening feedback loop. As it is, there are simply too many good pitchers for a 30-team league.

Over the course of baseball history, expansion has been one of the most reliable correctives to unrestrained pitching dominance. (Rules changes and physical adjustments to the mound, the ball, etc. are the others.) Offense generally goes up in expansion. Modern baseball is a game managed around pitching attrition, and expanding the player pool seems to always bring more bad pitchers into the game than bad hitters -- for a few years, at least, before pitching catches back up.

It's been two decades since baseball's last expansion, but rising injury rates have essentially acted as a de facto expansion. In 1998 -- the first season with 30 teams -- 1,186 players appeared in the majors. Last year, with those same 30 teams, there were a record 1,353 players. Changes in strategy and team-building are part of that growth, but so, too, are more crowded disabled lists. Since 2010, absences leaguewide are up almost 50 percent,and injuries to pitchers are an especially big part of it, because pitchers don't get injured the way hitters do.

According to disabled list data kept by FanGraphs writer Jeff Zimmerman, pitchers spent about 23,000 days on the DL in 2016. That's 64 percent of all DL absences, almost twice as many missing days as position players. If pitchers took up exactly half of the league's roster spots (they're generally slightly less) and got injured at exactly the same rates that hitters do, they'd have collectively spent 10,000 fewer days on the DL last year. In effect, there were 10,000 days spent in the majors by pitchers who you might say weren't qualified to be there.

Let's say we agree that hitters get hurt at an acceptable rate and we strive to get pitchers down to that same rate. Imagine if we could cut every pitcher's DL stint by 44 percent. What would baseball look like?

We'd have to make a lot of assumptions to get to an answer, but it'd probably be something scary. As one example: The Dodgers last year had a 3.70 ERA, fifth best in the National League. More impressively, they struck out 9.4 batters per nine innings, an MLB record. (In the 20th century, only one individual pitcher had struck out so many over an entire career: Nolan Ryan. Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton never struck out so many in even a single season.)

The Dodgers also lost a lot of pitching to the disabled list. Cut each of those injuries by 44 percent, and they'd have had about 42 more innings of Clayton Kershaw, rather than those same 42 innings from Bud Norris. They'd have had around 100 more innings from Rich Hill and Ryu rather than 80 innings from Brock Stewart, Mike Bolsinger, Jose De Leon and Nick Tepesch. They would have had the equivalent of a full extra season from Scott Kazmir, Brandon McCarthy, Alex Wood and Brett Anderson. Due to the Dodgers' new rotation depth, those extra innings from our healthy KazMcCarthWoodSon monster might come in the bullpen, where even mediocre starters often turn into acesand where strikeout rates go up about 17 percent.

The ripples of this adjustment would go outward from there. Norris, Bolsinger et al would, presumably, find jobs on teams with even worse pitchers on their staffs, lifting the replacement level across the league. Managers with deeper bullpens could keep their starters on even shorter leashes. That would let starters exert more effort on each pitch, and it might lower scoring in the fifth and sixth innings, when scoring goes up as batters face tiring starting pitchers for the third time. With even more healthy, quality relievers to go around, teams could play matchups more often, less concerned about burning relievers. And pitchers could pitch for the strikeout even more than they do now, less concerned about pitch counts with almost unlimited good pitchers behind them. Bad pitching taxes pitching staffs; good pitching, on the other hand, begets more good pitching.

We can take this trickle-down effect leaguewide. Almost 300 pitchers appeared on the DL last year, presumably filled in for by "replacement level" understudies, who allow (as starters) about 19 percent more runs than the average pitcher. If we could go back and cut the time missed by 44 percent, and assume these pitchers would have pitched as well as preseason forecasts had projected for each of them, the league would have allowed about 550 fewer runs last year -- a drop of about 2.5 percent, just by making active pitchers only as injury prone as hitters.

But that considerably undersells how much pitcher injuries affect the game, because it limits the adjustment to active pitchers -- the ones who show up in our DL data set. Brandon Webb, for instance, isn't in our data set. But Webb, long retired because of injuries, is only 37 years old right now. Mark Prior is only 36. Johan Santana is only 38. These are pitchers who seemed destined for the Hall of Fame before injuries at the height of their greatness simply ended their careers. Some unknown number of Brandon Webbs, Mark Priors and Johan Santanas suffered similar fates before they ever made it to the majors. There might plausibly be scores -- maybe more! -- of pitchers born between 1976 and 1996 who were capable of shutting down major leaguers but who were removed from our data set because of a shoulder injury suffered when they were 27, or 23, or 19, or 15.

Then there's Anderson. The same day Syndergaard, Sanchez and the rest were added to the disabled list, Anderson started for the Cubs. Anderson was once one of the best young pitchers in the game. At 22, he had a 2.80 ERA in the majors, but that same year he missed time with his first elbow injury. In the eight years since then, he often seemed like the classic good-or-hurt pitcher, usually unavailable, but tantalizing when healthy. But such pitchers might not exist, or if they do,they might not exist for long; soon enough, they're either hurt or compromised.

Anderson didn't make it out of the second inning for the Cubs. Since the start of 2016, he has appeared in only nine games, with an ERA of 8.18. As with Matt Cain and Homer Bailey and Tim Lincecum and Matt Moore and Anibal Sanchez and Matt Harvey, it's not just the days on the disabled list, but the degradation those injuries produced that have taken something special from us. On a day when we saw five talented big league arms added to disabled lists, it was arguably Anderson who most clearly demonstrated how much offense pitching injuries add to the game.

This sounds like a case that injuries are good. They're not. They're cruel and unfair, and we hate them. Injuries are asymmetrical, affecting some careers all the way and others not at all. They are often terrifyingly arbitrary. They ruin countless young players -- kids, too -- killing dreams and erasing potential. I'd rather see a more boring version of baseball than see talented 22-year-olds forced to retire.

Major League Baseball and its teams want to win the war on pitching injuries, for good (and also financial) reasons. If they do, the sport will be kinder and fairer, and we will all be relieved of the feeling of dread whenever we watch someone as physically powerful as Syndergaard entertaining us. It will also be, by what appears to be a broad consensus, more boring, less offensive, more strikeout-heavy, more static. At some point in the next few decades, either the dream of reducing pitching injuries will die, or the game might have a new problem on its hands.

Related Video