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February 17, 2012

Collateral Damage

The DL Kings: Kelvim Escobar

by Corey Dawkins

Professional athletes expect to suffer injuries at some point in their career regardless of whether they play baseball, football, or lawn darts. In previous installments of the DL Kings, we discussed how hitting prospects Chris Snelling and Alex Escobar did not live up to expectations, in large part because of injuries. We also looked at how Justin Duchscherer, who had some success in the majors,dealt with multiple surgeries on each hip (among other injuries). Kelvim Escobar, the next pitcher on our list, also had major-league success like Duchscherer, but he took a different road to the DL Kings’ throne.

The right-handed Escobar signed as a free agent with Toronto in 1992; he joined a system that also included Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay. Toronto had a reputation for being aggressive with the handling of their younger pitchers, which was noted in the 1997 edition of Baseball Prospectus:

Escobar is a young Venezuelan pitcher who exemplifies the Blue Jays’ approach to pushing some of their pitchers hard. He skipped Hagerstown to start last season, having only pitched in the rookie leagues beforehand, and despite that earned a promotion to Knoxville. He mixes a 90+ fastball and a split-fingered fastball he uses as his changeup. Despite the speed with which he’s moved up, he hasn’t really thrown many innings or racked up high pitch counts.

Escobar’s first significant injury occurred in March 1997, when he needed surgery to clean out bone chips in his right elbow. Although we can’t definitively say that “x” number of pitches or innings leads to one particular injury, that Escobar was injured after throwing more innings in 1996 than he did in the previous two years combined is not necessarily surprising. Nowadays, such an innings jump would be considered sacrilegious, but despite the workload concerns, Escobar bounced back from the operation and was used as a starter in the minors before being called up to Toronto midyear. After being used in long relief his first two appearances, he became the closer after Mike Timlin was ineffective.

That success, however, was short lived. Escobar had so much difficulty in the first few months of the 1998 season that he may have preferred to be cut open again rather than go on struggling. In the end, he did not go under the knife, but he was ineffective before and after an April stint on the disabled list for elbow inflammation. With the signing of Randy Myers, Escobar was demoted to the role of set-up man; at the end of May, he was sent back to the minors.

At Triple-A Syracuse, Escobar was shifted back into a starting role, and he had some success, posting a 3.77 ERA in 10 starts (13 games overall). He was brought back to Toronto in August, where he replaced the recently-traded Juan Guzman. Escobar continued his success, surrendering only three more runs over his 10 starts than he did in his 12 relief appearances.

The Blue Jays were in the hunt for the wild card so they had to get everything they could out of Escobar. Manager Tim Johnson pushed his starter more than he should have. In his first eight starts after being recalled, Escobar averaged 120 pitches per start, which prompted criticism soon after Toronto fell behind in the race.

Escobar remained healthy throughout spring and the regular season of the following year. Unfortunately, that’s the best thing that can be said because he was again ineffective, posting a 5.69 ERA and 4.71 FIP in 174 innings. The 2000 edition of Baseball Prospectus mentioned that Escobar ranked second in the majors in workload despite only having 10 starts, and that in 1999 he lacked the dominating fastball that he had previously possessed. After the season ended, right shoulder tendinitis kept Escobar out of winter ball. A troublesome injury, perhaps, but at least Escobar was able to get the rest he needed.

Escobar switched his role from starter to reliever constantly between 2000 and 2003, but Escobar remained healthy during his last several years in Toronto. While he did have recurring issues with cracked fingernails, he did not miss any significant time. Given the earlier concern with his workload, observers were pleased to deal with cracked fingernails, and not something much worse.

Escobar signed with the Angels for three years and 18.75 million as a free agent at the end of the 2003 season. By moving to the Angels, he eliminated the back and forth between the bullpen and rotation, and responded by setting career highs in innings, strikeouts, and his strikeout to walk ratio.

Had it ended there, Escobar wouldn’t register on even the top 100 list of the DL Kings—he hadn’t been on the disabled list since 2001—but, unfortunately, that wasn’t the case, and his decline started in the spring of 2005. Soreness and tightness in his shoulder limited him at the start of spring training, and elbow soreness followed after his last exhibition start. Escobar was diagnosed with elbow inflammation and placed on the disabled list to start the season.

Escobar was activated from the DL in April, but he managed only four starts before he was diagnosed with bone spurs in his elbow, landing him right back on the 15-day DL. Escobar attempted the rest-and-rehab approach, and was activated in time to make a May 28th start, but he only managed three starts before realizing that, while you can pitch with a bone spur in your elbow, you can’t pitch very effectively when said spur is painful and inflamed. The operation to shave down the bone spur kept him out for about three months, and while he pitched well upon his return, he couldn’t hide the fact that he missed 129 days in 2005.

Escobar was healthier in 2006 than he had been in the previous year, but he still ended up on the disabled list for elbow inflammation in July. Repeated inflammation around an elbow is concerning, but it’s not unheard of to have that inflammation the season following surgery. He only missed 15 days in 2006, leading to the notion that his injury woes were behind him.

Escobar signed a three-year extension with the Angels in May 2006, but the return on this contract would not be as high as previous ones. He started the 2007 season on the disabled list with a sore shoulder; he was activated near the end of April. Escobar stayed healthy throughout most of the year, but was bothered by his shoulder towards the end of the season. He had suffered from shoulder tendinitis and soreness before, but this was the first time it happened that often, and for that length of time in the same season.

The shoulder soreness might have been taken as a warning: shoulder soreness that began during spring training in 2008 eventually turned into surgery to repair a torn labrum in July. Escobar lost 200 days to the injury—more than the entire season—and had now entered DL Kings territory.

The following season was not much better for Escobar. He managed just one start on June 6th, but continued pain in that shoulder landed him on the disabled list for the rest of the year. He underwent an MRI by Dr. Lewis Yocum which did not reveal any new damage. Escobar spent the remainder of the season rehabilitating the shoulder, and missed 204 days, including the Angels’ playoff run.

The Mets took a flier on Escobar in December 2009 in hopes they could get anything out of Escobar’s shoulder. In camp it became apparent that Escobar’s shoulder was not strong enough and would not make it through a season. Escobar was placed on the disabled list at the season’s start; he had second surgery on the same shoulder in May to repair a torn anterior capsule. He lost the entire season, missing 192 days, and upping his grand total to 755 days.

Escobar is second on the list of DL Kings largely because of one problematic injury: shoulder instability. Unlike the other examples we have discussed so far, Escobar didn’t have several different injuries. Even though most remember Duchscherer’s troublesome hips, he also had his back, elbow, and a biceps strain on his résumé. Escobar, however, only had two issues. The first was the bone spur in his elbow that resulted in inflammation and surgery; costing him about 20 percent of his 755 missed-day total. The real killer, however, was Escobar’s shoulder—the labrum deteriorated over time, in part because of the instability, with the injured capsule also playing a role. Most of the time, repairing the labrum is enough to get the shoulder stable enough to prevent further injury, but this doesn’t always happen, and it’s one of the reasons shoulder surgeries still have lower success rates than Tommy John procedures. Sometimes, it only takes one or two injuries to derail a career, something that Escobar can, unfortunately, tell us first hand.
 

Corey Dawkins is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Corey's other articles. You can contact Corey by clicking here

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