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December 27, 2012

Overthinking It

Handicapping the Injury-Prone Pitchers of 2013

by Ben Lindbergh

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There comes a point in every fantasy draft when one owner drafts a particular player at a certain position—shortstop, let’s say—which reminds every other owner that they also need a shortstop and that there are only so many good ones left to go around. The ensuing collective hysteria causes a run on anyone eligible at that position, and by the time the league comes to its senses, Clint Barmes is the only shortstop still standing.

That’s essentially what happened on the Friday before Christmas, except with injury-prone starting pitchers. On Friday morning, the Twins signed Rich Harden. On Friday afternoon, determined not to be locked out of the injury-prone-pitcher market, the Indians signed Scott Kazmir and the Mariners followed suit by signing Jeremy Bonderman. (Brandon Webb is still somewhere on the board.) Realistically, except for their fingerprints, not much ties the current Kazmir, Harden, and Bonderman to the versions who had success several seasons ago. But the names are still notable, and the faces are still familiar, so we can't help but wonder whether the stuff might still be similar too.

Each agreement adhered to the same structure: a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training. We could have done Transaction Analysis entries on all three signings, but those would’ve adhered the same structure, too: if the injury-prone pitcher proves to be healthy and anywhere near as effective as he was at one time, the signing is a steal; if not, it's no skin off the team’s teeth. You don’t need us to tell you that once, let alone multiple times. For that, there’s Twitter:

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(Those go on for many more pages.)

So instead, let’s ask a question, inspired by a similar one Sam Miller asked in March: If you had to bet on Rich Harden, Jeremy Bonderman, or Scott Kazmir to win more games from today until the end of the world, on which pitcher would you bet? At the start of last season, Sam played this game with a slightly younger Scott Kazmir, Mark Prior, and Jamie Moyer, who combined for a grand total of two wins in 2012 (both from Moyer, who was Sam’s selection). That’s a low bar for this year’s crop of low-risk, possibly-some-sort-of-reward pitchers to clear, but there’s still a good chance that they’re not going to clear it.

Your First Answer: Jeremy Bonderman
When we last saw Jeremy Bonderman, in 2010, he was (WARP-wise) the third-worst pitcher in baseball. The winter after that season, he tore his UCL while working out, and according to the Seattle Times’ Geoff Baker, “he decided to take the year off and see what happened.” What happened, predictably, was that he went a year without pitching and, at the end of that year, continued to have a torn UCL. So last April, he had Tommy John surgery, and now he’s back in our brains, at least briefly.

The most surprising part of Bonderman's comeback is that he's only 30 years old, despite debuting a decade ago. (Even at age 20, and without an inning of experience above High-A, Bonderman was roughly as effective as the typical 2003 Tiger.) But the best part of Bonderman’s comeback is that the Mariners didn’t see him pitch before signing him. And they couldn’t have heard how he pitched secondhand, since no one else saw him pitch either. He didn’t work out for anyone and hasn’t had his velocity measured. So now we know what the minimum qualification is to receive an invitation to spring training: you have to have once been a baseball player.

In Baseball Prospectus 2007, we wrote, “Bonderman is as good a bet as any pitcher in the American League to win a Cy Young Award,” Johan Santana aside, but he hasn’t been effective since the first half of that season. In July of 2007, Bonderman’s four-seamer averaged 94.7 miles per hour, and he struck out over eight batters per nine innings. In retrospect, it looks like the 29th of that month is when Bonderman broke: his fastball velo dropped significantly from his previous start, and he allowed 11 runs in 2 1/3 innings. Over the eight subsequent starts he made before hitting the DL in September with “pinched lateral cartilage” in his elbow, his four-seamer averaged 91.9 mph, and his strikeout rate fell to 5.6 per nine, where it would stay for the next three seasons as his velo fell even further. Suddenly, he was a slow-throwing, non-grounder-getting, pitch-to-contact type, when he pitched at all.

On July 24th, 2007, Bonderman was one of the best young pitchers in baseball. Five days later, he was done, though no one knew it yet. If I were a pitcher, I’d sign a team-friendly extension so fast and so team-friendly I’d make Evan Longoria look greedy.

Now Bonderman has a new ligament and, theoretically, a new lease on major-league life. The odds are this life will last only as long as it takes him to show up in camp and get hit hard a few times. Oliver Perez succeeded in Seattle at the same age last season, but until we see him in action, Bonderman is the easy choice for least likely to win any games going forward. And if things don’t work out with Seattle, he can get right back to his busy post-playing career:

[Bonderman] hasn’t really done anything outside the game in the time he’s been sidelined.

“I guess I’ll have to find something else to do, eventually,” he said with a chuckle.

“On the other hand, I could just keep living off the $41 million I made by the time I was 27 because I used to be able to throw a baseball hard,” he added, chuckling slightly louder.

He didn’t actually say that last sentence, but he had to be thinking it.

Your Second Answer: Scott Kazmir
Sam summed up how bad Kazmir was from 2010-11 in his article, but some of the stats bear repeating. In 2010, his last substantial season in the majors, Kazmir posted a 5.94 ERA for the Angels, striking out 93, walking 79, and allowing 25 homers in 150 innings. From there, in Sam’s words, Kazmir got “far, far worse”:

He threw 17 1/3 innings in 2011 and allowed 39 runs. He faced 113 batters, and 61 of them reached base. He hit eight batters. You know Steve Blass? Steve Blass had an ERA of 9.85 in the majors, walked a batter per inning, hit a batter every seven innings, and got a disease named after him. Kazmir had an ERA of 19.73, walked a batter and a half per inning, and hit a batter every two innings, against mostly minor-league hitters.

It’s debatable whether Kazmir fell even further in 2012, but it’s hard to make an argument that he improved. Pitching for the Sugar Land Skeeters of the Atlantic League—a magical land where the level of competition allowed Jason Botts to hit .348/.413/.639—Kazmir recorded a 5.34 ERA and averaged under five innings a start. On his own staff, he was outpitched by, among others: Bobby Livingston, Heath Phillips, Tim Redding, Dustin Richardson, former Astros outfielder Jason Lane and, for two starts, 49-year-old Roger Clemens. He walked 4.6 batters per nine, which wasn’t Steve Blass bad but was tied for the worst walk rate of anyone on the team who pitched regularly.

No big-league teams came calling. Then Kazmir went to the Puerto Rican Winter League, where in five starts for the Gigantes de Carolina, he struck out 27 and walked eight with over two groundouts per air out in 22 2/3 innings. More importantly, perhaps, he was reportedly clocked at 90-94 mph (which sounds way better before you realize that in 2010, when he was terrible, his fastball averaged 91.4 and touched 94 several times). Either the scouting reports or the not-horrendous stats caught Cleveland’s eye, and now Kazmir can count on spending the spring with a team that has the ability to bring him back to the majors. It’s a long shot, but maybe less of a long shot than you’d think: teams like lefties, and the Indians’ most established southpaws are David Huff, Nick Hagadone, and Scott Barnes. If Kazmir had multiple offers, he probably picked the right one.

Perhaps the most incredible aspect of Kazmir’s descent is that he hasn’t made a single appearance out of the bullpen as a professional pitcher since his lone relief outing for Tampa Bay in 2004. You’d think that at some point after it became clear that starting wasn’t working, either Kazmir or one of his teams would have wanted to try something new. I thought a bullpen conversion would work for Dontrelle Willis, but Willis wasn’t willing to buy in; maybe Kazmir has that second act in him.

As Sam pointed out earlier this year, left-handed pitchers who used to be good get a lot of chances to be good again, no matter how bad they’ve been recently. What we didn’t know before 2012 was whether Kazmir’s desire to pitch was strong enough to keep bringing him back. After his season with the Skeeters and return trip to the winter leagues, that question seems to have been answered. He won’t turn 29 until next month, so even if he can’t catch on with Cleveland, he might have a few more invites ahead of him. He’s just been too bad for too long to be the best answer here.

Your Third Answer: Rich Harden
Like both Bonderman and Kazmir, Harden didn’t pitch in the majors in 2012. Like Bonderman, he didn’t pitch at all, since he spent the season recovering from a serious surgery. But Harden might still be the safest bet to win the most games this year and every year after that, despite being the oldest of the group by a year and extremely risky relative to almost every other pitcher.

Harden has never had a season without an injury; before last year, when he broke the streak by getting hurt ahead of time, he’d appeared on the DL in seven straight seasons. For much of that time, Harden was dominant during his brief bouts of health, but the physical strain started to show in 2010, when he signed with the Rangers and his velocity and strikeout rate sank. Both rebounded in 2011, but not all the way back to their previous levels. With diminished stuff, Harden got fewer grounders and made more mistakes. No pitcher who threw at least 220 innings from 2009-11 gave up homers at a higher rate than Harden, even though he spent the last of those seasons in the Coliseum, a forgiving fly-ball park.

Harden pinned the blame on the pain from a torn shoulder capsule he’d been pitching with since 2007, which the surgery he underwent last February was designed to correct. In theory, a fix for the shoulder could bring the old Harden back, but it’s a relatively new and experimental procedure, and the list of other pitchers who’ve had it—Dallas Braden, Johan Santana, Chien-Ming Wang, Kelvin Escobar—isn’t encouraging. BP injury authority Corey Dawkins isn’t holding out much hope:

Based on his history and the difficulties in coming back from capsule surgery to start with, I would be surprised if he's effective. He had to change his delivery and his mechanics after first injuring the shoulder back in 2007, which set off a cascade of injuries in his arm over the last few years. It robbed him of velocity, and unless he managed to figure out how to get more movement on his pitches without putting extra stress on his arm, he would be considered a long shot at best to get a major-league roster spot from purely a health standpoint.

In 2011, Harden struck out well over a batter per inning. If the Twins thought he could do that again, they would have steered clear (that’s a joke about the Twins being scared of strikeouts), so maybe they’re expecting him to come back as a new kind of pitcher. Minnesota doesn’t have much pitching, and Harden is reportedly willing to try working out of the bullpen, so he’ll have every opportunity to ease Corey’s concerns.

We’re picking between a rock, a hard place, and Harden. Root for at least one of these pickups to turn into something, but don't expect any Vogelsongs. And remember: low risk!

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

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