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May 28, 2014

The Lineup Card

13 Pitcher Injuries We Wish We Could Undo

by Baseball Prospectus


1. Mark Prior



That's Mark Prior right after a nasty collision with Marcus Giles. Giles suffered a concussion, while Prior was diagnosed with a bruised shoulder. That was in July 2003. Four years later Prior was under the knife again, and once again in 2008. Collectively, this whopper came out:

"[E]xploratory surgery by Dr. James Andrews revealed structural damage to the shoulder that may have existed for years, while a 2008 procedure addressed a torn anterior capsule in the shoulder, which is one of the toughest injuries to identify via MRI."

The capsule injury was described in some reports as something that would most likely occur as a result of a fall... of the kind Prior took in his run-in with Giles. Definitive link? No. But suspicions remain. —Harry Pavlidis

2. Brandon Webb
Only 19 pitchers in history produced more wins above replacement (per B-Ref’s model) from ages 24 to 29 than Brandon Webb. He was better than Verlander, than Mussina, than Spahn, than Ryan. He was even better by ERA+: 15th, all-time. Those six years, unfortunately, represent 99.7 percent of Webb’s career, because after a lousy opening day start in 2009 he never threw another pitch in the majors. In the previous three seasons he had finished second in Cy Young voting twice and won the award once, so we’re basically talking about what it would be like if Clayton Kershaw left his next start early and we never saw him again. All that’s a bummer, but that’s not what really gets me. Rather, it’s this, from an ESPN the Magazine feature on Stan Conte: "I've looked through his history a hundred times and he was almost perfect," Conte says. "No indication whatsoever he was going to break down." Conte is the guy who would know. Basically: Nobody can say better than Conte; and Conte says nobody was a safer bet than Webb. Put those together, and you’re looking at a world where, by definition, no pitch is less likely to end a career than Webb’s final one. Every pitch you watch carries this threat, and Webb’s career makes that fact unforgettable. —Sam Miller

3. Dave Burba
Let's re-write history for a moment In Game Three of the 1999 ALDS, the Indians led the Red Sox 1-0 after four innings and two games to none overall in the series. But then Indians starter Dave Burba had to leave the game because of forearm stiffness. It was a shame because Burba had pitched well all season, and had faced only 13 batters in four innings, giving up a run and a walk. It left the keys to the game in the hands of Jaret Wright. Wright, who only two years earlier had been the man to whom the Indians had turned in Game SEven of the World Series, had fallen so far out of favor that the Indians -- who were leading in the series -- had already announced that they would bring Bartolo Colon back for Game Four on short rest if that was necessary, rather than start Wright. Jaret Wright gave up five runs in two innings, and the game was lost. The next night, Colon did start and... well, the box score contains the phrase "B Colon pitched to five batters in the second inning." After a 23-7 (yep) drubbing and the Indians bullpen sucking up eight innings of work, the series came back to Cleveland for Game Five, and Pedro Martinez—while hurt!—pitched six innings of no-hit ball in relief and the Indians crashed out of the playoffs. More than that, Kenny Lofton hurt his shoulder in Game Five, an injury that would linger through most of 2000.

Even if the Indians had somehow solved the Pedro Martinez riddle that night, the Indians might have gone to the ALCS to face the Yankees with some combination of Chris Haney, Doc Gooden, and Mark Langston starting Games One and Two. Kenny Lofton would have been shelved, and word on the street was that a couple of relievers, including key set up men Steve Karsay and Steve Reed were hurt. Jim Brower might have faced some high leverage situations in the Bronx that year. But rewind the tape and allow the conceit that Burba might have pitched another 2-3 solid innings in Game Three and the Indians would have won. The Indians would have arrived in New York with Colon, Nagy, and Burba on full rest. Game Five is never played and Lofton is not hurt. The bullpen doesn't absorb 14 innings of punishment over three days. Reed and Karsay might still have been hurt, but at least the other arms would have been more fresh. Playing against the 1999 Yankees would have been a tall order for anyone, but the Indians at least had the offensive firepower to do it. The Yankees eventually beat the Red Sox four games to one, and then swept the Braves in the World Series. It's too far a stretch to crown the Indians as World Champions even in this alternate universe, but they would have had a chance. Funny that things can unravel so quickly with one little muscle twinge. It might have re-written the entire narrative of those 90s Indians teams.

Then again, it's probably better that things went the way that they did. In October of 1999, I had recently been introduced to a couple of new college friends and because the Indians had been eliminated, I had more time to hang out with them because I wasn't watching baseball so obsessively. I ended up marrying one of them. Maybe that Dave Burba injury wasn't so bad after all. —Russell A. Carleton

4. Kerry Wood
I saw god on May 6, 1998.

The details of the day are fuzzy; I was home sick from school and was watching the Cubs game in the background. I was 11 years old at the time and was flanked by a 2 liter of ginger ale and a big bowl of chicken soup. I can’t tell you if the still Chicago spring air was foretelling the mastery I was about to witness. I can’t say if the sun shone on my face as Kerry Wood snapped a devastating slider off to Derek Bell to put him away in the first. No, I can’t tell you any of that.

What I can tell you, however, is that on that day Kerry Wood spoiled what I thought a slider should look like for at least 10 years. Wood entered the spotlight during the formative years of my baseball life and over the course of that summer I fell in love with the big Texan who featured high-90s gas and a breaking ball with Satan’s signature all over it. Wood became a legend that summer as it seemed that his star was on the rise and his future seemed uncapped.

It wasn’t, of course. Wood ended up with a pedestrian looking career line when contrasted with what the expectations were after his rookie campaign. He came back and provided some very good years for the Cubs and his 2003 campaign is a fairly underrated one in my mind. For me he’s an example of promise unfulfilled, another name in the post of Cubs with unfortunate careers for one reason or another. In this case, injuries robbed us of the promise Wood flashed during his first year, and I’m left with thinking of what could have been. —Mauricio Rubio

5. Phil Hughes
Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain. They are considered major disappointments in Yankees fans’ eyes, because they were once going to be franchise arms. How high were expectations? This website ranked Hughes the no. 2 prospect in all of baseball going into the 2007 season. Hughes had absolutely devoured Double-A hitting in 2006, with a 2.25 ERA, 138 strikeouts, and only 73 hits in 116 innings. The 2007 BP annual warned, “when May comes around and ballclubs reach for fifth starters, look out.” Sure enough, the Yankees needed a new rotation arm in late April. He was roughed up in his debut against the Toronto Blue Jays, lasting only 4 1/3 innings.

Hughes’s second start was very different. All the hype was coming to fruition, or so it seemed. He faced the Texas Rangers and took a no-hitter into the seventh inning. After getting Michael Young to fly out to start the inning, he threw an 0-2 curveball to Mark Teixeira—in the process, hyperextending his left hamstring. "This was not a tweak, it was a pop," said Brian Cashman after the game. (Little did Yankee fans know what a harbinger this would be for Hughes, who many times found himself unable to finish off at-bats he started with two strikes.) Rehabbing the hamstring, Hughes suffered a severe ankle sprain and did not pitch in the majors again until August. He was ineffective the rest of the year, posting a 4.65 ERA.

Hughes was hardly ruined as a pitcher, but he has never regained the form he had in that game against Texas. In the years since, he has experimented endlessly with various pitches and grips in order to conquer two problems he faces—the home run ball and a struggle to miss bats.

What is especially distressing is that Hughes has battled mechanical inconsistency that may be a lasting effect of his injury. He told David Laurila in 2012, “I’ve gone through a lot of mechanical changes, especially stemming from the hamstring injury I had my first year in the big leagues. My stride, and things like that, have never quite been the same.”

The Yankees’ failure to develop reliable starting pitchers has a number of causes, but Hughes’s fluke hamstring injury in his second major league start set the organization’s rotation back for years. —Dan Rozenson

6. Dizzy Dean
I wrote about Dizzy Dean last year in a “Players We Wish Had Stayed Healthy” Lineup Card. He’s worth repeating here because the injury that ruined his career is so terribly unfortunate: a line drive hit by fellow future Hall of Famer Earl Averill broke Dean’s toe. The kicker (so to speak): it happened in the All-Star game, meaningless in all but image. Compensating for the injury by trying to keep from landing on the toe, Dean hurt his shoulder. He was never the same after that, essentially finished after six (great) seasons at age 27. Yet he’s in the Hall of Fame anyway. He was that good. Had he not been injured in the All-Star game, he might be remembered as one of the very greatest pitchers of all time. —Adam Sobsey

7. Chien-Ming Wang
Did you read that name and think to yourself: “Oh, the last pitcher before CC Sabathia to be the Yankees’ opening day starter”? Chien-Ming Wang was exactly that, in 2008 (he has as many opening day starts for the Yankees as Andy Pettitte, by the way), and here’s why: Wang was a stalwart, at times dominant starter in 2006-07, using a heavy sinker that was a near force of nature at its best. He placed no. 2 in the Cy Young voting in 2006. He was the fastest pitcher to reach 50 wins since Dwight Gooden.

Then, in an interleague game on June 15, 2008, Wang sustained a major foot injury while running the bases. He missed the rest of the season, and has appeared in only 49 major-league games since. I saw him pitch last year here in Durham for the Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate. His pet sinker—which he learned from Bulls pitching coach Neil Allen back when Allen was his pitching coach at Triple-A Columbus—barely touched 90 miles per hour. He beat Durham that day, but a lot of that was thanks to well-struck atom balls that found fielders. Wang was no longer throwing a big-league sinker. In the corridor after the game, he gave an interview to three Taiwanese journalists who had flown in from who-knows-where. He was considerate, polite, but visibly cautious. His eyes frequently widened in a way that seem somehow defensive, as though he was giving the attention coming his way a greater surface area to reflect off of. There was something touching and sad about the whole thing: this unfailingly gracious former star (he’s still revered in Taiwan, apparently) in Triple-A, indulging reporters and hanging onto the torn remains of what should have been a great career as, perhaps, the next great Yankee starter.

Wang was back in Durham this month as a Louisville Bat. He pitched around nine hits in 7 1/3 effective innings, allowing two runs in a no-decision. He’s 34 years old. —Adam Sobsey

Six Pre-World War II Pitchers
There are three Hall of Famers whose careers we would have liked to see unfold without their arm miseries. Sandy Koufax, whose arthritic elbow ended his career at age 30 after the best season of his career, is probably the best known. But there is also Dizzy Dean, who is the only pitcher in the Live Ball Era to win 120 games before his 27th birthday outside the war years. Midway into his next season (1937), Dean blew his shoulder and won only 17 more games in his career.

Largely forgotten is Hall of Famer Amos Rusie of the New York Giants, who starred in the 1890s. “The Hoosier Thunderbolt” had a legendary fastball and his obituary in 1942 described him as “perhaps the greatest exponent of plain speed in piling up diamond victories.” From age 19 to 27, he struck out nearly 50% more batters than anyone else, threw the most innings, the most shutouts, and prevented the most runs relative to the league rate. And he did all this despite missing all of the 1896 season over a contract dispute. Rusie hurt his shoulder at age 27 and never won another game. Amazingly, the Giants managed to trade the sore-armed Rusie for the pitcher who would supplant him as the greatest pitcher in the history of the Giants, Christy Mathewson.

Here are a half-dozen pre-World War II pitchers who showed real Hall of Fame ability as a young pitcher for at least two major league seasons before arm trouble robbed them of that early promise.

Smoky Joe Wood had the lowest ERA of any teenager under the modern rules (2.21 ERA in 183 innings) and in 1912 at age 22, Wood had a fabulous season with the most pitching Win Shares ever by a pitcher that young. He hurt his shoulder and was soon done as a pitcher, winning his last game at age 25.

A deep veteran pitching staff for the New York Giants kept Ferdie Schupp primarily in the role of batting practice pitcher through age 24. But when he was turned loose in 1916 he dominated the game until he hurt his shoulder near the end of the 1917 season. For the 1916-17 seasons he was the toughest pitcher to hit in the majors while also winning 75 percent of his decisions. He also had the major’s lowest ERA in that stretch— an incredible 1.59 ERA in 412 1/3 innings. He was a below-average pitcher the remainder of his career.

Pete Donohue of the Cincinnati Reds was one of the very best pitchers in the early 1920s. For the five-year period, 1922-26, Donohue had the lowest ERA in the majors and the most shutouts. He won more games and threw more innings than any pitcher in the National League. But no one remembers him today because he hurt his shoulder in April of 1927 and won only 24 more games in the remainder of his career.

Paul “Daffy” Dean, the younger brother of Dizzy, had 19-win seasons and a no-hitter through age 22. He literally had a better start to his career than his famous brother did. But Daffy blew out his shoulder at the end of May in 1936 when he was only 23. He won only eight more games in his career.

Wes Ferrell is the only pitcher at the modern pitching distance to win over 20 games in each of his first four full seasons in the majors. After throwing 8 complete games in a row in 1932, he made a relief appearance on one day of rest that turned into an outing of 11.1 innings in an 18-inning game. Wes remained an effective pitcher the next few seasons, but from that point Wes struggled with inconsistency due to a proclivity for shoulder soreness. His shoulder finally went “dead”—his word—after his 1936 season at age 28. He tried all kinds of remedies, but won only 32 more games while posting a 5.41 ERA. He still holds the record for most wins in the Live Ball Era through age 28 (161).

Playing for a weak Dodgers’ team in the early 1930s, Van Lingle Mungo led the team in wins every year from 1933 to 1936 (ages 22 to 25) as one of the best pitchers in the game. He was the toughest pitcher to hit this side of Carl Hubbell and trailed only Dizzy Dean in strikeouts. He was off to his best start ever in 1937 and was leading the league in ERA (2.20) going into July when he blew out his shoulder. He went 0-5 with an 8.66 ERA for the remainder of the year, and then won only 10 games over the next five seasons. He did experience a minor resurgence against the weak competition in the war years and led the Giants with 14 wins in 1945. —Craig R. Wright

Craig R. Wright is a former employee of and consultant to multiple major-league teams, the co-author of The Diamond Appraised, and the author of Pages from Baseball's Past, a long-running, subscription-based newsletter that regularly delivers compelling research and stories about players such as these. He has also written a book by the same name.

***

There are too many tragic pitcher injuries for us to mention them all here, but if you're looking for contributions about Dave Dravecky, Sandy Koufax, J.R. Richard, Herb Score, or Brien Taylor, you can find them in this previous edition of The Lineup Card.

Related Content:  Pitchers,  Injuries

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Premium Article The Prospectus Hit Lis... (05/28)
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