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February 13, 2012
The DL Kings: Justin Duchscherer
With only weeks to go until spring training gets into high gear, Collateral Damage takes a look at the baseball players (three pitchers, three position players) who have spent more time on the disabled list over the past decade than anyone else. Up next: Justin Duchscherer.
Most everyone has had that girlfriend or boyfriend they just can’t stop seeing, even though they know s/he is trouble. You know, the one where your friends are like “Seriously?” and feel the need to stage an intervention to point out to you all the flaws that you are too besotted to see? Justin Duchscherer has been that person to so many fans and general managers alike. For me, it all began when he first came up in 2001. He was 23 years old, just one month younger than me, and already in the majors while I was just out of school, scraping by on Ramen noodles and mashed potatoes.
At the beginning of any relationship, only the good things are noticed. Potential warning signs are ignored or explained away; you see what you want to see. Duchscherer was drafted by the Red Sox in 1996 and showed promise as a starter during a slow minor league journey prior to being traded to Texas for Doug Mirabelli in 2001. He went 4-0 and with a 2.08 ERA in six starts immediately after the trade, earning him his first start in the majors n late July. He finished with 176 strikeouts and a 1.104 WHIP in 167.2 innings between Trenton, Tulsa, and Oklahoma, leading us to believe that even better things were to come. Duchscherer was recalled in September but did not replicate his earlier success, giving up runs in each of the four appearances he made down the stretch. Still, so far so good, no trouble whatsoever. We’ve gone out on the first few dates and there are no surprises or concerns.
In 2002, we saw the first signs of trouble and most of us, if not all, chose to ignore them. Before the season began, the Rangers traded Duchscherer to the Athletics for Luis Vizcaino. Duchscherer pitched exclusively in the minors for Sacramento in 2002, but he missed over three months with lower back strains that resulted in two stints on the disabled list. When he was healthy, his stats suffered across the board, but hey—everyone gets hurt at one point or another. It was the equivalent of saying “Eh, it happened once but it won’t happen again.”
The next season, Duchscherer bounced back from his 2002 injuries and pitched very well, with a 14-2 record and a 1.09 WHIP for Sacramento. By the end of the season, if there were doubters left, they must have been saying “I must have imagined it” or, “I don’t remember talking about this,” just like you might say when a strange toothbrush mysteriously appeared next to your bathroom sink. Duchscherer did hit the DL for Sacramento with a sprained ankle, but he only missed eight games because of the injury. After making a playoff start for Sacramento, he was promoted to Oakland and pitched well.
The relationship with Duchscherer blossomed in 2004. He stayed healthy (with the exception of having a cyst removed during camp), and pitched well throughout the year. Having come up as a starter, he transitioned to relief work and was one of the best in the league, He faded down the stretch but managed to stay healthy, akin to running out of stuff to talk about one night since you’ve learned a lot about each other.
The following season marked one of Duchscherer’s best years, but it also marked our first fight. He was lights out as a reliever, and even filled in as the closer when Huston Street went down with a strained hamstring. Duchscherer had the best strikeout-to-walk ratio among AL relievers at 4.47 K/BB (and got me a nice seven vulture wins for my fantasy team), but he missed two weeks in May with back spasms. It was mostly a great season, but his injury in May was the fourth time in four years he got hurt. It was that mini-fight that began with “I can’t believe you did it again,” the one that, unfortunately, would be just the first of many.
If 2005 was my first fight with Duchscherer, 2006 was the first time I got into a slamming-doors and yelling-things-you-don’t-really-mean spat. Once again, Duchscherer was an excellent reliever and filled in for the injured Street. Duchscherer could not avoid the disabled list though; this time his elbow was responsible. Tendinitis kept him on the shelf for 47 days from early May until mid-June, killing my plan of world domination through fantasy leagues. It was the first time he was on the major league disabled list for any significant amount of time.
In 2007, things changed in my imaginary relationship with Duchscherer. It was the kind of fight that causes you to go down to the local bar, have a drink or two, and complain to the bartender or random stranger next to you. Duchscherer went on the disabled list with a hip strain and would undergo season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum and impingement. Over 138 days were lost because of the injury. Things were never going to be the same afterwards, even though we hadn’t yet reached the point of putting Duchscherer in our rear view mirror.
Entering 2008, many people had high hopes for Duchscherer. Injuries had cost him time over the last few years but clearly, the talent was there. Only a handful of current baseball players at the time had undergone hip surgery, so expectations, based on his previous performance, remained optimistic. In Baseball Prospectus 2008, it was noted that Duchscherer wanted to start, and that he might have the chance to do so. It was unimaginable that he would only manage one start before he wound up on the disabled list with a strained biceps. He came back strong and finished the first half at 10-5 with a sub-2.00 ERA, making us believe that he changed and that we would all live happily ever after.
Alas, it was then that we found the hidden email, text, or lipstick-stained stationary that proved what we thought about his health was a lie. He went back on the disabled list for the remainder of the 2008 season with hip troubles, going under the knife immediately after the season to clean out loose cartilage. Repeated surgeries on the hip or shoulder do not augur well. Between the two stints on the disabled list in 2008, he lost 62 days. By the end of that year, we had reached the moment where we decided to “take a break” from Duchscherer, questioning whether everything was going to work out and or if all we needed was some more patience.
In 2009, those questions were answered. There was no going back; it was over for me. The season was a complete loss that started with elbow surgery in spring training. While Duchscherer was rehabbing from that, his back flared up again. Then, in August, he was shut down for the rest of the year with a diagnosis of clinical depression. He had lost a total of 192 days. That was it for me; it was clear that health was always going to be an issue for him. The issue was not his depression, but the totality of problems that resulted in his being unable to stay on the field for any length of time.
Yet, the story was not over. In 2010, Duchscherer caused us to do the equivalent of trying to have one last fling, only to remember later why it had ended in the first place. Inflammation in his lower back limited him in spring training, but he was still able to start the season healthy. His first start on April 7 didn’t go smoothly, but he was able to make it into the sixth inning. His next three starts were better, and he won two of them. His fifth and last start of 2010 didn’t go as well: he left in the fourth inning because of pain in his left hip. He missed a total of 156 days and the inevitable operation on June 7 ended his season and any realistic expectation of good health.
We don’t always think logically when it comes to relationships with others. Sometimes we see someone from afar and think that we could be the ones to change him or her for the better. Baseball GMs are no different and Baseball Prospectus 2011 summed it up best:
With 186 innings accumulated over the last four years, ‘dependable’ is the last word one might use to describe him, unless it's to say that he's dependably unavailable. Yet, his 2008 season was so good, and the need for arms so desperate, that plenty of teams were kicking his tires as we went to press.
Baltimore signed him to a one-year deal, but he never pitched for them after undergoing a surgery on a nerve in his low back in April; his left hip started to bother him again shortly thereafter. Multiple attempts at a recovery were made through extended spring training, but they were unsuccessful and he was released by the Orioles in August after 133 days missed. He went under the knife again for his hip a few days later.
Duchscherer had the talent to be productive at the major-league level, and that’s why he continued to get shot after shot at redemption despite his 728 days on the disabled list. The relationship transformed over the years. In the beginning, there was little evidence that anything would go wrong. Multiple injuries to major structures like the back were the first sign of trouble; major injuries to the shoulder or the hip another big warning sign. Players can come back from a single hip or shoulder surgery, but what set Duchscherer apart from the others were the repeated injuries to his hips; they eventually became his downfall. Once everything was set into motion, there was no saving the relationship, no matter how much we wanted it to be so.