Predicting them is difficult, though not impossible. Will Carroll from Baseball Prospectus is a foremost expert on injuries and does a fair job each year of identifying players who have higher or lower risk (and designating them with flags – red, yellow, green etc.) and there are other databases created by the sabermetric community that are very useful when trying to predict whether a player will break down over the course of the year or not.
When it comes to young pitchers, injuries and performance, the general rule over the past few years has been to watch out for the Year After Effect. Better known as the Verducci Effect, named after Sports Illustrated baseball writer Tom Verducci , the rule is defined “as any 25-and-under pitcher who increased his innings log by more than 30 in a year in which he pitched in the big leagues” by Verducci in his Feb. 16 article on SI.com.
The idea is that pitchers under 25 should be allowed to gradually develop at the major league level. If a pitcher goes 30 innings or more above his previous career high, he is at risk for the Verducci Effect.
The poster boy in recent memory for this has to be Cole Hamels. In leading the Phillies to the World Series title in 2008 he ended up pitching 253.1 innings between the regular season and playoffs. That was 63.1 innings more than he pitched combined in 2007 and it comes as no surprise that he struggled in 2009 with 193.2 regular season innings and another 19 in the postseason.
Hamels went 14-10 in ’08 with a 3.09 ERA, 142 ERA + and a league leading 1.082 WHIP. In 2009 he went 10-11 with a 4.32 ERA, 98 ERA + and 1.286 WHIP. Going by the ERA + numbers (where 100 is average), that is a 44 percent decrease in performance from year to year.
To be fair, there are pitchers who escape the Verducci Effect. Jon Lester pitched 237 innings in ’08 (with postseason) and, after some early struggles, was a dominant pitcher for the Red Sox in ’09 and has a lot of analysts picking him as a top Cy Young contender this year.
What to expect this year? I did some research and found a plethora of young pitchers who could be at risk for the Verducci Effect this year. Some of the names on my list match Verducci’s own (he has made predictions on 10 pitchers at SI.com) and a couple of them are no-brainers.
The first place to look is at three particular organizations known for riding young pitchers – Los Angeles, Detroit and Atlanta.
All three franchises have been playing with fire, to a certain extent, year after year with young pitchers. The Dodgers Chad Billingsley threw 147 innings in ’07 and then a combined 212.1 in ’08. Billingsley was 16-10 with a 3.43 ERA in ’08 then 12-11 with a 4.03 ERA in ’09.
This year Joe Torre has another pitcher with red flags in the form of 21-year-old Clayton Kershaw. In ’08, at age 20, he pitched 107.2 big league innings and then threw 184.1 a year later. Will his performance continue to climb in ’10 or will he find himself on the disabled list or generally ineffective this summer?
Then there is Detroit, a team that has pushed young arms like Justin Verlander, Jair Jurjenns and Armando Galarraga hard in their young careers. They did it again in ’09 with 20-year-old Rick Porcello who threw 170.2 innings last year, about 45 more than his previous minor league high. Porcello was also asked to throw a lot of high effort innings as the Tigers imploded down the stretch last year to miss the postseason.
The Braves pushed Tommy Hanson last year, mostly because he was a stud for them straight out of the gate. Between the minors and his time with the big club, he pitched 183.2 innings, 45.2 more than his previous minor league high. The Braves rode another young pitcher (oddly enough acquired from the Tigers organization) in Jurrjens who hit a career high 188.1 innings in ’08 after not pitching more than 142.1 in a season before that. Jurjenns had 215 innings last year and it should come as no surprise that he is dealing with some arm issues this spring.
Who else to keep a close eye on this year? Look out for Florida’s Josh Johnson (+ 52), Oakland’s Trevor Cahill (+ 54.1) and Brett Anderson (+ 55.1), Colorado’s Ubaldo Jimenez (+31.1 with postseason) and Max Scherzer (+ 42). Especially look out for Scherzer since he was traded to the Tigers in the offseason and it is a team desperate to make the playoffs and will push its pitchers as far as they will go.
This year’s poster boy for the Verducci Effect will probably end up being Homer Bailey, who only had 203 combined major/minor league innings last year that were 55.1 more than his career high. As Verducci points out, there was no reason for Bailey to throw that many innings last year, especially for a team that looks to be a dark horse coming into 2010.
The best way to prevent injuries from ruining your fantasy season is to keep an eye on the news wire, which is exactly the thing we do here at RotoInfo. Stay ahead of the game and make roster moves as soon as you are sure that you will lose one of your contributors for an extended period of time.
Dan Rowinski is a Fantasy Baseball Columnist for Rotoinfo.com. If you have any questions or comments feel free to e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at Dan_Rowinski.