From Chris Sale to Rick Porcello, and two other Boston teammates mentioned below, many starters who pitch deep into the playoffs appear to have trouble maintaining their workload the following year. Our early research shows that this increase is emphasized even more if the pitcher had a 20 inning increase, or 15 percent increase, in the year they pitched deep into the playoffs. We will fully flesh out the underlying research in the offseason, but here’s a taste of what we’ve identified as the “danger zone.”

 

Historical Context: 2018

 

That Red Sox championship seems forever ago, but a key part of their playoff run was the rotation. As we have seen the last couple of postseasons, teams are leaning on their top-tier starters more than ever. As a result, these players potentially run a higher risk for injury the following year. Take these two pitchers:

 

Player 2017 Total iP 2018 Playoff IP 2018 Total IP 2019 Total IP 2018-19 Inning Diff  2018-19 Inning Diff %
David Price 74.2 26 202 107.1 -94.9 -47%
Nathan Eovaldi 0 22.1 133.1 67.2 -65.9 -50%

 

After not pitching a whole lot in 2017, these pitchers had drastic increases in their innings in 2018, only to get injured the following year. We know what happened with Eovaldi. He had surgery to remove loose bodies from his right elbow for the second time in April 2019, came back in July, and posted a 5.99 ERA in 67 and 2/3 innings. One of the main drivers in his decline was his cutter. Let’s take a look at his spin rates and velocity on the pitch over the last three years:

 

Year Cutter Spin Rate Cutter Velocity
2018 2389 RPM 92.7 MPH
2019 2345 RPM 93.2 MPH
2020 2268 RPM 90.9 MPH

 

No doubt that some, or all, of his poor performance has been caused by this injury. While he maintained his spin rate and velocity in 2019, he couldn’t handle the workload of his high-stress 2018. We also know that Eovaldi is an injury-prone pitcher, but we should have known better to think he could be a top-50 starting pitcher heading into 2019. Now, he’s lost his velocity and spin rate, and I am going to be out on him for however long he lasts in the league.

Taking a quick look at David Price, he went on the IL with left elbow tendonitis in May 2019, and back on and off the IL after that with a cyst on his left wrist. I am certainly not an injury expert, but WebMD says that a cyst on the wrist can form from the following:

“One theory suggests that trauma causes the tissue of the joint to break down, forming small cysts that then join into a larger, more obvious mass. The most likely theory involves a flaw in the joint capsule or tendon sheath that allows the joint tissue to bulge out.”

Considering the innings jump that Price saw and the elbow tendonitis he had before, it’s not a surprise to see that he had tissue breaking down in his left arm, causing the cyst. Alex Cora was also quoted as saying that the cyst caused him to adjust his offspeed grips, which caused him to struggle. He threw the change the same amount in 2019 as he did in years’ past, but just look at the results!

 

Year xwOBA on Changeups
2017 .269
2018 .318
2019 .342

 

Clearly, the cyst impacted his ability to throw the changeup. With Price sitting out the 2020 season, he might actually be a buy low heading into 2021. But still, the lefty will turn 35 shortly and would have to be significantly discounted to take a flyer on him.

 

2019 Worries

 

Despite 2020 being the oddest year of our lifetimes, the 2019 World Series should still be relatively fresh in our minds. Here’s the complete list of pitchers that pitched at least five innings in the playoffs and had over a ten percent increase in total innings from 2018. Any jumps over 30 percent are shaded in red to better separate the biggest jumps.

 

Player 2019 Playoff IP 2019 Total IP 2018 Total IP IP Diff IP % Diff
Stephen Strasburg 36.1 245.1 130 115.1 89%
Gerrit Cole 36.2 248.3 213.1 35.2 17%
Justin Verlander 35.1 258.1 231.1 27 12%
Zack Greinke 25 233.2 207.2 26 13%
Patrick Corbin 23.1 225.1 200 25.1 13%
Anibal Sanchez 18 184 136.2 47.8 35%
Jack Flaherty 17 213.1 182.2 30.9 17%
Adam Wainwright 16.2 187.4 40.1 147.3 367%
Masahiro Tanaka 16 198 161 37 23%
Sean Doolittle 10.1 70.1 45 25.1 56%
Charlie Morton 10 204.2 169.1 35.1 21%
Roberto Osuna 10 75 44 31 70%
Jose Urquidy 10 154 57.1 96.9 170%
Hyun-Jin Ryu 5 187.2 101.1 86.1 85%

 

Of the 14 pitchers on this list, five are currently on the non-COVID Injured List: Strasburg, Verlander, Doolittle, Morton, and Osuna. That’s over 35 percent of the list!  Let’s dive a little deeper into a few of the names on this list. We will ignore Cardinals for now, since they are only 12 games into their season.

 

Charlie Morton

 

2019 Playoff IP 2019 Total IP 2018 Total IP IP Diff IP % Diff
10 204.2 169.1 35.1 21%

 

Charlie Morton’s story is pretty straightforward – just look at the below table.

 

Year FB Velocity
2018 96.1 MPH
2019 94.7 MPH
2020 92.7 MPH

 

Big arrow down here. Morton’s 36-years old, and the velocity decline was expected – but the severity of the decline is even more dramatic than expected. In fact, every pitch has suffered a 1-2 MPH drop over the last two years. Given that he is on the IL with shoulder inflammation, we have potentially seen the last of Morton as a fantasy ace. Unfortunately, selling him low may be the best option at this point.

 

Anibal Sanchez

 

2019 Playoff IP 2019 Total IP 2018 Total IP IP Diff IP % Diff
18 184 136.2 47.8 35%

 

While he is not one of the players currently on the IL, Sanchez had a hamstring issue in 2018, causing him to miss six weeks, which makes up most of this IP difference from 2018 to 2019. He also had a hamstring issue with the other leg in 2019, but was still able to pitch 35% more innings. Again, this looks like a velocity issue.

 

Year 4-Seamer Splitter Cutter Sinker
2019 90.2 MPH 84.3 MPH 87.6 MPH 90.4 MPH
2020 88.8 MPH 80.7 MPH 86.7 MPH 88.9 MPH

 

Sanchez’s velocity decreased on all of his pitches, which has resulted in his strikeout rate dropping 3.8 percentage points from 2019-2020 in the early going. His barrel rate has doubled, and his hard-hit rate is up five percentage points. Sanchez was valuable due to being an innings-eater with decent ratios, but he’s not pitching deep into games nor posting good ratios, so he is droppable in all formats. As Matt Williams said on a recent podcast – no thank you.

 

Patrick Corbin

 

2019 Playoff IP 2019 Total IP 2018 Total IP IP Diff IP % Diff
23.1 225.1 200 25.1 13%

 

Corbin has not been as sharp in the early going as he has been the past couple years. A lot of it appears to be a velocity issue (surprise, surprise), but also spin rate.

 

Year Sinker Velocity Spin Rate
2019 91.8 MPH 2195 RPM
2020 89.6 MPH 2087 RPM

 

His slider is also interestingly slower, has less spin, and not getting as many whiffs. His slider not being as dominant as in years’ past is a clear driver of his ERA going up, along with a lower strikeout rate.

 

Year Slider Velocity Spin Rate Whiff Rate
2019 78.7 MPH 2398 RPM 52%
2020 81.7 mPH 2235 RPM 45.9%

 

Corbin’s lesser stuff has dropped his strikeout rate from 28.5% in 2019 to 22.9% in 2020. A part of that lower stuff could potentially be from pitching so many more innings in 2019. Small sample aside, Corbin may not be the top-15 pitcher we were expecting in 2020. However, with a full offseason of rest and a guaranteed lower amount of innings in 2020, he may start going lower in 2021 drafts, allowing him to be grabbed at a nice value.

 

Stephen Strasburg

 

2019 Playoff IP 2019 Total IP 2018 Total IP IP Diff IP % Diff
36.1 245.1 130 115.1 89%

 

Strasburg is the poster boy of this exercise. We know that he has been injured throughout his career (he’s the same age as Clayton Kershaw, which is simply nuts). We should have seen an 89% increase in innings from the year before as a warning in big red flashing lights. Given that he had extra time to rest during the long layoff, we overestimated his ability to stay healthy.

He is now on the IL with a nerve issue in his right hand. Similar to the other Nationals’ pitchers on this list, his velocity was down a couple of ticks in the limited time that he has pitched. You can’t trade him at his low point in redraft leagues, but I would look to unload him after he comes back and has a good outing in dynasty leagues. A 90% increase in innings does not bode well for his future.

 

Roberto Osuna

 

2019 Playoff IP 2019 Total IP 2018 Total IP IP Diff IP % Diff
10 75 44 31 70%

 

For a reliever, Osuna pitching 31 more innings is astronomical. We know that he didn’t pitch a lot in 2018 due to his suspension, so it’s a bit of a surprise as to why the analytically-minded Astros let Osuna run up his pitch count. The Astros won the West by 10 games, so they could have relaxed him a bit down the stretch. Based on this substantial increase, Osuna’s fastball decreasing 2.5 MPH from 2019 and his subsequent Tommy John surgery shouldn’t be a massive surprise. Osuna won’t make a fantasy impact until 2022, but these are the types of analytics to pay the utmost attention to in offseason draft prep.