Every year, there are hitters and pitchers who report to Spring Training with what is initially deemed a “small” injury, only to have that injury linger throughout February, into March, and soon enough, they are out multiple weeks in April. In a season unlike any other, we got to see how players with those types of injuries recovered throughout the early summer in time to prepare for a shortened 60-game season. Below, we’ll take a look at how those players fared individually, along with some overall takeaways that we can use to prepare for 2021 drafts. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll be able to easily identify if pitchers or hitters are better bets to bounce back after mild injuries.

Pitchers

James Paxton (SP – NYY)
My Projection: 11 starts, 66 IP, 5 Wins, 3.77 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 78 Ks
What Happened: 5 starts, 20.1 IP, 1 Win, 6.64 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, 26 Ks

Back in February, Paxton had a microscopic lumbar discectomy, and was slated to miss the start of the full 162-game season. With the delay, Paxton was able to get healthy and get in game shape. However, he went on the IL with a strained flexor in his left forearm on August 24th, and would not pitch again. While Paxton gave up three earned runs in every one of his five starts, two of them came with 20 strikeouts total. The writing was on the wall with this one, however, as his velocity dipped three miles per hour from 2019, as evidenced by the below graph from Baseball Savant.

Paxton’s agent, Scott Boras, was quoted recently as saying that Paxton “simply needed another few months to get back to his normal form.” This quote is confusing, since he was allotted additional time to rehab with the delayed season. If this was the case, why was he brought back in the first place?

While it sounds like Paxton should be ready for 2021, we’ve heard that song before. Paxton has eclipsed 150 innings just twice in his career, and one of those was 150.2 innings. With all the injuries the soon-to-be 32-year old has faced, I will be out on him next season.

Justin Verlander (SP – HOU)
My Projection:11 starts, 66 IP, 6 Wins, 2.83 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 82 Ks
What Happened: 1 start, 6 IP, 1 W, 3.00 ERA, 0.67 WHIP, 7 Ks

Verlander was facing a lat injury and a groin injury in spring training, with the lat injury stemming from changing his mechanics as a result of the groin injury. Of course, we know that he suffered an additional injury, as he had Tommy John surgery and is out until 2022.

In hindsight, it was probably foolish to rank a 37-year old pitcher coming off of two injuries during Spring Training in the top five. Of course, Verlander would be the one pitcher to defy expectations, and we gave him the benefit of the doubt.

Mike Clevinger (SP – SDP)
My Projection: 12 starts, 72 IP, 6 W, 2.88 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 87 Ks
What Happened: 8 starts, 41.2 IP, 3 W, 3.02 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 40 Ks

Clevinger, as he often does, adds an interesting twist to this exercise. Clevinger had surgery to repair a partially torn meniscus in mid-February, and was expected to miss six-to-eight weeks. He ended up returning on time in the shortened season. We don’t need to go too in depth on what happened next, but he missed three starts as a result of breaking team protocol.

After he was traded to the Padres, he then sprained his right elbow. After not pitching in the Wild Card Series, he was removed less than two innings into his NLDS start with the same issue. While we don’t know for sure, the initial elbow injury could have come about as a result of compensating for his knee injury. Pitching through the injury was not a good idea. Between Clevinger and and Verlander, we should give heightened attention to lower body injuries, as pitchers are not out of the woods just because their initial injury wasn’t an upper body one.

His status for 2021 is uncertain. Given that he said that it feels like “his bones are hitting the back of his elbow,” I will be out on him for 2021.

Rich Hill (SP – MIN)
My Projection: 10 starts, 60 IP, 4 W, 3.69 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 69 Ks
What Happened: 8 starts, 38.2 IP, 2 W, 3.03 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 31 Ks

Hill underwent elbow surgery in November last year, and was slated to miss half of the season. With the shortened season, he was able to start the season on time. However, he then suffered from arm fatigue and missed a few starts in August.

Hill’s strikeouts disappeared, largely due to a velocity dip.

As a result of this lower velocity, he induced less whiffs, and his strikeout rate dipped nearly ten percentage points from 2019. While Hill has always been injury prone, he was able to rack up strikeouts when he took the mound. However, given that he’s going to be 41 in 2021, this is likely his new velocity. He won’t be more than a bench starter next year.

Hitters

Adalberto Mondesi (SS – KC)
My Projection: 220 PA’s, 28 R, 8 HR, 26 RBI, 15 SB, .257 average
What Happened: 233 PA’s, 33 R, 6 HR, 22 RBI, 24 SB, .256 average

Mondesi’s status for the full 162-game season was up for debate during draft prep season, as he was still getting ramped up after recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. Mondesi ended up doing what we expected, as he hit slightly above average due to his speed, stole a ton of bases, and showed some pop. Sure, he delivered most of his value within a three-week span in September, but he should be given a pass given the weird quirks of the season.

As a right-handed hitter, his left shoulder is a source of power, much like how Kris Bryant’s power was sapped in 2018 after a left shoulder injury. While Mondesi has always had contact issues, he increased his average exit velocity from 88.8 MPH in 2019 to 90.6 MPH in 2020, which shows that the shoulder is healed. Moreover, his max exit velocity of 111 MPH ranked in the top-100, as did his exit velocity on flies and liners.

The Mondesi hype will be in our faces once again in 2021, and it looks like the hype will be worth it.

Eugenio Suarez (3B – CIN)
My Projection: 240 PA’s, 36 R, 14 HR, 38 RBI, 1 SB, .267 average
What Happened: 231 PA’s, 29 R, 15 HR, 38 RBI, 2 SB, .202 average

Suarez also had a shoulder injury, but on his right shoulder. He was able to rehab in time for the full 60-game season. His average exit velocity held constant, and like Mondesi, posted top-100 ranks in exit velo on flies and liners, along with max exit velo. Also like Mondesi, Suarez has some contact issues. He swung at balls slightly more than last year, and made less contact on strikes as well. While not a dramatic change, it was evident enough that he wasn’t able to make contact on pitches that he could drive. His injury likely didn’t have an impact on this part of his game. We know what Suarez is, and he will likely be a top-65 selections in next year’s drafts.

Aaron Hicks (OF – NYY)
My Projection: 175 PA’s, 24 R, 8 HR, 24 RBI, 3 SB, .242 average
What Happened: 211 PA’s, 28 R, 6 HR, 21 RBI, 4 SB, .225 average

Hicks had Tommy John surgery right after the 2019 season ended, and was expected to return mid-season over a full length schedule. The 60-game schedule afforded him the extra time to fully return for the 60-game season. The problem, however, was that he wasn’t very good.

Sure, he stayed healthier and played more as a result of other injuries (see below), but he wasn’t able to match the mild homer, RBI, and average that I expected. The main reason appears to be that he wasn’t hitting the ball as hard. Let’s take a look at how his small-sample 2020 compared to his last full season, in 2018.

Year Barrel Rate Exit Velocity Hard-Hit Rate
2018 8.8% 89.7 MPH 43.0%
2020 6.9% 88.2 MPH 38.2%

Hicks was quoted as saying that he started to feel better towards the end of the season. Indeed, he had a strong postseason, going 8-for-26 with six walks to five strikeouts. His average exit velocity also improved over 2 MPH from August to September. With a full offseason to to rest, Hicks could come at a value in 2021 drafts.

Aaron Judge (OF – NYY)
My Projection: 155 PA’s, 28 R, 10 HR, 22 RBI, 2 SB, .279 average
What Happened: 114 PA’s, 23 R, 9 HR, 22 RBI, 0 SB, .257 average

Judge’s rib/lung issue was well-documented as we headed into Spring Training and even into Summer Camp. He promptly started 2020 murdering baseballs, hitting seven homers in a seven-game span early in the season. He then had two separate IL stints for the same right calf injury. He wasn’t very good upon his return, posting a 65 wRC+ in 43 September plate appearances. His struggles carried into the postseason, collecting just five hits (but four homers) in seven games while striking out ten times.

Judge is certainly his own case study, and applying him and his teammate below to this type of exercise isn’t particularly meaningful. Judge has demonstrated that he is injury prone, and yet drafters are excited for his potential in 2021. He has gone as early as 33rd in the #2EarlyMocks, conducted by Justin Mason. I will happily let him get scooped up by others at that price.

Giancarlo Stanton (OF – NYY)
My Projection: 201 PA’s, 30 R, 13 HR, 31 RBI, 1 SB, .266 average
What Happened: 94 PA’s, 12 R, 4 HR, 12 RBI, 1 SB, .250 average

Stanton was dealing with a calf injury of his own back in February. With the time off, he was able to return for the start of the 2020 season. He then suffered a hamstring issue that sidelined him from August 8th-September 15th.

Judging by his Statcast profile, nothing really changed, even in a small sample. Stanton put on a laser show in the postseason, and hit the second-longest homer of the season. He’s healthy…for now. The fact of the matter is that Stanton is injury prone as well, and will be discounted in 2021 drafts. The interesting thing is that he is going well after Judge, right around picks 80-110. I would much rather have Stanton 50 picks later.

Alex Verdugo (OF – BOS)
My Projection: 200 PA’s, 24 R, 5 HR, 25 RBI, 2 SB, .291 average
What Happened: 221 PA’s, 36 R, 6 HR, 15 RBI, 4 SB, .304 average

Verdugo had back injuries during Spring Training, and was expected to miss the first couple weeks of the season. He recovered to start in right field as a result of the delay.

Verdugo largely did what we expected him to do, shifting some of his RBI to runs as a result of batting leadoff full-time beginning August 18th (I had him projected to hit in the middle of the order). While this was his first “full” campaign, he saw a similar number of pitches in 2019. The trends show that he got significantly lucky, at first glance.

Year Barrel Rate Average Exit Velo K Rate xwOBA
2019 5.7% 89.4 MPH 13.0% .343
2020 6.4% 87 MPH 20.4% .291

While his 2020 numbers seem lucky, his extraordinary plate discipline means that he almost always will put up a great batting average. For purposes of this study, let’s examine how that back injury could have affected his play. Carlos Correa knows all too well what a bad back can do to exit velocity, as demonstrated by Eno Sarris. Verdugo’s max exit velocity (109.5 MPH) was 2 MPH slower than his 2019 max, as was his exit velocity on flies and liners (93.1 MPH in 2019 to 91.2 MPH in 2020). While this small dip could suggest his back was not fully healthy, the Red Sox would not have allowed him to get 220+ plate appearances on a tanking team without him being healthy.

He should fit somewhere into the 125-150 range in next year’s drafts, buoyed by that average and hitting atop a good lineup.

Overall Thoughts

Outside of Verdugo and Suarez, every other player that we were concerned about during Spring Training in this exercise could be labeled as “injury-prone.” So, the main takeaway is to avoid injury-prone players. Duh. But, that’s not the point of this exercise.

Interestingly, Suarez, Mondesi, Hicks, and Verdugo had more of the “normal” years that we expected from them, while most of the others continued to have injury problems throughout the season. None of the pitchers stayed healthy. For 2021, that means I am going to be out on pitchers that get injured in the offseason and in Spring Training.

In 2021, I’m expecting even more injuries during the offseason and Spring Training as a result of the chaotic 2020 season. Players’ routines are out of whack, and it’s uncertain the types of facilities that players will have access to over the offseason. Keep this in the back of your mind as we navigate through offseason prep work!