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MLB 2014 Season – Week 2 in Review

Week 2 of the Major League Baseball 2014 season is officially over, and once again, it is time for us to look back and see what happened around the game.

Injuries

One thing that has stood out to me – and I’m sure plenty of others – is the rash number of injuries we’re getting in the early going.  Injuries happen all the times.  Baseball is a demanding sport and naturally we’re going to experience players who miss time due to various ailments.  But this season, it appears that injuries are accelerating at an alarming rate.

What’s worse is it’s not just the fact that there appear to be more injuries now than ever; it’s who they’re happening too: pitchers.

Go back to the middle of Spring Training.  It all started with the Atlanta Braves when young pitcher Kris Medlen left a Spring Training game on March 9.  The initial diagnosis was was “forearm strain,” but naturally he got a second opinion.  Then the news came out that Medlen had suffered a tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow – the second such injury of his career.  He previously suffered a torn UCL in August 2010, underwent Tommy John ligament reconstruction surgery, and returned in September 2011 to pitch in two games.

He would soon be followed by fellow teammate Brandon Beachy, who had a similar experience.  He underwent his first elbow ligament surgery in June 2012 and returned in July of 2013 after a year of rehab.  But he felt constant discomfort and was eventually shut down in September that year.

The discomfort unfortunately did not go away, as he continued suffering from it in Spring Training.  While the team was reluctant to have him undergo an MRI – which for the life of me I could not possibly understand – they eventually did, and it was revealed that – Like Medlen – Beachy had again torn his UCL.  Now he will miss the entire 2014 season along with Medlen.

A team losing two of its better pitchers to injuries like this is both devastating to the team’s playoff hopes but also perplexing.  Despite the many advancements taken in recent years to monitor pitchers and their workloads – case in point the Tampa Bay Rays – we are still experiencing mountains of arm injuries.  And it hardly stops with the Rays.

Several other notable pitchers have experience the same injury and are either going to go under the knife in the near future or are already rehabbing from the injury.  These players include but are not limited too…

Athletics: Eric O’Flaherty

Braves: Jonny Venters and Gavin Floyd

Cardinals: Jason Motte

Cubs: Kyuji Fujikawa

Diamondbacks: Patrick Corbin, David Hernandez, and Daniel Hudson

Dodgers: Chad Billingsley

Mets: Matt Harvey and Bobby Parnell

Padres: Casey Kelly and Cory Luebke

Royals: Luke Hochevar

Tigers: Bruce Rondon

And those are only the ones that are known.  It’s almost daunting to imagine the injuries that are either unknown to the public or have yet to happen. With more emphasis than ever being put on bullpen construction, as evidenced by the declining rate of the average number of innings pitched per starter – it was down to 5.71 innings per start in 2013 – it stands to wonder if there is indeed a correlation between pitching injuries and innings pitched alone.

In the late 19th century, there were one, maybe two starting pitchers on a team and each was expected to pitch every other game and accumulated upwards of 600 innings a year.  Six hundred!  Nowadays, the culture and perception is so dramatically changed that now a workhorse – the term commonly used for pitchers who consistently throw many innings – typically throws upwards of 200 innings, a far cry from the 600+ pitchers threw in the late 1800’s.

The bottom line is it’s 2014 and we are no closer to solving the crisis of pitcher injuries than we were 20 years ago.   How many more pitcher injuries are we going to see until we find a proper solution?

Major League Baseball recently took a step towards preventing injuries to the head via comebackers by dawning a new protective cap.  While the model hasn’t exactly wowed the hopefuls eager to end this epidemic, at least it’s a step in the right direction.  Hopefully we’ll soon see the same for elbow ligaments and shoulder ailments.

Surprises/Disappoinments

Last week I wrote about my surprising/disappointing teams from the past week.  This week I’m going to take a slightly different approach: I’ll be talking about surprising and disappointing players from the past week. These are players that either had high expectations (or in some cases, merely modest) entering the season and are failing to meet them, or players that had little to no expectations and are surprising everyone.

First up, the Surprises.

Charlie Blackmon, Colorado Rockies

Yes, he plays most of his games in the hitter-friendly confines of Coors Field, but that doesn’t mean we should just automatically overlook the scorching start he’s gotten off to.  In 10 games so far, Blackmon has hit .471/.472/.706 with a 1.178 OPS and five extra base hits so far.  For a seemingly mediocre player coming into this season, not too shabby.  It stands to wonder how long this hot pace can go on, but right now he’s caught a lot of people’s attention.

Jose Fernandez, Miami Marlins

Jose Fernandez, one of the great stories from the 2013 season, continues to write incredible chapters to his still young career.  Last year he came out of nowhere – he even skipped Triple-A entirely due to the various pitching injuries the Marlins had – and posted a superb 2.19 ERA, 178 ERA+, 12-6 record, and 187 strikeouts in just 172.2 innings.  One of the lone bright spots from last year’s dismal Marlins team, he was expected to be a big part of this team’s core that had aspirations of returning to relevancy.

So far, so good.

In two starts in this early new season, Fernandez has been better that last year, with a 0.71 ERA and 17 strikeouts in only 12.2 innings. Yes, it’s only two starts, but it was already universally believed it would be near impossible to duplicate his success from last season, and it is highly likely his performance will come back to Earth somewhat in the future, but right now a case could be made that he’s second only to Clayton Kershaw on the pitch pedestals.

Now, the Disappointments.

B.J. Upton, Atlanta Braves

B.J., B.J., B.J., what are we going to do with you?

Last season, his first with the Braves, was by far the worst of his career and one of the worst in recent memory for any full-time player. He hit a miserable .184/..268/.289 with a mere nine home runs 151 strikeouts, a pathetic .557 OPS and a 53 OPS+ in 126 games played.   It was a miserable season all around and the case could be made that he didn’t even deserve a spot on the postseason roster.

It was his first under a 5 year, $75.25 Million contract – the largest free agent contract in franchise history might I add – and the hope was that this second year would be much better.

Eh, not so much.

It’s only two weeks, but his performance is worth noting: he’s been AWFUL.  Just awful.  It’s pretty hard to be worse than he was last year – even Adam Dunn, coming off a stinker of a 2011 campaign that saw him hit .159 with a mere 11 home runs, rebounded somewhat to hit .204 with 41 home runs in 2012 – but somehow, B.J. Upton is doing that.  So far, he has hit a meager .138/.138/.172 with a .310 OPS, a -15 OPS+ (yes, a negative OPS+) 13 strikeouts and ZERO walks in 29 plate appearances.  He has not hit a home run or taken a walk yet, and he looks like a shell of the player he was in Tampa Bay.

Even in Tampa, where he also failed to live up to the (perhaps unfair) expectations, he still flashed brilliance more than occasionally, and he even hit 28 home runs in his last season there, including 21 post All-Star Break.

It’s hard to figure out what has gone wrong with him.  Is it a confidence issue?  Could it be his swing, but then you could argue it was his swing in Tampa yet he still did fairly decently.

The Braves still have three years and $46 Million left after this season.  They have to hope he turns it around soon.

Jim Johnson, Oakland Athletics

Fans from both the Baltimore Orioles and the Oakland Athletics questioned the trade that sent Jim Johnson from the O’s to the A’s and allowed the latter to left free agent reliever Grant Balfour to walk and eventually sign with the Rays.

For one, Balfour had an impressive 3 years with Oakland, posting a collective 2.53 ERA and 203 strikeouts in 199.1 combined innings and 64 saves during his tenure.  He became a huge fan favorite among the fan base and was a crucial part to the immense success the team experience in 2012 and 2013, where they won the AL West division in both years, upsetting the favorite Texas Rangers.  But then they allow him to hit the market and, instead of trying to resign him, they decide to trade for Jim Johnson, the Orioles’ closer, and pay him $10 Million for 2014.

Johnson, in his defense, has been quietly good in his own right.  Since becoming the full time closer for the O’s in 2012, he posted a 2.72 ERA with 101 saves and 97 strikeouts in 139 innings.  He led the AL in saves in both 2012 and 2013 and earn the moniker “proven closer.”  A closer look at his numbers show that, unlike Balfour, Johnson isn’t a strikeout pitcher.  Rather, more than 50% of his outs came via ground ball.  While that’s hardly disastrous, it does leave him open to be hit hard.

Which brings us to what’s happened so far.

He has only made a few appearances for the A’s so far, so perhaps “disappointment” is the wrong word to use.  But wow, he has been bad.  So far he owns a 18.90 ERA and a 4.500 WHIP (Walks + hits per innings pitched) in 5 games.  He’s surrendered 9 hits so far.  Nine.  In 3.1 innings.  That’s crazy.

And while it’s all but certain he’ll improve as the season goes on, for the time being he’s been replaced as the closer.  They’re paying him $10 Million this season so it’s critical that they right the ship with him.

C.C Sabathia, New York Yankees

C.C. Sabathia is one of the most frustrating disappointments so far, simply because he still has the upside to be a great pitcher.

From 2009 to 2012 – his first four years with the Yankees – he went 74-29 with a 3.22 ERA, a 1.18 WHIP with 821 strikeouts in 905 innings.  Easily the work of an ace-caliber pitcher.  It looked like he would be one of the loan exceptions to the rule that long-term contracts to free agents usually look bad all around.  Of course he was injured for part of the 2012 season with elbow issues and made only 28 starts.

And then 2013 happened.

It was easily his worst as a full-time starter.  He went 14-13 and posted a 4.78 ERA and 1.37 WHIP.  He did pitch 211 innings, but his season ended prematurely with a hamstring injury.  If the Yankees want to return to the playoffs they need Sabathia to turn it around.  But there are problems.

For one, his fastball velocity has dropped dramatically.  Per fangraphs, his fastball averaged 94.1 miles per hour in 2009, his first year as a Yankee.  In 2012, it averaged 92.4 miles per hour.  And last year it averaged 91.3 mph, and he was hit very hard.

Sabathia is now at the part of his career where he can no longer rely on velocity and overpower hitters.  He must rely on location and command in order to be successful.

Spring Training saw him end on a streak of 16 consecutive scoreless innings, giving hope that he perhaps figured it out.  He was reportedly adding a cut fastball to his arsenal with the help of recently retired Yankee pitcher Andy Pettitte.

And then the regular season began.

In his first start of the season, against the Houston Astros – the same Astros that have lost 324 combined games the last 3 seasons – he gave up 6 runs in the first inning.  Six runs.  He settled down after that, but even settling as a middle-rotation pitcher, six runs – let alone in one inning – to a team with as little talent as the Astros is downright nerve-wracking.  Then in his second start, he gave up four runs in six innings to the Blue Jays.  His third saw him give up another four runs to the Red Sox.

Yikes.

What’s worse is that his fastball is continuing to decline; so far it is averaging just under 90 mph, and per fangraphs, he has also yet to incorporate his cut fastball.

The Yankees are looking to rebound after missing the postseason in 2013, but they won’t be going anywhere if Sabathia cannot figure it out and give his team a chance to win.

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