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Freak Finger Injuries: A Retrospective

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In July 2010, the Cleveland Indians made the move to trade Jake Westbrook to the St. Louis Cardinals in a three-way trade with the Padres; at the time, the return was nothing if not genuinely saddening. Westbrook’s contract was hardly club-friendly, and his injury issues coupled with eroding performance made his departure inevitable, but it was still disheartening to see the then-longest-tenured Indians starter depart in exchange for a stagnating 24-year-old Double-A pitcher.

Three years later, however, that same fringe prospect, Cleveland right-hander Corey Kluber, became a foundation of a budding 2013 playoff run and of a 2014 club intent to return to October. It’s no hyperbole to say that Kluber’s 2013 performance placed him among some of the best pitchers in the league. During the 2013 season, Kluber’s xFIP – Expected Fielding Independent Pitching – placed him 14th among the 187 starters with more than 50 innings pitched; for context, NL Rookie of the Year Jose Fernandez finished the year directly ahead of Kluber, whereas directly behind Kluber were Pittsburgh’s Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole, together with Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer. This elite performance contrasted with Kluber’s entirely lukewarm prospect projections would have made the Stetson University alum one of the most compelling comeback stories in the major leagues – were the Indians rotation anything other than a vast library of compelling stories, including Scott Kazmir’s return from Independent Baseball, Ubaldo’s return from replacement-level baseball, and Danny Salazar’s possible return from Olympus astride a 98-mph fastball.

Corey Kluber’s 2013 was itself excellent, but one can only wonder what it might have been had he not been sidelined for nearly a month with a rare middle finger sprain beginning on August 5th; even after he returned, Kluber’s slider – his strongest out pitch, which in 2013 had both a sharper break and better control than 2012 – lost a great deal of its effectiveness at missing bats. Prior to the injury, Kluber’s slider induced whiffs at an excellent 22% clip. After the injury, that same pitch generated swings and misses on only 13% of offerings; this, likely, was sprung from the 2-inch decrease in horizontal movement on said slider relative to 2013 as a whole. Consequently, Kluber’s strikeout rate in September was a season low 7.11 K/9.

Kluber’s Horizontal Slider Movement by Month (Source: BrooksBaseball)

 

If one attributes this to injury, then, how likely is this finger injury to affect Kluber’s performance in 2014? Using the ‘Injury History’ section of Baseball Prospectus’s player cards (an imprecise and unscientific methodology, to be sure, but better than nothing), one finds that there are six current/former MLB pitchers in the BP system who have at one point been afflicted with “sprains” to the middle finger of their throwing hand, each of whom spent time on the 15-day DL as a result.

  • Corey Kluber (August 2013)
  • Zach McAllister (June 2013)
  • Adam Wainwright (July 2008)
  • Ben Sheets (July 2007)
  • Chris Narveson (April 2013)
  • Matt Lindstrom (May 2012)

It should be noted that Chris Narveson’s MLB Career appeared to be over before the injury; in 2012, he was below replacement level at age 31, likely due to the myriad other injuries Narveson has sustained in the past several years. Moreover, because there is no access to any minor-league pitch-tracking data as well as being the only player who was not an above-replacement-level major leaguer at the time of his injury, Narveson will be discarded from the group, leaving only Kluber and the four other players.

In each case, one should pay attention to the season in which they suffered the injury, and compare the same-season pre-injury breaking ball effectiveness with the same-season post-injury effectiveness. Among the four non-Kluber pitchers, two pitchers’ breaking balls were less effective after the injury (McAllister and Wainwright), and two pitchers’ breaking balls were more effective (Sheets and Lindstrom).

McAllister and Wainwright, on one hand, saw the whiff rate on their respective breaking balls decrease. McAllister’s Pre-Injury 2013 whiff rate on his slider was a fairly mediocre 10.67%, declining to 7.44% after the injury. Wainwright, whose pre-injury 2008 whiff rate was a much higher 15.97%, declined far more dramatically to 7.96% for the remainder of 2008. McAllister’s Horizontal Break, like Kluber’s, decreased; for Wainwright, the magnitude of the curveball’s break oscillated wildly even before the injury, making it difficult to draw any conclusions regarding the impact of the finger injury on the bite of his breaking ball.

Yet for the other two pitchers, Sheets and Lindstrom, the effects were not ambiguous – their breaking balls induced more whiffs upon their return. Lindstrom’s pre-injury whiff rate on his slider was 15.94% in 2012, but upon his return, it increased to 17.74%; Sheets’s resurgence was yet more surprising, increasing his swinging strike rate from 7.02% to 14.61% from his return to the end of 2007. In Lindstrom’s case, his increase was not startlingly large, and moreover, he had three other injuries that had caused him pain earlier in 2012 – hence, his improvement might be attributed solely to needed recovery time for his other injuries. In Sheets’s case, however, he appears to have entirely changed his breaking pitch, since his breaking ball’s vertical break decreased by 2.5 inches, whereas his horizontal break increased increased by 1.3 inches, offering at least a possible explanation for an otherwise inexplicable improvement.

In the first full season after the injuries to Lindstrom, Sheets, and Wainwright, each of the three pitchers came back as effective and as durable as before their injuries. In 2008, Sheets carried a 3.38 FIP over 198.1 Innings. Wainwright’s 2009 saw him hold a 3.11 FIP over 233 IP, and Lindstrom – a career reliever – in 2013 threw a full season from the pen, with a 3.15 FIP over 74 Innings. While the major league precedent for this injury is fairly small, Kluber and McAllister should be encouraged by these results.

What Kluber’s and McAllister’s injuries are not is a repeat of Adam Miller. The former Indians prospect’s middle finger injury was far more severe, and unlike Miller’s first finger injury, neither Kluber nor McAllister required surgery. Ultimately, all three injured the same part of their finger – the pulley system – but Miller’s injury severity alone sets his freak injury (indeed, his collection of freak injuries) in an entirely different class.

None of this is to say that Kluber and McAllister are going to put up numbers like Wainwright or Sheets; however, when pitchers and catchers report, it’s reasonable to conclude that both Cleveland pitchers will shake off their finger injury as any pitcher might shake off winter rust, just as Wainwright, Sheets, and Lindstrom did before them.

In the case of the Indians, the connection to Wainwright is not merely one of precedent, however; when McAllister suffered his first finger injury, it was Wainwright himself who counselled McAllister, encouraging the Cleveland right-hander to have confidence in his breaking-ball offerings as soon as McAllister was healthy enough to pitch.

The Cardinals player who set these two up? None other than Jake Westbrook, the very pitcher whom the Indians gave up for Corey Kluber. So much for disappointing returns.

Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Brooks Baseball

Article originally posted on xtremefip.blogspot.com

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Author: John Grimm

John can be contacted on Twitter at @JHGrimm, or via e-mail at john.h.grimm@hotmail.com.

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