On February 4th, Brandon Webb announced his retirement from baseball at just 33 years of age. Though his absence won’t have much effect of your fantasy strategy in 2013, it serves as a sobering reminder of the fragility of a pitching career and the reason to use extreme caution when evaluating pitchers.
Webb was one of baseball’s most dominant pitchers from 2006 to 2008. In 2006, he won the National League Cy Young. In 2007, he logged the 12th longest scoreless innings streak in MLB history. In 2008, he became the first pitcher in 23 years to record a win each of his first nine starts. In 2009, The Sporting News ranked him as the 31st best player in Major League Baseball, listing only 6 starting pitchers ahead of him. And then, it was over.
Webb started Diamondbacks’ 2009 season opener, pitching 4 innings against the Rockies. He left the game with what was described at the time as “shoulder stiffness.” Eight days later he was placed on the 15-day disabled list. Thirteen days after that, he was ruled out for another month. On August 2nd, 2009, Webb had season-ending shoulder surgery. Despite a series of valiant comeback attempts over the past several years, he made it only as far as the Rangers’ AA affiliate in 2011. Brandon Webb never threw another Major League pitch.
What’s perhaps most alarming about Webb’s issues is that no one predicted them. There were few, if any, red flags. Heading into 2009, there was no good reason to believe that Brandon Webb wouldn’t be every bit as dominant as he’d been in years past. He was the 4th ranked pitcher in these 2009 preseason rankings (also note that two of the three pitchers ahead of him on the list have since had significant issues of their own, and that this list is only 4 years old). In 2008, Webb pitched 226.2 innings, going 22-7 with a 3.30 ERA and 183 strikeouts. When that season ended, he was a healthy 29-year-old man and one of baseball's brightest stars. He threw exactly 77 more pitches in his career.
Further illustrating the futility of attempting to predict arm injuries is the fact that Webb doesn’t fit the profile of the hard-throwing pitcher we’ve come to associate with such issues. When a player like Stephen Strasburg or Michael Pineda suffers an arm injury, it makes sense on some level – these are young pitchers who rely a great deal on throwing the ball as hard as they possibly can, and are subjecting their bodies to the grueling MLB schedule for the first time. Injuries to such pitchers, while certainly not expected, are at least not terribly surprising. Cases like theirs are the reason most young pitchers are now subjected to strict pitch counts and innings limits during their first MLB stints. Webb, on the other hand, was not a particularly hard thrower (during his two seasons for which PitchF/X data is available, his fastball averaged just 88.6 MPH), and relied primarily on a devastating sinker. He didn’t have the worrisome size of someone like Tim Lincecum. If you drafted Webb in the third or fourth round in 2009, you had no reason to suspect you were getting anything other than a reliable top-tier starter.
Webb’s retirement should have no direct impact on your 2013 draft strategy (he’s been completely off the fantasy radar for years, obviously), but the fact that a pitcher’s career can end at any moment is one of which fantasy owners must remain painfully aware. There are no sure things when it comes to pitchers - this is the reason that my primary response to my favorite team signing my favorite player of all-time to a lucrative long-term extension was not elation, as might be expected, but nervousness - even before this news broke.
What are the practical applications of this knowledge? For one, it’s typically a sound fantasy strategy to sell high on pitchers – if someone offers you a position player of comparable value for a pitcher, you should almost always take the deal. Conversely, it’s generally unwise to trade position players for pitching (Emphasis on “generally” - If someone offers you Justin Verlander for Trevor Plouffe or something, you have my blessing). Finally, to reiterate my point from last week, it’s unwise (in both the draft and in trade negotiations) to assume that a struggling pitcher will bounce back. Cases like Brandon Webb’s show us that it’s often just as likely that the problems are far more severe than they appear on the surface.