Seven Safest Pitchers for Fantasy Drafts

Will Carroll@injuryexpertSports Injuries Lead WriterMarch 28, 2013

Seven Safest Pitchers for Fantasy Drafts

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    People think that I'm a pessimist.

    I focus on injuries and risk, but that doesn't mean that I root for them. In fact, I never root for injuries (and you shouldn't either.) Injuries take talent off the field and make the game a lesser event.

    If MLB, or even a couple teams, would put more of a focus on preventing even a fraction of the $1.6 billion they lost to injuries over the last five seasons, it would have a far bigger effect on the game than anything aside from TV money.

    Pitching injuries are the bulk of baseball's injury woes. I put together the Team Health Reports each year, which measure the injury risk of every starter in baseball. While you can read all 30 Team Health Reports, by clicking here, I often get asked questions about those rankings.

    One interesting question this year came from a reader who wishes to remain anonymous since he's using the Team Health Reports as a major part of his draft prep for the National Fantasy Baseball Championships.

    He asked if it was possible to break down the rankings by certain categories. One of them really intrigued me, but it couldn't be done from the outside since the underlying numerical ranking is not published. As a favor to him—and hoping that he wins his league again this season—I've put together the list for him, and for you.

    The simple question—who are the safest pitchers in Major League Baseball?

    "Safe" is a very relative term. Any of these pitchers could get injured this year, so by safe, take it to mean least risky or most unlikely to be injured. These are the Volvos of the baseball world. You can still get into a wreck, but you're less likely to get hurt in one. 

    Pitchers like Roy Halladay and CC Sabathia show that even durable pitchers can eventually show the effects of their workload, but even so, it's smart to build your fantasy lineup around one of these pitchers, if you're lucky enough or bid high enough to get one of them. Let's take a look at who makes the cut and why these seven pitchers are among the best in the game.

Felix Hernandez

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    This list goes to seven because of Felix Hernandez. As I was putting together the list, most are names you would expect. No one thinks they'll see Stephen Strasburg here or even Madison Bumgarner—he's below the injury nexus—but Hernandez?

    At one time, he was likely the riskiest pitcher in baseball. He was young, in an organization that had a terrible track record of keeping pitchers healthy and, oh, those mechanics. It's easy to look at Hernandez's head flying off to the side of first base and wonder how long he could keep up that unbalanced, unrepeatable mess.

    So far, about eight years now. Aside from his first partial season at age 19, Hernandez has exceeded 190 innings in each of his seasons, missing only a start here or there and avoiding any serious injuries.

    His pitch counts have never been exceptionally high and while he does have a high number of innings prior to crossing the injury nexus, he's shown no problems since. 

    Hernandez is an object lesson in trying to eyeball pitching mechanics. While it's possible to see areas of concern and repeated stress points, it's impossible to know the forces that a motion is generating without advanced equipment.

    Besides, do you want to be the coach who says "Hey, let's change that really young, really talented pitcher's motion and maybe he'll be as good?"

    The lack of objective data is problematic, leaving us to hope that pitchers like Hernandez hold together. The downside is that it's impossible to tell who will become "King Felix" and who will become "Hey, remember when Ryan Anderson was drafted first overall?"

    Hernandez has made slight mechanical changes, holding his head more steady and putting in a bit more turn in the leg-lift phase of his delivery. In the video above, you'll note that Hernandez's arm is slightly behind at footfall. This is partially due to the pitch being a changeup as shown, but he does have a bit of a timing issue at times.

    Now 27, Hernandez seems to be entering his peak years with good stuff and the experience to know what to do with it. While he may not get wins due to his team's situation, keeper leagues should consider him with the first pitcher off the board. That is especially the case since the Mariners are absolutely loaded with pitching prospects, some of whom could hit the big-league rotation this year.

Yovani Gallardo

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    I was speaking to a FOT (front office type) at the winter meetings in December in Nashville. The team he worked for was rumored to be looking for pitching, either in a trade or in free agency.

    I talked with him about what they were looking for and one thing he said really stuck with me. He said they were looking for a "hidden ace," a guy who had all the pitches, but none of the recognition, perhaps because they had been unlucky or stuck behind someone who got more attention.

    The example? Yovani Gallardo.

    The Brewers' projected ace is really the ace now, after Zack Greinke was traded away last mid-season, but if you look at his numbers, he's been the ace for a while. Gallardo might not have the reputation or big contract that Greinke has, but his stuff is every bit as good. 

    Since a fluky knee injury cost him almost all of 2008, Gallardo has been nearly automatic. He's averaged 15 wins per season while putting up over 185 innings in the past four seasons, including 207 and 204 the last two seasons, plus playoffs.

    His overall numbers are just as impressive. He has one less start than Greinke, but three more wins and a slightly better strikeout rate. He's also making significantly less money and doesn't have a sore elbow right now.

    Gallardo has very smooth and repeatable pitching mechanics. Note at the 0:19 second mark of the video above how Gallardo's foot lands perfectly in time with when the ball is raised. Timing is one of the most important things for a pitcher to stay healthy according to Dr. Glenn Fleisig of the American Sports Medicine Institute. Gallardo's pitch here is textbook. 

    The Brewers have no real two to go with the one that they have in Gallardo, which makes him not unlike Felix Hernandez. There's plenty of help offensively and having the speedy Jean Segura at shortstop may help more defensively, but there's no one else in the rotation that inspires the kind of confidence that Gallardo does.

    If the Brewers can find or develop that extra pitcher or two, Gallardo's not going to be a hidden ace for very long. Lock him up on your fantasy roster now while the price is still reasonable.

James Shields

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    James Shields may not excite anyone outside of Dayton Moore, but "Big Game James" always shows up.

    Actually, he's a much better pitcher than most realize, although that is in large part due to his durability. If Woody Allen was right in that 80 percent of success is just showing up, Shields has that part down cold. 

    Shields has shown up, all right. He's made all of his starts going back to 2007. He doesn't just show up, and has actually improved his stuff while retaining his easy motion. 

    There's actually more to Shields' mechanics than first appears. Shields has a significant amount of leg drive despite a relatively short stride length. He gets a long-arm action due to his scapular retraction and at the 0:07 mark of the video above, you can clearly see the separation between his hips and shoulders. 

    Shields also has a sneaky move that helps. Watch his back foot closely. It actually comes off the rubber and helps bring Shields' release point closer to the batter. That changes the distance, which increases the perceived velocity of Shields' pitch. The simple rule is that a pitch that comes from a shorter distance away appears to be faster. 

    Another factor in Shields' durability may be the very long arm action after the release of the ball. All the energy of the delivery doesn't go into the ball, some is reserved in the arm, since it doesn't detach.

    That energy must be dissipated and it's better if it's not done by the rotator cuff, which acts as the "brakes" of the arm. Shields' arm dissipates over a distance, as if the arm is trying to go full circle. 

    We'll see how Shields does without the watchful eye of Jim Hickey there, but my guess is that the Royals will get exactly what they paid for—a durable pitcher with better -than-expected stuff.

Mark Buehrle

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    Sometimes there's a perfect yin and yang.

    Josh Johnson is talented, but fragile. Mark Buehrle might not have Johnson's stuff, but he's as durable as Johnson is fragile. The Jays get to take on the risk and the reward of both this season and both will be interesting tests of a franchise that simply has not been able to keep pitchers healthy. 

    Buehrle is a pitcher who is almost universally described as "easy." As a lefty, he can get away with not throwing quite as hard. He relies on those repeatable mechanics as part of his deception and all his pitches look the same while he uses Greg Maddux-like control to shift a hitter's eyes. 

    While White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper gets a lot of credit for Buehrle's development, the fact is that Buehrle sprang fully formed from a small college in Missouri and quickly became exactly the pitcher he is today. Cooper was the minor league pitching coordinator for the 36 starts that Buehrle made at Single-A and Double-A. 

    Buehrle's delivery is simple, compact and well-timed. Most importantly, it is repeatable, as if he cloned the delivery a hundred times. This belies the fact that he has five pitches which he uses, relying on none for more than 30 percent of his work. 

    Buehrle is good and dependable, relying on a simple and effective delivery of a good mix of pitches to get batters out. He works quickly and efficiently and on any given day, has enough stuff to be a threat for a no-hitter. Now we'll just have to see if he can do it in Canada.

Justin Verlander

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    The pitching motion for Justin Verlander is not unnatural. What is unnatural is doing something hundreds of times at outlier velocities.

    There's not many pitchers who can throw the ball as hard as Verlander. The ones who do seldom hold together for very long.

    So what's the secret to Verlander's durability? No one knows. It could be something as "lucky" as genetics or as fluky as his routine run to Taco Bell before games. There's no data on why Verlander is able to do what he does on a mechanical basis, though there are similarities between his delivery and another durable flamethrower, Roger Clemens.

    In the above video, one of the reasons Verlander is able to throw so hard is clear. His hip turn is ridiculously fast and ridiculously strong. At the 0:10 mark of the video, Verlander's core starts to turn and as his hip goes from "pointing" to second base to just beyond third base, then makes a hard stop just beyond the 90 degree mark. The energy is transferred up the kinetic chain and results in a 100 mph fastball.

    This hard turn of the hips is one of few things known to have a one-to-one correlation to fastball velocity. Simply put, if the hips turn faster, the ball comes out faster, according to research from the American Sports Medicine Institute.

    Verlander also "disconnects" well, with his shoulders and hips turning on different, but parallel, axes. Watch as his shoulders come around just a tick behind the hips, amplifying the momentum in the way a trebuchet does. 

    Pair in a good curve and a changeup that can be as much as 12 mph slower while looking the same out of the hand, and it's little wonder why Verlander is good.

    What is disappointing is that we don't know why he's durable. For fantasy leaguers, the "why" may be unimportant as Verlander is perhaps the best choice for a No. 1 starter in baseball.

    He's got it all. 

Cole Hamels

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    I once described Cole Hamels as a "left-handed Mark Prior."

    This was in 2002 and was a heck of a compliment at the time, for both men. Hamels has had a bit more luck than Prior and a lot more wins. One of the reasons is his durability. 

    Unlike Mark Buehrle, Hamels is not a soft-tossing or crafty lefty. He throws the ball as hard from the left side as anyone not named David Price. 

    Don't forget that Hamels came into the league with some question marks about that magic left arm. Hamels actually slipped in the draft due to an accident that left him with a fracture the year before he was eligible for the draft. Many teams were worried and a few passed on him at the top of the draft due to concerns.

    The Philles are sure glad they did not pass. 

    Hamels' delivery is a typical Tom House style. Hamels has a compact windup, with his energy directed forward into a long stride, and has a linear focus to his ball. Watch as his hand goes back. (Actually, that's a misnomer. While the ball goes behind him, the move forward keeps the ball from ever actually going behind the starting point.) 

    Hamels' linearity adds to the deception of the hitter. It is very difficult to pick up exactly where the ball is at any point ahead of release. Hitters call this "showing the ball" and can give them extra timing during a pitcher's delivery. These are precisely the things that hitters are looking for in the video room and Hamels gives them nothing. 

    This deception is key since Hamels relies on it more than his stuff to get outs. His four-seam fastball has good velocity (91 mph) with exceptional movement, dropping as much as a foot. The reason is the release point comes with some pronation. While all pitchers pronate through their delivery, Hamels has what pitching coaches describe as a "natural sinking action," which is the result of his pronation at release.

    Hamels has done his apprenticeship under Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, but with the big-money contract, come expectations. Like those two, Hamels has met and exceeded most other pitchers in terms of effectiveness and durability. Another durable pitcher under the age of 30 is something to build around.

Matt Cain

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    Remember that the word "safe" is a relative term.

    That said, Matt Cain is rated by my system of injury risk as the safest pitcher available in 2013. That should be no surprise, since he would have been in the top of the list in 2012 as well.

    A couple of rings won't weigh down Cain or slow his arm, since his arm is the least of his delivery.

    Cain reminds me more and more of Tom Seaver each year. His delivery is all about the powerful legs, though his "drop"—bending the back knee to gain more power—is not as severe. In contrast to Hamels' compact and linear delivery, Cain's is much more open.

    At the 0:24 mark of the video above, Cain's arms and legs go wide, but he's able to control this due to his strong core and balance. His arms go slightly back due to scapular retraction and then are pushed through hard.

    There is not a great deal of disconnection between Cain's hips and shoulders, which is surprising. His delivery gets him into the 90's, but it is clearly much more reliant on the legs than most pitchers relay on their legs. 

    Cain's changeup is more of a "show me" pitch with very little velocity separation. Instead, Cain relies on location and efficiency to get his outs. It may surprise some, especially Giants fans, to hear that there's nothing very special about any of the component parts of Cain. The total package for him is clearly greater than the sum of his parts. 

    Cain has thrown 190 or more innings every year since 2005. That first season, between Triple-A and the majors, was a true explosion after the high school draftee went through each level, getting better and bigger at each stop. While many top pitchers come into their organization fully formed, there was massive development for Cain. His strikeouts rose at each level while he retained his 10-plus strikeout rate.

    The Giants may still be trying to figure out Tim Lincecum and his unique delivery, but they won't have to spend any time figuring out Cain. Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti can sit back and watch Cain do it time and again.