Innings Limits to Monitor (2019 Fantasy Baseball)
Pitching 180 innings is the new 200, just like orange is the new pink or something like that. Even so, there are plenty of young arms who are being drafted as a shiny toy and oft-injured vets (or somewhere in between) who will have an innings cap. Many of these pitchers do not have injury risk baked into their price, so it’s imperative to sort through exactly how many innings to expect. With some of these guys getting drafted as SP1s and 2s, you need to make sure you are getting the right value out of early-round picks. Because, as Uma Thurman once said, “You can’t flaunt it if you’re injured”… or something along those lines.
The Dodgers have implemented a strategy where they make up phantom injuries for most of their starters (besides Rich Hill, who has blister-itis). In fact, the Dodgers had the most DL (now IL) stints in all of MLB in 2018. They do this in order to maximize their pitchers’ effectiveness for the playoffs, and they typically have so much depth that it doesn’t substantially affect their ability to win. While other teams do this, nobody does it more often than the Dodgers. A fun nugget to chew on: The Dodgers have not had a 200-inning pitcher since Clayton Kershaw in 2015!
Walker Buehler (SP – LAD)
2018 innings pitched (including minors and playoffs): 177
2019 Steamer projection: 163
Everyone knows Buehler as last year’s shiny new toy, the one with the 70-grade fastball and wipeout slider. He stormed on the scene in 2018, pitching to the tune of a 2.62 ERA, 28% K rate, and a 50% ground-ball rate. In spite of all that GOAT-ness, did we forget that Buehler had Tommy John surgery in 2015? Oftentimes, a pitcher comes back stronger after TJ, which Buehler certainly did. However, the best predictor of future injury is past injury, and the fact that he pitched over 80 more innings in 2018 than he did in 2017 should raise some red flags. He also went on the DL with rib cage soreness in the middle of 2018, which was likely Dodgeritis more than anything, so I won’t knock him there. Everybody loves Buehler right after the top-12 aces go, but I likely won’t have many shares of him. I’m not expecting more than 170 innings in 2019, and while Buehler is inarguably a fantastic pitcher, his future injury risk is not baked into his early fourth-round ADP.
Clayton Kershaw (SP – LAD)
2018 innings pitched: 161 and 1/3
2019 Steamer projection: 185
The aforementioned Kershaw used to be a beast in terms of innings, regularly racking up 220-plus, but those days are long gone. It’s sad to see the greats decline, from Albert Pujols to Miguel Cabrera to … wait, Kershaw is just 30 years old? Man, those back injuries have really aged him. I would bet my life savings (read: a minimal amount of money) on Kershaw finishing under his Steamer projection. In fact, I trust my wife more to say she will “stop shopping” when we get a dog than I expect Kershaw to exceed 185 innings. With chronic lower back injuries ailing him every year since 2014, these injuries will only get worse and more severe as Father Time carries on. Kershaw’s peripherals have slowly declined (drops in K%, ERA, and WHIP over the past three years), and there is no way I am drafting him as my SP1. However, if you can scoop him up as your SP2 in the fifth-sixth round, go right ahead. Some draft rooms may be that far off of him.
Alex Reyes (SP/RP – STL)
2018 innings pitched (including minors): 26 and 2/3
2019 Steamer projection: 110
Reyes has been one of the unluckiest pitching phenoms to ever grace the game of baseball. He was ready to destroy anyone who got in his way after recovering from TJ in 2017, only to come back and pitch four innings in the majors before tearing his lat. I remember watching his MLB debut, getting so excited at his potential, and then being so bummed once he got injured again. With Carlos Martinez battling a sore shoulder (see below), Reyes may have an opportunity to join the rotation. However, the Cardinals have plenty of other options (Dakota Hudson, John Gant, Austin Gomber), so they do not have to rush Reyes into a starting spot. Reyes will be great on a per-inning basis, and with his ADP in the 220s, he is well worth the gamble of starting, or even closing, in 2019.
Carlos Martinez (SP/RP – STL)
2018 innings pitched (including minors): 125 and 2/3
2019 Steamer projection: 129
According to Pro Sports Transactions, Martinez’s actual first name is Ernesto, which is a great tidbit that I didn’t know. If nothing else, you came away reading this article learning that wonderful piece of information. Martinez had been a stalwart in the Cards’ rotation from 2015-2017, regularly tossing between 180 and 200 innings. However, he suffered both a strained lat and strained oblique in 2018, forcing him on the IL three separate times. Now, he has a sore shoulder while working back to full throttle and is quickly becoming a divisive player in the fantasy community. Martinez is too dominant to be a setup man, so you can expect him to close or start once he is ready to pitch. The question is, when will that be? The prognosis is that he will resume throwing in a couple of weeks, but the Cubs said that about Yu Darvish about 18 times last year. This is a situation we need to monitor throughout the spring. If you think he will be fine, feel free to snag him at a bargain a round later than his current ADP.
James Paxton (SP – NYY)
2018 innings pitched: 160 and 1/3 (career high)
2019 Steamer projection: 172
Here’s another guy who has fantastic numbers on a per-inning basis, but just can’t seem to stay healthy. In a perfect world, let’s say he stays healthy. Even if he makes every start possible, he is likely not to exceed 180 innings. In this perfect world, the Yankees likely have, at a minimum, a Wild Card berth locked up, so they will want to save Paxton for the playoffs. Even if you think his injuries have been fluky, the Yanks would be foolish to increase his innings past 175-180 if expecting a full World Series run. Just like Buehler, Paxton is going off the board as soon as the fifth round, which is early SP2 territory. While he makes for a great Best Ball player, I’d much prefer guys like Zack Wheeler as my SP2.
Stephen Strasburg (SP – WAS)
2018 innings pitched: 139
2019 Steamer projection: 177
Can someone please tell me how Kershaw and Stephen Strasburg are the same age? I feel like Strasburg is still a young gun trying to work through his early-year injuries. Now in his age-31 season, Strasburg has pitched more than 175 innings just once since 2014. Similar to Paxton, the Nationals figure to be cautious with Strasburg, even if he does stay healthy. I would be surprised if the Nationals let him exceed 170 innings this year. Also like Paxton, he makes for a great Best Ball play, since he has a great K rate and you don’t have to deal with the headache of figuring out when he is actually pitching. In roto and points leagues, it makes much more sense to wait out Paxton and Strasburg and go for Wheeler, Mike Clevinger, and Jameson Taillon instead.
Charlie Morton (SP – TB)
2018 innings pitched: 167
2019 Steamer projection: 154
Morton made 30 starts last year, and as a result tossed the most innings in his career since 2013. It astounds me that he wasn’t able to pitch more than 167 innings, which was a measly four innings short of his career-high. Quietly, Morton has averaged a tad over 24 starts a season over the last three years. If he is able to stay mostly healthy again, he likely won’t eclipse 175 innings. The Rays, who will need every pitch that Morton can throw to navigate the home stretch, will likely be cautious with him early in the season. He started out hot last year, only to fade a bit in the second half, and the Rays certainly want to prevent that. Despite putting up very similar numbers to Clayton Kershaw last year, he is going about 85 picks later. While Kershaw certainly offers higher upside, there is a chance Morton has a better K rate and a similar ERA to Kershaw in 2019.
Jesus Luzardo (SP – OAK)
2018 minor league innings pitched: 119
2019 Steamer projection: 111
Fantasy owners are foaming at the mouth over thoughts of Luzardo starting 2019 in the big league rotation for the A’s. Given that their starters are horrendous (you could also say terrible, awful, miserable, etc.), Luzardo has a great chance to break camp with the big league squad. However, he pitched 109.1 innings in 2018, so you can expect him not to exceed 150 in 2019. With a 50% ground-ball rate and career 28.9% K rate, Luzardo could thrive immediately in the majors. While currently not drafted in most 12-team leagues, he could shoot up draft boards with a strong spring training. Make sure to monitor his status throughout the spring, and feel free to throw a lottery pick on him in the last round of your draft. Just don’t expect a Buehler season.
Josh James (SP – HOU)
2018 innings pitched (including minors): 137
2019 Steamer projection: 128
James should break camp as the Astros’ fifth starter, but he will likely have some starts skipped or changed out for spot starters like Framber Valdez, Forrest Whitley, and even Brad Peacock. With just over 137 innings pitched in 2018, it would be surprising if he cracked 165 in 2019. There is a tremendous amount of hype surrounding him, and rightfully so given his 32% K rate and 3.46 xFIP. There are warning signs for regression, namely his 91% strand rate and below-average 41.5% ground-ball rate. With an ADP of 239, you aren’t gambling much, but you better be willing to cut bait down the playoff stretch run.
The Jury’s Out
Tyler Glasnow (SP – TB)
2018 innings pitched: 111 and 2/3
2019 Steamer projection: 135
Glasnow has been a famed prospect for what seems like a decade, but only recently figured out how to find success in the big leagues. While seemingly around forever, he is just 25 years old and pitched just 111 and 2/3 innings in 2018. In fact, his career high is just 155 in 2017. Due to his history of not breaking 170 innings, and with the Rays unafraid to use the opener, there is a chance that Glasnow doesn’t break 175 innings in his quest to be a top-tier pitcher. Fortunately, this is the one pitcher who seems to have this innings cap baked into his 193 ADP, which could be a bargain if he can get to 170 innings.
Jimmy Nelson (SP – MIL)
2018 innings pitched: 0 (175 and 1/3 in 2017)
2019 Steamer projection: 112
Nelson was on the shelf for all of 2018 after injuring his shoulder diving back into first base. Don’t slide head first, kids. While he was a regular mid-170s innings pitcher from 2015-2017, he did not pitch a single inning in 2018. As a result, the Brewers are unlikely to use him that heavily in 2019. In fact, Roster Resource has him as the Brewers’ fifth starter despite his true talent level befitting an ace label for this staff. Steamer’s innings projection of 112 seems to be a reasonable assessment. With a plethora of pitching options (Junior Guerra, Corbin Burnes), the Brewers won’t rush Nelson. He is going undrafted in standard 12-team leagues, but Nelson could prove to be a fantastic value if he can get back to 2017 levels (27.3% K rate, 3.05 FIP).