Fantasy Baseball Draft Prep: Are these 'injury risks' actually risky? Analyzing Noah Syndergaard, A.J. Pollock, and Justin Turner
Finding prime players with the right kinds of injury risk can be a game-changer in Fantasy.
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Risk matters in Fantasy sports. Of course it does. You don't want to spend a first-round pick on a volatile player because your season could end before it starts.
However, not all risk is the same. There are plenty of different categories of risk, and they all need to be taken into account. For instance, there's performance risk, which comes in a variety of flavors:
- Players with volatile skill sets and track records, like Rougned Odor or Robbie Ray .
- Players without a long track record of success, like Jesus Aguilar or German Marquez.
- Older players who could fall off at any time, like Nelson Cruz or Zack Greinke.
- Players coming off unsustainably successful seasons, like Christian Yelich or Javier Baez.
None of those players are guaranteed to have bad seasons; in fact, I like plenty of them to be very valuable in 2019. But there's an inherent uncertainty to projecting them that drives their price down at least a little bit in some cases — and in Nelson Cruz's case, probably too much.
Of course, there are also the injury risks. And that's what I want to focus on here. More specifically, I want to try to separate real injury risk from overblown injury risks. Generally, the best predictor of future injury is past injury, but not all past injuries are created equal.
For instance: Pitchers are more likely than hitters to require an injured list trip in any given season. And soft-muscle or tendon injuries are probably a bigger concern for the future than broken bone injuries, which tend to heal more predictably and with less concern for re-injury.
And, of course, there's the distinction to be drawn between recurring injuries and seemingly random, fluke-y ones. A player missing time with a knee or ankle injury in three straight years can probably be safely assumed to be an injury risk in the future; I'm not sure the same can be said for players who have suffered multiple injuries to different parts of their body.
To take one high-profile example, Giancarlo Stanton was the "If he could only stay healthy" guy for years. From 2012 to 2016, he played more than 125 games just once missing time as a result of, among other things, a broken hand, a groin injury, a knee issue and a fastball to the face. He tumbled in drafts heading into 2017, when he subsequently won MVP and hit 59 homers. He has missed just seven games over the past two years.
That's the kind of player where profit can be made. Stanton was "injury prone" right up until he was not. Same with J.D. Martinez. Let's try to find the next version of that player class, someone being unfairly dinged for injury concerns. Here are three candidates:
I.L. history: torn lat muscle (2017); finger ligament strain (2018); Hand, foot and mouth disease (2018)
Other injury history: bone spur in elbow (2016); biceps strain (2017)
That's a lot of injuries in the arm area, but it's hard to argue they're related. The elbow bone connects to the biceps, and the biceps connects to the lat muscle … through the shoulder. And also he hurt his finger. Given how hard he throws, Syndergaard has always been viewed as a ticking time bomb waiting to explode, but he's mostly managed to avoid elbow issues — he pitched through the bone spurs more or less without issue in 2016, making 31 starts and tossing 190.2 innings including one postseason start.
Nobody should deny Syndergaard is one of the very best pitchers in baseball; among pitchers with at least 500 innings since 2015, Syndergaard ranks fourth in ERA, second in FIP, fifth in SIERA, and 11th in K%. We've seen basically no diminishment in his skills despite missing all that time, too, and he's been utterly dominant in spring action so far, whatever that's worth.
Are we sure Syndergaard is riskier than Chris Sale, who essentially missed a month-plus and saw a startling 5 mph drop in his average fastball velocity after going on the DL with a shoulder injury last summer? Syndergaard looks like an obvious value as the 10th starter off the board.
I.L. history: fractured hand (2014); fractured elbow (2016); strained groin (2017); fractured thumb (2018)
Pollock might be my very favorite value in drafts this season. His ADP currently sits at 95.0, almost entirely due to injury concerns. Some may cite his somewhat underwhelming overall performance over the past two seasons as well, as if a .261 average and 26-homer, 24-steal pace is anything to sneeze at. However, a fluke fractured thumb in 2018 derailed what was looking like a legitimate breakout; Pollock was hitting .293/.349/.620 with a 45-homer, 37-steal pace before the injury, and it looked like an offseason swing change really helped him unlock more power. The injury ruined that, as he just couldn't hit for the same authority afterwards, for obvious reasons. He wouldn't have gone 40-40, but it was clear Pollock was a new, better player.
The obvious response here is that Pollock has played fewer than half of his potential games over the past three seasons, but as with the others on this list, there's no obvious thread. He suffered a fractured elbow while sliding into home during a spring game in 2016, missed nearly two months in 2017 with a groin injury, and then had the thumb injury last season. The only injury to even a similar part of his body he has had twice was another hand injury in 2014, four years before his most recent.
Maybe Pollock is somehow more prone to injuries for some reason, but I can't think of a good explanation for why a fractured elbow, a groin strain and a fractured thumb should be connected. This isn't even like Syndergaard, where he throws so hard that some risk should be baked in. Pollock's injuries have just had nothing at all to do with each other. Pollock is being discounted entirely because of injuries, but he represents a potential league-winning value in the Round 8-10 range. He could give you a better version of what we're hoping for from Andrew Benintendi, who goes off the board nearly seventy picks earlier.
I.L. history (past five seasons): groin strain (2018); fractured wrist (2018); strained right hamstring (2017); thigh infection (2015); left hamstring strain (2014)
Turner is my favorite pick for the "Who is the next J.D. Martinez?" question. He's older at 34, but we've seen essentially no decline in his skill set because he's been better than ever over the past two seasons. Turner doesn't get the credit he deserves for arguably being a top-five hitter over the past couple of seasons, just like Martinez in 2017 before his second big breakout. And he's been a consistently productive player despite a HR/FB rate right around 10-11 percent over the past two seasons. If that jumps up even to the 15 percent range -- above-average, but certainly not elite like his other batted-ball data would suggest -- 30 homers is easily within the realm of possibility.
I'm less bullish on Turner's chances of staying healthy, more due to his age than his injury history. The groin issue last year was a non-issue, largely, and he showed no ill effects for the most part after getting hit by a pitch in spring. The concern comes with the two hamstring issues in his past, however they came three years apart, so it's not a huge warning sign for me.
Turner should get regular time off, but it's not like he has a ceiling of 130 games or something — he could get to 150 if he avoids bad luck. And if Turner gets to 145-150 games, you're getting second- or third-round value out of him. Turner already is what we want a best-case scenario rookie season of Vladimir Guerrero to be, and he's not currently injured.
So which Fantasy Baseball sleepers should you snatch in your draft? And which undervalued pitchers can help you win a championship? Visit SportsLine now to get Fantasy Baseball rankings for every single position, all from the model that called Scooter Gennett's huge breakout last season, and find out.
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