Covering Recoveries, Part Two: Three Key Injury Comebacks in the National League
by 21 March 2017, 9:36 PM
We missed you, A.J.! Pollock is among three difference-makers in the National League returning from injury.
Last week, we took a look at three players in the American League returning from injuries and how their health would impact their teams’ success. In this edition, we turn our attention to the Senior Circuit for three National League players-– one from each division— who spent much of 2016 on the shelf. Successful comebacks from these studs could reshape the NL pennant race.
NL East - Neil Walker, New York Mets
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
It seems almost any member of the Mets could fit the bill in this category. David Wright, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Lucas Duda all missed major chunks of the season in 2016. Travis D’Arnaud missed more than half the year and was a shell of himself when he was on the field. Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, and Steven Matz all went down during New York’s stretch run, and Zack Wheeler has not pitched in the Majors since 2014. Naturally, all of these injuries are worth our attention, but it is Walker’s return from a lumbar microdiscectomy (colloquially, back surgery) that might make or break the Mets’ 2017 season.
Even though Walker did not play in the final third of the season, 2016 was a career year for the NL second baseman. He led Mets position players with a career-best 3.7 FanGraphs wins above replacement, thanks in part to a massively different batted ball profile. Not only did Walker register hard contact 36% of the time (his highest rate since 2010), but he also completely flip-flopped his groundball and flyball rates between 2015 and 2016 (41.8% to 36.8% for grounders, 35.4% to 43.3% for balls in the air). Further bolstering his offensive performance was a 16.2% HR/FB ratio – well above his career average of 10.8% – and an OPS against left-handers (1.001) more than .300 points higher than his career splits.
With last season’s Jay Bruce trade, the Mets parted ways with second base prospect Dilson Herrera. Then the team further demonstrated a commitment to Walker when they attempted to negotiate a three-year contract extension this winter. The injury-depleted Mets of last season finished tied for 11th in the league in runs per game (4.14), so they are banking on a healthy season from the switch-hitting Walker to increase their lineup’s production.
NL Central - Gerrit Cole, Pittsburgh Pirates
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In 2015 Gerrit Cole was an All-Star, fourth place finisher in the NL Cy Young Race, and almost every bit what was expected of the UCLA standout when he was taken first overall by the Pirates in 2011. In 2016 however the right-hander hit the disabled list on three separate occasions owing to a variety of triceps and elbow ailments. Yet even though Cole displayed all the promise of his 2015 self when he took the hill last season (all of his offerings maintained the same velocity), the results just were not there.
To be fair, Cole still had a very good FIP (3.33) over his 116 innings last year. But his two best pitches – his mid-90s fastball and his wipeout slider – were far less effective than they previously had been. Travis Sawchik of FanGraphs covers his slider extensively here, but the disappearance of his fastball might be more concerning given how often he uses it. As Sawchik notes, since his debut Cole has relied on his fastball more often than all but three starting pitchers. In 2015, among qualified starters Cole had the eighth-most valuable fastball per 100 pitches; a year later and among starters with 100 IP or greater, Cole was 48th in the same category. Since his velocity did not dip over that span, one must wonder if either his fastball quality is inextricably tied to the effectiveness of his offspeed offerings or if he struggled to locate due to his multiple trips to the DL. If he can stay on the field in 2017, the latter should not be a problem for Cole.
Though the Chicago Cubs seem like heavy favorites in the NL Central and moves like the Mark Melancon deal seem to indicate the Pirates are rebuilding, Pittsburgh still projects as a contender in 2017. Remember, this is the same team that averaged over 93 wins between 2013-2015 before falling under .500 last year. This edition of the Pirates is more defensively optimal with Andrew McCutchen moved over to right field, and the starting staff consists of at least three intriguing arms: two youngsters, Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow, and pitching coach Ray Searage’s latest project, Ivan Nova.
Clint Hurdle announces Pirates expected outfield defensive changes for 2017. pic.twitter.com/FFcEqNaUeV— Pirates (@Pirates) February 5, 2017
For the Pirates to make noise, however, they need their ace back to form and back to 100%. The roster may have plenty of upside, but with it comes uncertainty. A solid and consistent Gerrit Cole every five days for 30 or more starts a year will be a game-changer as the Bucs hunts the Cubs.
NL West - A.J. Pollock, Arizona Diamondbacks
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
Pollock missed all but 12 games of the 2016 season after fracturing his elbow in spring training. The last time we saw A.J. Pollock over a large enough sample size, he was a 6+ win center fielder (6.5 fWAR) with elite defense, top-notch baserunning, and superb hitting. He performed at the same level in 2014, but only for 75 games after a hit-by-pitch fractured his wrist. As Jeff Sullivan concisely put it, “We haven’t actually seen A.J. Pollock be bad.”
To say the Diamondbacks disappointed last year would be an understatement. After the expensive signing of Zack Greinke and the ill-advised trade for Shelby Miller, expectations were high to say the least. Arizona responded with a fourth-place finish, 22 games behind the Dodgers. A healthy comeback from Pollock will not solve every problem on the D’backs, which range from a pitching staff that allowed nearly 900 runs to the absolute lack of range of left fielder Yasmany Tomas (worse dWAR than Mark Trumbo). However, anytime you can replace Michael Bourn with a 6-win center fielder, you are bound to improve.
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