Loss of Richards to Tommy John surgery is crippling blow to Angels
An Angels team whose rotation has already been thinned out by injuries and trades received a crippling one-two punch this week. According to Yahoo Sports' Jeff Passan, staff ace Garrett Richards has a torn ulnar collateral ligament and will need Tommy John surgery, and lefty Andrew Heaney, who's already on the disabled list with what was called a strained flexor muscle, has a UCL tear as well and is rehabbing in hopes of avoiding the surgery. If Los Angeles' AL West hopes weren't already doomed before, they are now.
Richards, who turns 28 on May 27, was off to a strong start this year, his 1–3 record notwithstanding. Through six turns, he had posted a 2.34 ERA (10th in the league) with a 3.25 FIP and 8.8 strikeouts per nine, matching his career-best mark. But he left his Sunday start against the Rangers after four innings with what was reported as cramping and dehydration, then was scratched from a between-starts bullpen session on Wednesday, with the team citing "general fatigue" and labeling him as doubtful for Friday's start. On Thursday, he was diagnosed with a torn UCL, and while he is expected to seek a second opinion, "Angels officials believe the tear is too significant to try and rehabilitate it," according to Passan.
Alas, this marks the second time in three seasons that Richards's year has ended early due to a severe injury. In 2014, his fourth season in the majors, he broke out to post a 2.61 ERA with 8.8 strikeouts per nine and a league-low 0.3 homers per nine but tore the patellar tendon of his left knee on Aug. 20 while covering first base on a routine ground ball. He returned to the major league mound on April 19, 2015, and made 32 starts last season, finishing with a 3.65 ERA and 3.86 FIP in a career-high 207 innings.
One thing that's notable about Richards, particularly with regards to his emergence as a top-flight starter, is that he's one of the majors' hardest throwers. Via Brooks Baseball, after he averaged 95.4 mph with his four-seam fastball in 2013—a year during which he made 17 starts and 30 relief appearances totaling 145 innings for the Angels—the average velocity of Richards's heater jumped to 97.1 in '14 and has been in the 96 mph range in each of the past two seasons. Via FanGraphs, which has slightly different readings, his 96.1 mph average fastball velocity since the start of the 2014 season ranks first among major league starters with at least 300 innings in that span.
That's notable because both sports medicine experts and statheads have suggested links between high velocity and the rise in the incidence of Tommy John surgery. In its 2014 position paper, the American Sports Medicine Institute, which was co-founded by noted orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews and researcher Dr. Glenn Fleisig, wrote, "Pitchers with high ball velocity are at increased risk of injury. The higher the ball velocity, the more important to follow the guidelines above," referring to its recommendations regarding mechanics, fatigue, rest, nutrition, communication and more. Meanwhile, studies of major league PITCHf/x and injury data such as those by Hardball Times' Jeff Zimmerman in 2014 and FanGraphs' Julien Assouline in 2015 suggest a link between velocity and time on the disabled list (Zimmerman) and a higher incidence of Tommy John surgery rates among higher-velocity pitchers (Assouline). The latter noted successively rising rates from those in the 86–89 mph average range to the 89–92 range to the 92–95 range to the 95-plus range, though the 95-plus sample was considerably smaller via both sources he cited (PITCHf/x and Baseball Info Solutions).
Shortly after the ASMI paper (which I broke down here), Baseball Prospectus' mechanics analyst Doug Thorburn graded Richards' delivery a D+ due to a variety of shortcomings, including below-average balance and posture. As Thorburn wrote in July 2014, "[H]is highly volatile mechanics fueled my doubt that he could withstand season-long exposure in a big-league rotation, let alone thrive in one. His delivery is still a red flag, but his wipeout arsenal has demonstrated the maxim that raw stuff can survive in the face of sketchy mechanics."
Whether or not the extra stress produced by high velocity and faulty mechanics are to blame for Richards's injury, the reality is that the Angels will be without him for at least the next year. The question is whether they'll be without Heaney for at least that long as well. The 24-year-old lefty, who pitched to a 3.49 ERA and 3.73 FIP in 18 starts over 105 1/3 innings for the Angels last year, made just one start this season, on April 5 against the Cubs, and was placed on the DL with a flexor muscle strain the next day. At the time, his UCL was reportedly healthy, but he was still experiencing tightness when he returned to playing catch two weeks later. Another MRI taken on April 25 came back clean as far as his UCL was concerned, and later that week he received an injection of platelet-rich plasma, with the expectation that he wouldn't throw for six weeks.
PRP therapy is often a last resort when it comes to attempting to avoid such surgeries, as Cliff Corcoran pointed out a few years ago, but the Yankees' Masahiro Tanaka is one pitcher who received such treatment (in July 2014) and has since staved off Tommy John surgery, pitching through a small UCL tear and at a rather high level to boot (3.41 EA and 8.1 strikeouts per nine in 32 starts since returning) even while contending with other injuries. With regards to Heaney, general manager Billy Eppler told the Los Angeles Times’ Mike diGiovanna, “We consulted with multiple doctors, and the findings ranged from normal wear and tear consistent with age and usage to some degree of tear. We’re opting for conservative care like other pitchers have done.” Given the risks involved with Tommy John surgery, a chance to avoid surgery is one worth taking.
Still, that leaves the Angels, who are currently third in the AL West at 13–15, over a barrel. They were already without C.J. Wilson due to a bout of shoulder tendinitis he experienced in spring training; he was moved to the 60-day DL earlier this week and isn't expected to return until mid-June. Elsewhere in the rotation, Hector Santiago and Nick Tropeano have both pitched well, but Jered Weaver has been cuffed for a 5.40 ERA and has struck out a bare 4.4 per nine; he missed time earlier this spring after being diagnosed with degenerative changes in his cervical spine and has been trying to survive with a fastball averaging around 83 mph.
Matt Shoemaker, who is likely to replace Richards, was optioned to Triple A Salt Lake City after being pulverized for a 9.15 ERA and 2.6 homers per nine in 20 2/3 innings across five starts, but that was expected to be a short-term move, as the team doesn’t need a fifth starter until May 14. Since his 2014 breakout rookie season at the age of 27, he's carrying a 5.08 ERA and 4.88 FIP. Tyler Skaggs, who is still working his way back from August 2014 Tommy John surgery, didn't pitch competitively at all last season and made just three starts for Salt Lake City in April before being diagnosed with biceps tendinitis earlier this week. All of that suggests that Nate Smith, a 24-year-old lefty who was the team’s eighth-round pick in 2013, is likely to join the rotation when the fifth starter is needed; he’s pitched to a 3.79 ERA with 31 strikeouts in 35 2/3 innings at Salt Lake City after being lit up there in a late-season stint last year.
But wait, there's more depressing news. The team traded two top pitching prospects, Sean Newcombe and Chris Ellis, to the Braves last November in the Andrelton Simmons deal, a move that bolstered the infield defense (albeit within a context that netted the Angels the only F of our Winter Report Cards series). Los Angeles' farm system was ranked dead last by Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and ESPN, with the latter's Keith Law writing, "I've been doing these rankings for eight years now, and this is by far the worst system I've ever seen."
With Richards gone, the Angels are going to have to make do with what they've got or acquire somebody from outside the organization such as Tim Lincecum (whose showcase they were scheduled to attend on Friday, one of 23 teams doing so), Kyle Lohse (who also had a showcase this week) or John Danks (who was designated for assignment by the White Sox this week but owns a 7.25 ERA through four starts this year and a 4.92 mark dating back to 2012). None of those pitchers has much recent success on which to hang their hats. Eppler might as well phone 1986 Angels stalwarts Mike Witt and Kirk McCaskill to see if they're willing to come out of retirement.
Given an offense that's wheezing along at 3.75 runs per game (10th in the league)—with only the red-hot Mike Trout, Kole Calhoun and Yunel Escobar providing above-average production (100 OPS+ or better) and three regulars (Simmons, second baseman Johnny Giavotella and catcher Carlos Perez) below a 50 OPS+—a banged-up rotation is far from the Angels' only problem. At this rate, it could be difficult for them to maintain even their current pace, and it looks as though it could be a long summer in Anaheim.