Fantasy 101: How to Manage Injuries

Van Burnett breaks down three steps to manage injuries throughout your fantasy baseball season.

We know the old saying, “injuries are part of the game.” It’s a dreadful part at that. It’s also part of the fake game. Managing injuries in fantasy baseball can be crucial to your team’s success. Luck always plays a factor—but we’re going to break down three steps to reduce injury damage to your campaign: Prepare. Draft. React.

 

Step One: Prepare

 

Preparation is the backbone of fantasy baseball. And no different than preparing for sleepers, busts or scarce categories, you can improve your odds at winning by preparing for injuries before draft day. Break down preparation in three ways: knowing the players, knowing the injuries and knowing your league.

Knowing the players starts with who’s injured. It’s helpful to check these injury report pages on MLB.com or Roster Resource to see injured player lists with details and key dates. For example, here are 10 draft-worthy players (normally) who are at various stages of injury recovery:

  1. Chris Sale (elbow inflammation)
  2. Corey Kluber (fractured arm)
  3. Lance McCullers (Tommy John)
  4. Jameson Taillon (Tommy John)
  5. Chris Archer (shoulder inflammation)
  6. Jose Ramirez (fractured hamate bone)
  7. Fernando Tatis Jr. (stress reaction in back)
  8. Adalberto Mondesi (Torn labrum)
  9. Andrew McCutchen (torn ACL)
  10. Joey Gallo (fractured hamate bone)

Big names, right? After seeing the injury list, do some follow-up research on the interesting names to get a better understanding of the fantasy impact.  For instance, Taillon’s recovery from Tommy John will last the entire 2020 season, while McCullers recently dubbed his TJ rehab “officially complete.” Scratch Taillon off. Circle McCullers (in pencil, for now).

It’s helpful to know the current list, but that’s simply rearview-mirror research. Look ahead to upcoming seasons and keep in mind some players are injury-prone and seem to always miss games for one reason or another. They may not currently be on the injured list, but it helps to be aware of general health-risk players. There’s not a formal list of these fragile players, but over the years you get a sense—and it’s wise to bake this factor into their draft price like any other skill or deficiency. Below are two short fantasy-relevant lists of batters and pitchers, arbitrarily ordered from poor to questionable health durability.

Games Played Each of the Past Four Seasons

*Average excludes 2016

Innings Pitched Each of the Past Four Seasons

Another key element is knowing the injury and how that maps to the player’s skill set. Here are some general injuries and how they can affect stats during recovery.

Cautionary batting injuries:

  • Hamate bones or wrist injuries
    • These impact hitters with power stats more so than contact hitters.
    • Their grip on the bat can often weaken, so what normally was a home run could be a double with luck, or a popout without luck.
    • Hitters usually ease back in so expect about a month before a slugger’s usual power returns.
  • Oblique strains
    • Timetables vary widely from a few days up to three or four months.
    • They tend to nag at a batter’s overall swing motion, equally affecting power and contact hitters. Don’t be surprised if even a high-average player is in a short-term funk returning from an oblique injury.
  • Calf strains or groin injuries
    • Lower body injuries usually impact stolen bases more than anything.
    • These also tend to be nursed upon returning. So, if you have a speedster, be leery of stolen bases drying up when they deal with lower-body injuries.

Cautionary pitching injuries:

  • Elbow and shoulder inflammation
    • Read as much detail as possible. These often can foreshadow the dreaded Tommy John surgery (TJS). Other times, it’s smoke without fire.
    • There’s a low probability it will lead to Tommy John, but the severity of that risk is the biggest in the game, as TJS will sideline a player for about 18 months.
  • Tommy John surgery
    • This is certainly a season-ender, sidelining a player for about 18 months.
    • There’s a misconception that once a pitcher undergoes the operation, their injury risk is somewhat “out of the way.” While the success rate’s grown over the years—some articles say as high as 90 percent—the per-player success of TJS varies.
    • Post TJS, there are big success stories such as Jacob deGrom and Stephen Strasburg. But there are cases where injuries continue or performance wanes, be it Alex Reyes, Matt Harvey or Shelby Miller.
    • However, it’s rare to undergo the surgery twice. So, if a pitcher has had the surgery and returned with some success, they’re at lower risk than average for fantasy baseball’s most devastating procedure.
    • Below is a list of fantasy-relevant starting pitchers who have undergone TJS in the past five years.

One simple but important part of preparation is knowing your league. That starts with settings. Are you in a shallow league where the free-agent pool is deeper for replacements? Or are you in a deep league where losing an SP3 would leave you grasping at straws? How many IL slots do you have? If it’s more than two, take a chance on some injury risk players. If it’s less than two, I’d avoid taking injury risks at all costs. If you’ve been in your league for a while, think about the mindset of other managers. In past drafts, have injury risk players slipped far? Are managers in your league open to trades? That can help you backfill expected stats you lost to injury.It’s best to read up on the pitchers you like, especially if they’re young, throw electric stuff and are coming off of a high-inning season. Industry news and notes will usually identify certain players as health risks. That doesn’t mean you can’t take them; just protect yourself with a balance of durable guys and ones who have the injury-risk label.

These are all good considerations going into your draft—as is this disclaimer. Every year surprises come. Some are good, like Hyun-Jin Ryu throwing 182 innings after his last three seasons totaled 212. More often, surprises are bad, like Corey Kluber throwing just 35 innings after 200+ for five seasons straight. Control risks where you can and hope luck’s on your side.

 

Step Two: Draft

 

Draft day arrives with the excitement of Christmas and the nerves of a grade school dance.  By now, you should know injuries, who you’re avoiding and who you’d take a risk on if the price is low enough. Drafts move fast and unexpectedly, so you’re bound to come face-to-face with guys you didn’t think would slip to you—many times due to injury concerns. Last year, I had pick Nos. 9 and 20. After drafting Alex Bregman at No. 9, I thought for sure my next pick would be a pitcher. But Francisco Lindor fell all the way to 20 due to fear of his calf strain, so I decided to pounce. Clayton Kershaw fell to 73 overall in that same league, 20 picks behind his average draft position. He finished ranked 43rd, and that team won the league. A good rule of thumb is to not pay face value for a player with injury risks. But if they come at a major discount, it’s OK to take a shot on health. Just be mindful your risk isn’t overexposed.

If you start your team with Trea Turner, Aaron Judge, and Strasburg, that’s a lot of raw talent, but a lot of injury risk. The key is balance. If your first arm’s Chris Sale, offset the risk with a steady guy like Aaron Nola. If you’ve covered yourself with workhorses in the first few rounds, say Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke, don’t be afraid to gamble on a health risk guy like Rich Hill if the price drops a round or two. While not as sexy, betting on the health of a proven player is probably a better bet than the unproven prospect who may also suffer injuries. Remember: one’s being forgotten and coming at a discount; the other’s coveted by half the league and will go two rounds early. If you do end up drafting a bargain health risk—say, a James Paxton or Carlos Correa—bolster those picks with extra depth at their positions. It can only help throughout the season.

Lastly, it helps to consider position scarcity, or your ability to fill that position during the draft and throughout the season. If the injury risk is for an outfielder, like Justin Upton who had turf toe last season, is it worth risking his health when there are dozens of similar outfielders? In general, position scarcity’s less of a factor these days with solid shortstops and second basemen more plentiful than ever, but check who’s still left in your draft room. Sometimes, pitcher runs happen fast in a draft—so that health-risk Kershaw at pick 73 makes even more sense to gamble on.

 

Step Three: React

 

The season arrives. You drafted well. Your team looks great. And it matters not. The inevitable comes during a lineup check in the Target parking lot. Your ace is injured for two months. Over the course of the next six weeks, you go on to lose Tyler Glasnow, Blake Snell and Carlos Carrasco for the season. OK, that was me, and I’m not over it.

Here’s how you react:

  1. Complain to your league chat (with melancholy, sarcasm and “season’s over” reverse psychology).
  2. Hit the research hard. Player notes, Twitter, podcasts—all of it. Pro tip: Doctor Mike Tanner (@DrMikeTanner) of Rotographs offers a great perspective on any injury from the medical and fantasy baseball side. Get the details you can around the injury timetable, past players’ similar injuries and any suggestive statements from the player or manager. The goal is to get a firm idea of when they’ll be back. Until that information becomes known, you have to sit tight. Be cautious: The phrase “resumes baseball activities” simply means they’re throwing a ball or swinging a bat. They still need to get up to speed and probably will have a brief minor league stint before returning to the majors. Interpret this designation as being weeks away from bringing stats to your lineup. Even the phrase “returns” comes with caution, especially with pitchers. They almost always return on a pitch count. So, don’t expect a returning arm to resume his typical value until a week or two after they’re back. This is especially noteworthy if your fantasy team is nearing the playoffs or trying to make the cut.
  3. Evaluate your options. Are your IL slots full? When do your other IL guys return? Should you drop one of them to make room? Knowing your team makeup is important. But it’s also important to know your team’s position in the league. Are you in desperation mode to make the playoffs? How tough are your upcoming matchups? Is your record strong enough to float an injured player on your active bench? These are all strategic questions to work through.
  4. Do your best to recover.
    • If you’re not in desperation mode—say the injury timetable’s only four to six weeks, you have coverage with your roster and you can afford a few weeks of bad results—then don’t panic. Tread water till your guy gets back and find those “glue guys.” These are guys you don’t plan to keep for months on your roster. Maybe they don’t play every game, but they put up balanced stats consistently, they don’t have blowup starts or prolonged batting slumps and they can easily be swapped out if they’re facing tough opponents. Howie Kendrick or Marco Gonzales come to mind. These types of guys are helpful if you need a short-term solution. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.
    • Major injuries happen to major players every year. If this happens, your season has changed. Even if you’re high in the league standings, that’s probably now a mirage. The goal is to backfill the stats you lost more permanently, which is easier said than done. But here are some tips to help your chances.
      1. Scratch and claw with adds and drops. That fringy guy you’ve kept on your roster—he’s now expendable in order to land a high-upside guy. Say you lost an ace, for instance. Rather than adding roster-round-out guys who offer conservative stat lines which really won’t win your league, it’s better to take shots on upside plays. This is especially the case early in the season when you have time for trial and error.
        Every year, high-upside guys come out of nowhere, and it usually pays out to those who grabbed them quickly. This past season, some of those names included Lucas Giolito, Mike Soroka, Frankie Montas (for a while), and even prospect stashes like Zac Gallen. Hitting on one of those is worth missing on high-upside guys who don’t pan out, like Brendan McKay, Dinelson Lamet or Freddy Peralta this past year.
      2. Watch for recent risers. Don’t get hung up on the season-long numbers of the free agent pool. Search stats from the past 14 or 30 days and keep an eye out for player notes about pitchers adding a new pitch, batters changing their swing, or any high-upside guys returning from an injury. Remember the big picture is winning your league. It’s OK to be early on picking up a promising player even if it means burning a roster spot for one week. Give this aggressive strategy as much time as you can to land long-term value guys.
      3. Trade if the time comes. If playoffs are approaching, your pickups aren’t panning out and your weekly results are trending down, it’s probably time to consider a trade. Assess what categories you have an excess in and try to trade off any surplus stats in order to fill the void left by injury. Don’t be afraid to lose the trade. If your strategy before the injury was working—say strong starting pitching and power batters—it’s OK to trade that stud speedster for a solid pitcher whose ranked a bit lower. A slight loss in the trade battle is worth a better chance to win the season-long war. For head-to-head, if your injured stud will return in time for playoffs, but not in time to help you make the cut, reach out to a title contender and shop the injured player to them. After all, you can’t win the league if you don’t make the playoffs.

You can’t control injuries. But diligent preparation, wise drafting, and strategic reaction can go a long way to make the biggest risk of the game a smaller part of your season’s outcome.

Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)

Van Burnett

Van Burnett is a professional copywriter, fantasy baseball enthusiast and indie filmmaking aspirant. For his takes on baseball, the Avett Brothers or meaningless traffic jams in Peoria, follow @van_verified on Twitter.

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