One of the most difficult assessments on draft day is determining when to take shots on players coming off an injury-plagued season. Deciding which of these players to place bets on is equally important. Valuing players returning from injury, particularly pitchers, is a conundrum. On one hand, you’re adding potential difference makers to your team at a depressed cost. However, an opposing school of thought would remind you that injuries are a constant hurdle to overcome, even when drafting a team with a clean bill of health. Why add additional risk to your fantasy team before the season even begins?
The 2021 season was a prime example of the pitfalls that come with an over-reliance on injury bounceback targets. Noah Syndergaard, Luis Severino, and Chris Sale all looked like draft day steals last April. Instead of ace-level production, the post-TJ hurlers suffered numerous setbacks. Perhaps more damaging for fantasy teams, Stephen Strasburg and Corey Kluber entered the season seemingly healthy. They subsequently missed most of the season. We also can’t forget about up-and-comers Mike Soroka, Dinelson Lamet, and Sixto Sánchez. Overlooking the trio’s injury woes in favor of upside cost fantasy managers significant draft capital.
All of this is to say, exercise caution when investing in starters returning from injury. Leaning in too heavily on SPs with significant injury history can put you in a bind. The mid-round depth of starting pitching entering this season (and inevitable waiver wire standouts who arise each season) makes relying on injury question marks even less appealing. There are, however, a few starters who stand out as strong bounceback candidates entering next season:
NFBC ADP data as of 1/29/2022
Jack Flaherty (STL)
Jack Flaherty took the league by storm in 2019 with a historically dominant second-half. He followed it up with an uneven 2020, largely due to COVID-19 disruptions out of his control. A 4.91 ERA and 1.21 WHIP were mostly disregarded during 2021 drafts, evidenced by a 31.2 Fantasy Pros Consensus ADP.
Flaherty reminded us of his fantasy ace-level upside when he took the mound in 2021. The Redbirds’ righty went 9-2 with strong ratios and over a strikeout per inning. Injuries, however, put a damper on what was otherwise a strong season. Flaherty only pitched 78.1 innings due to two extended trips to the IL for strains to his oblique and shoulder. While the St. Louis pitcher has no prior injury history, early NFBC drafts suggest he’s being docked for two years of a below-average workload. Flaherty currently has an ADP outside the top 65, positioning him as a back-end SP2.
There’s ample room for Flaherty to outperform this draft price. The 26-year-old is not the untouchable ace that his 2019 suggested, particularly with a growing reliance on just two pitches. However, a high-end SP2 floor with the potential to reach SP1 status is within reason. There are three primary reasons to have confidence in Flaherty’s full-season return to form:
- 2021’s IL stints were his first since entering the majors AND not elbow-related, alleviating future injury concerns.
- Busch Stadium is one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in baseball and the St. Louis defense is elite. The Cards finished second with 81 defensive runs saved in 2021 and should continue to bolster their staff’s ratios.
- Flaherty combines strong command with two above-average pitches. The right-hander has mastered the art of filling the zone with 95mph fastballs (59% zone rate) while earning whiffs with one of the best sliders in baseball (32.7% CSW in a down year for the pitch).
Flaherty should be a solid bet for improved durability in 2022. He’s poised to deliver strong production and innings if he can regain a consistent feel for his slider. As far as injury bouncebacks go, this case feels the safest. Look no further than Jack Flaherty if you’re searching for a discount at the top of your staff.
Zac Gallen (ARZ)
Zac Gallen entered 2021 with a chorus of buzz as an emergent SP1. Unfortunately, injury and ineffectiveness derailed the hype train. Gallen took three trips to the IL last season. A minor tear of his UCL is of most concern moving forward. While the injury healed enough for him to return, there appears to be an elevated risk of Tommy John surgery in the future.
When Arizona was able to turn to their young right-hander, the results were often disastrous. Anything that could go wrong for Gallen last season did. The D-Backs’ starter wasn’t able to establish any of his secondary offerings, potentially a result of the stops-and-starts of his IL stints. In fact, all three of his secondaries experienced a significant drop in CSW%. The inability to earn whiffs with secondaries led to a high walk rate and the highest WHIP of his career. As a result, Gallen was forced into an over-reliance on his four-seamer:
While such outsized fastball usage is unsustainable for a starter, it does present a silver lining for 2022. Even though hitters knew they were almost certainly getting a fastball, Gallen’s four-seamer tallied an elite 25% called strike rate. An excellent 10.31 K/9 showed glimpses of promise despite a myriad of other struggles. An offseason to hit the reset button might be all Gallen needs to get back on track as one of baseball’s ascending aces.
Another reason for optimism: new pitching coach Brent Strom. The former Astro is one of the game’s preeminent pitching coaches. Strom has the pedigree to help Gallen rediscover his full pitch repertoire. If the success stories of Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton, and other Houston pitchers are any indication, the Arizona staff is in good hands.
At an NFBC ADP of 140, Gallen has the looks of a big value. The combination of injury risk and last season’s poor performance likely have early drafters shying away. The recent UCL history is a real concern, but few pitchers available this late have such a sky-high ceiling. When healthy, Gallen has proven he has a full repertoire complete with plus stuff and command. He’ll be a popular target for those in search of mid-round upside.
Patrick Sandoval (LAA)
If you read Pitcher List, you know all about Patrick Sandoval. The Irish Panda was a whiff machine from the end of May into August before a lower back injury ended his season. Upon entering the rotation, Sandoval had the looks of a Top-30 fantasy starter. You wouldn’t know it by his current ADP. The lefty is currently available after pick 215, likely the result of injury uncertainty and a limited track record.
While the sample was small with only 14 starts, Sandoval’s breakout looks legitimate. His 3.39 ERA as a starter is supported by an incredible 15.3% swinging strike rate and a 52% ground ball rate. The southpaw’s ascent is largely driven by a familiar narrative: throwing his best pitch more often.
Sandoval relied heavily on his changeup in 2021 and it paid dividends. The slow ball had a filthy 35% CSW and befuddled hitters to the tune of a .139 BAA. He forces hitters to chase the changeup (and slider) while earning called strikes and soft contact on the ground with his four-seamer and sinker. If the Irish Panda can replicate this approach in 2022, there’s no reason to believe the success isn’t sustainable. His command remains a concern, but not enough to avoid making Sandoval a target ahead of his ADP.
Photos by Tim Spyers & John Cordes/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)