Pitching for their countries against each other in a WBC duel in March might not have been the best thing for Mariners Drew Smyly and Felix Hernandez.
Is it possible that the Mariners’ season, unbeknownst at the time, took a dark and ominous turn way back in March, when optimism was at its peak?
I’d say the evidence points strongly to that conclusion.
Think back, specifically, to March 15, when Felix Hernandez and Drew Smyly locked up in a compelling first-round duel in the World Baseball Classic. Both were brilliant, Smyly pitching for Team USA, Hernandez for Venezuela.
With a strict 65-pitch limit, Smyly worked 42/3 innings and gave up just one unearned run on three hits while striking out eight — the last six batters in a row. And King Felix did even better, working five scoreless innings, allowing three hits with three strikeouts and no walks. The U.S. rallied late to win the game, 4-2, on the way to its first WBC title, but it was a tense 1-0 battle while those two were involved.
At the time, it seemed like a hugely positive omen for the Mariners’ season, with two of their prospective starters flashing dominant, midseason form. Yet in retrospect, it’s fair to wonder if the WBC is responsible at least partially, or perhaps greatly, for the travails this season of both pitchers, one of whom, Smyly, might never pitch for the Mariners after a devastating development on Wednesday.
Smyly, it was announced, will undergo Tommy John surgery in early July, having been sidelined with a strained elbow since shortly after his WBC stint. Hernandez, meanwhile, spent nearly two months on the disabled list with a shoulder injury that materialized in late April, when he lasted just two innings in a 19-9 loss to the Tigers and was described as having a dead arm.
It’s a familiar refrain, one that’s heard every four years during the WBC. Teams fret about the danger of their players, particularly pitchers, gearing up for playoff-level intensity in mid-March. Another Mariners pitcher who had high-leverage usage in this year’s WBC was closer Edwin Diaz, who was brilliant in four outings for runner-up Puerto Rico. Diaz had two saves, a 1.13 ERA, and struck out nine in 51/3 innings — but has had a rocky season for the Mariners.
While seemingly healthy, Diaz lost his closer’s job temporarily and has given up eight homers in just 31 innings. It seems more likely that he’s suffering from the vagaries of youth rather than WBC overload. But it’s harder to not make a connection between the WBC and Smyly’s injury, as well as Hernandez’s health issues and the struggles of yet another Mariners starter, Yovani Gallardo, who made a WBC start for Mexico.
Both Hernandez and Gallardo spent the offseason gearing up for the early onset of highly competitive pitching. It certainly seems conceivable that while that served Hernandez well early in the season, at some point fatigue set in that required the extended break. As for Gallardo, his velocity and stuff have been among the best of his career, but for some reason the results have been among the worst.
Whether or not the issues of those pitchers is attributable definitively to the WBC is hard to ascertain, of course. The MLB cited a study from the two most recent tournaments showing that the percentage of pitchers starting the year on the disabled list was actually higher among those who didn’t participate in the WBC (75 of 601 this past year, 12.5 percent) than those who did (three of 55, 5.5 percent).
That doesn’t account, of course, for injuries that crop up later in the year that might be blamed upon the stress of the WBC, or for poor performance. In this year’s WBC, Rangers reliever Sam Dyson was the Team USA workhorse and pitched six perfect innings. But once the season started, Dyson was terrible, going 1-6 with a 10.80 ERA, giving up 31 hits and 12 walks in 162/3 innings. He lost his closer’s job and was designated for assignment on June 2.
The Mets’ Seth Lugo worked 15 innings for Puerto Rico in the WBC, the second-most of any pitcher, and began the season on the DL with a slightly torn UCL, only recently returning to action. On the other hand, Pat Neshek of the Phillies, who made five appearances for USA, has a 0.59 ERA, while Marcus Stroman, who led all WBC pitchers with 151/3 innings, is 8-4 with a 3.41 ERA and is ninth among all American League pitchers with 1001/3 innings.
There are pitch-count and appearance limits to help ease the injury potential, and managers in the WBC for the most part are diligent in monitoring workloads. But there’s simply no way to curtail the adrenalin that kicks in when you’re pitching for your country, as Team USA manager Jim Leyland recognized.
“Honestly, you’re asking the players to amp it up a little bit more … for this venue than they would in their normal spring training,’’ Leyland said in March. “Spring training is more of a lengthy process where they just kind of go at their own pace. So it can be a little dangerous … That’s the one thing that makes you a little nervous.”
That would certainly seem to be the case with Smyly, who admitted after his WBC start how pumped up he was. It manifested itself in increased velocity in his duel with Felix, including 13 fastballs that were 93 mph or higher, according to FanGraphs and Brooks Baseball, and 25 four-seam fastballs that averaged out to 92.7. Over the last four seasons, Smyly averaged around 90 mph with his fastball.
“I had a lot of adrenaline going,’’ Smyly told reporters when he returned to the Mariners’ camp in Peoria. “It felt like a playoff game. It felt like we had to win and you had to give your best performance.”
And therein lies the dilemma of the WBC. I’m a big fan of the concept, and especially enjoyed this year’s rendition, which was exciting, fun (remember Team Israel and the “Mensch on the Bench”?), well-played and gripping. Many previously skeptical players were so enthralled that they vowed to participate when it comes back again in 2021. The Mariners have been stalwart supporters of the WBC and refuse to blame the event for their pitchers’ travails.
Yet even proponents agree there’s no great time to hold it. It can’t be right after the season, because players are already physically maxed out. The optimal time would be midseason, but there’s no way MLB is going to shut down the sport for two or three weeks (something they’ve refused to do for the Olympics).
So midway through spring training is the best option available. Yet it comes with built-in alarm bells that, trust me, every team in baseball is wary of. We’ll never know precisely how much the WBC has impacted the Mariners’ season, although I’m not the only one with strong suspicions.
Correlation does not imply causation, as the saying goes. But sometimes logic and common sense do imply causation.