There have been two players on the Texas Rangers in 2014 that have been unequivocally enjoyable to watch during this season that has been so painful to watch at times. The first is Adrian Beltre, who at the age of 35 is in his 17th season and is posting his fifth straight 5-WAR season thanks to consistent production at the plate and a revival in the field over his struggles in 2013. Beltre is truly a wonder, and thanks to this sustained excellence in the twilight of the prime of his career should be a Hall of Famer one day.
The second highlight of this Rangers' year is Yu Darvish. Though not quite as dominant as he was in 2013 and a couple of bumps in the road in late June/early July, Darvish has still been arguably one of the top ten pitchers in the league this year.
When it was announced on Wednesday that the Rangers were putting Darvish on the disabled list with right elbow inflammation, what motivation may have been left for paying close attention to the 2014 Rangers was significantly reduced, if not gone out the window altogether.
In this 2014 season in which a record number of pitchers have gone under the knife for Tommy John surgery, 'right elbow inflammation' are scary words. Thankfully, an MRI exam showed that it was mild inflammation and there were no indications of a long-term problem. Yu Darvish also said he could have pitched through the pain, were the Rangers not playing meaningless games. That is all mostly encouraging, as encouraging as news related to an arm injury for a pitcher can be. But even if the injury may not cause a long-term problem, that doesn't mean there are long-term implications because of this injury.
This impacts the status of Darvish's contract. As discussed before, Darvish is on a six-year deal through 2017, but the sixth year converts to a player option (meaning Darvish would opt out after 2016) if Darvish meets certain Cy Young performance thresholds. To convert 2017 to a player option, Darvish must '1) wins Cy Young in 2012-16 and finishes 2nd-4th in CY vote in another season 2012-16, or 2) finishes 2nd in CY vote once in 2012-16 and finishes 2nd-4th in two other seasons 2012-16' (from Cot's Contracts). Since Darvish finished 2nd in Cy Young voting in 2013, all that is left for him to do is win the Cy Young in 2014-16, or finish 2nd-4th in two seasons from 2014-16.
Darvish was already fading from a top-four Cy Young finish this season, and this injury all but guarantees he won't finish in the top four this season. That puts the pressure on Darvish to either win the Cy Young in 2015 or 2016, or have two straight top-four finishes. Earlier this season, it appeared the 2017 player option was a certainty, but now it is looking less likely.
When the Rangers placed Darvish on the disabled list yesterday, Jon Daniels was speaking to a group of Texas Rangers fans at the Newberg Report Night event at Globe Life Park in Arlington, where I happened to be in attendance. None in the audience knew that Darvish had been placed on the DL, though we can speculate that when Jon Daniels asked one fan to repeat his question because he was sending a text, it was a text giving the go-ahead to make the roster move.
One question that was asked of Daniels was concerning when the Rangers would extend Darvish. The response from Daniels (I am paraphrasing because recording is restricted during the event) was that the Rangers 'have had informal discussions on an extension with Darvish and his agent' and that 'Darvish seemed open to it and seems to like it here'. However, Daniels also said that whether an extension were to happen this offseason or the next, he doesn't believe the team could expect to see a discount on the contract, which would be the motivation for the team doing it earlier than later.
Given that sentiment from Daniels, and now the reduced probability that Darvish will activate his 2017 player option, it seems unlikely that a contract extension gets done this offseason, which I previously had expected.
As to the cause of the injury, Darvish said that he felt tightness in his arm playing catch on Monday, not during his start on Saturday in Houston. That is good news, considering the poor results he experienced in Houston, never recording an out in the 5th inning despite throwing 113 pitches, walking four and giving up nine hits and five earned runs. However, it may be a point worth making that Darvish has thrown over 30 sliders in each of his four full starts since the All-Star Break, when he had only thrown over 30 sliders in one start before the All-Star Break.
The slider has been historically a risk factor for pitcher injuries, along with pitchers who throw with high velocity. Darvish is both, so he has always been an injury risk. Based on the MRI results and Darvish's comments about the injury, this will hopefully not become a long-term issue. But on the other hand, it is said that once a pitcher has been injured he is more likely to suffer another injury.
If there is a silver lining to be found in a DL stint for Darvish that may finish his season, it's that it increases the Rangers' chances of obtaining the worst record in baseball and the first overall pick in next year's MLB draft. Considering the current Rangers' starting rotation excluding Darvish has a combined ERA of 5.51 and a Rangers' offense that averages 4.0 runs per game, the 99-loss pace Texas is on is only likely to get worse, not better.
The timing of the injury is curious, considering the comments that Darvish made during the All-Star Break to the media scrum. Said Darvish on the rash of pitcher injuries:
'I think there are a lot reasons that are being said, and I don't know the exact reason either, but I think it could be the way that we train,' Darvish said. 'The way that we train nowadays is so that we can increase the velocity of our pitches. This is how I tell my training coach: lower body, back, lower back. If we concentrate on that area we are able to throw the ball faster, but we are not able to protect the arm and elbow. Since we are throwing the ball faster, there is more tension on the ligament; we need to protect that. So [the training], it's not good. So I think that is the main reason.'
As far as potential solutions to the issue, Darvish pointed to the shorter time between starts in Major League Baseball compared to pitching in Japan as one potential problem:
'It's way too short,' he said, regarding the time between starts. 'That's why they have pitch-count limitations, but pitch count doesn't have much to do with it. You could throw 120 pitches, 140 pitches and have six days' rest, and the inflammation on the ligament will all be healed. So I think that's it.'
While Darvish is probably not an expert on the medical science of injuries, he may have a valid point. He is also not the only person or the most educated person who has devoted some thought on the subject. MLB teams are certainly hard at work trying to identify what is causing the injury issues, and how they can be prevented. Whether that be additional knowledge of how much fatigue individual players can handle, how much recovery they need, or what sort of technology can be used to better identify injury risk candidates, we will hopefully soon find out. The longer we are able to enjoy watching Yu Darvish and pitchers like him, the more we can all enjoy baseball, even in lost seasons for teams like the 2014 Texas Rangers.