Newly acquired right-hander Alex White was cruising along in spring training, on his way to earning a spot in the Opening Day rotation. However, as the spring wound down, suddenly Brad Peacock caught up to him and eventually passed him for that fifth and final starter's role on the 2013 Astros.
Later, after White got shellacked in his final start against the Cubs in an exhibition game at Minute Maid Park, it was revealed that White was suffering from an abnormal drop in his velocity and he was having his arm checked out for potential problems. The theory at the time was that it had to do with some tendinitis he's dealt with in his tricep for a good while.
Oh, how wrong that was.
White became the first significant injury of the 2013 season when he was diagnosed with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. He will miss the entire 2013 season and likely a good portion of the 2014 season as well.
Since White just joined the Astros this winter, it's fair to ask whether the Astros could have seen this coming. Were there any warning signs from White in the past year? Could the Astros have anticipated he might get hurt like this before the trade?
There's two big indicators that a pitcher is an injury risk and likely a ticking time bomb. The first, not surprisingly, are other injuries. Strains to the forearm, general arm injuries or "dead arm" periods, anything that seems out of the ordinary could indicate future problems down the road.
White's case checks out cleanly in those areas, though. He suffered one significant injury before this one and that was when he strained a ligament in his finger during the 2011 season, before he was traded from Cleveland to Colorado. Other than that, I can find no history of White going on the disabled list or complaining of injuries from then until this season.
Still, there is another way we can check for possible arm problems. That's exactly what White showed in that start against the Cubs: velocity loss. Can we look back at the 2012 season and see if White lost velocity on his fastball as the season progressed?
In 2011, according to FanGraphs' PItch F/X data, White averaged 92.8 MPH on his four-seam fastball. In 2012, that number dropped to 91.8. His two-seam fastball rose a bit from 91.3 MPH in 2011 to 91.8 in 2012.
That in itself isn't definitive, though, because the way White was used last season changed, as he was moved from the starting rotation into the bullpen. So, let's look at his 2012 season month-by-month to see if and when he saw the most velocity drop. White didn't pitch in April or July for the Rockies last year, so let's pick up in May.
Here's a chart of both fastball velocities month-by-month
|Month||Four-Seam Velocity||Two-Seam Velocity|
Generally, pitchers moving to the bullpen should gain velocity, not lose it. White's two-seam fastball stayed pretty consistent, but that's a troubling drop in his four-seam velocity from early in the season to September. Losing two MPH isn't a huge deal on its own, especially at the end of a long season. However, it could have been a warning sign that something was amiss with his arm.
One last way we can see if White was an injury risk is the Verducci Effect. For those unfamiliar with the theory, Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci said that pitchers 25 years old or younger are at a more significant injury risk if they see a jump of 30 or more innings from the previous season. White went from 91 innings in 2011 to 158 innings in 2012. However, that's sort of misleading since White threw 150 innings in 2010 before suffering the finger strain that hampered his innings in 2011.
I'm not a doctor, nor am I studying to be one like some TCB writers, but I doubt that there were structural problems that were easily identifiable last winter with White's arm. If so, the Astros doctors would have flagged him during the physical. What's more likely is Houston knew that White had at least a little bit of injury risk, but deemed it acceptable when they had a pitcher with just as much injury risk heading to the Rockies in Wilton Lopez.
What do you think? Were the warning signs about Alex White significant enough to put doubts in this deal or was this another case of TINSTAAPP (There's No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect)?