Pitcher injuries are unfortunately commonplace across Major League Baseball today. For anybody not named Sandy Alcantara, you need to enter the new season bracing for the possibility of an IL stint at some point. More so than ever, MLB teams are prioritizing quality over quantity when it comes to pitching—they handle their arms cautiously and do everything possible to prepare them to succeed when they’re actually on the mound.
On one end of the injury spectrum, there’s Alcantara with 434 1⁄3 regular season innings pitched since 2021. He is a cyborg. On the other end, there’s Sixto Sánchez. The former top-ranked Miami Marlins prospect has logged zero regular season appearances at any level during that same span due to right shoulder maladies.
Sánchez was sorely missed over the last two seasons, and I think both the player and the organization must share the blame for the length of his absence. But that’s a topic for another time. For now, let’s focus on his comeback attempt.
Last week, we got a glimpse of a Sánchez throwing session from Instagram user @elari1620:
Encouraging to see Sánchez building up his arm at the Marlins’ facility more than a month in advance of major league spring training. Nick Fortes vouched for the progress he’s making (via Jordan McPherson, Miami Herald):
A notable from Nick Fortes today: He told me he caught a Sixto Sanchez bullpen session the other day. “He looks good, loose, fluid. I like where he’s at,” Fortes said.— Jordan McPherson (@J_McPherson1126) January 14, 2023
Fortes has also caught bullpen sessions recently for Braxton Garrett, Josh Simpson, Will Stewart.#Marlins
Throughout Sánchez’s years in the Marlins organization—even before his shoulder blew out—he has been, to put it bluntly, fat. For a player who hasn’t yet established himself in the majors, his suboptimal conditioning fairly raised concerns about how committed he truly is to getting the most out of his career. I personally never weighed that factor too heavily (no pun intended), but for those who did, enjoy his latest selfie:
As mentioned earlier, Sánchez was completely off the grid in 2021 and 2022. He initially injured his throwing shoulder at the Marlins’ alternate training site right before the ‘21 campaign began and has encountered several setbacks since then, preventing him from embarking on a formal minor league rehab assignment. No winter ball reps, either.
Most pitchers who go back-to-back years without pitching competitively never make it back to being valuable big leaguers. Let’s look at some exceptions to the rule.
To be clear, that “rule” is two or more consecutive seasons without MLB, MiLB or any other professional regular season games pitched, then performing above replacement level after returning (greater than 0.0 Baseball-Reference wins above replacement for the rest of their careers). It’s arbitrary, I now. It means that Justin Verlander (missed 2020-21) and Zack Wheeler (missed 2015-16), both of whom pitched exactly once in a two-year span, don’t count, but I think we can agree that those were unrealistic comps, anyway.
This is not a comprehensive list (yet). If there are more pitchers from the last couple decades who you believe qualify, let me know in the comments!
- Michael Kopech (2019-20), Hunter Greene (2019-20) and Mark Leiter Jr. (2019-20)—I’m grouping this trio together because they would have pitched competitively in 2020 if not for COVID. Kopech opted out of the season, while Greene and Leiter suffered from the cancellation of that year’s Minor League Baseball schedule.
- Matt Bush (2008-09, 2012-15) and Daniel Bard (2018-19)—Bush and Bard have remarkable stories, making it back from prison and retirement, respectively. Not applicable to Sixto, but worth mentioning.
- Neal Cotts (2010-11), Arodys Vizcaíno (2012-13) and Tim Collins (2015-16)—These three were relief-only types who were sidelined longer than usual by Tommy John surgery. Cotts dominated out of the bullpen in his second season post-absence (1.11 ERA, 2.17 FIP, 2.6 bWAR in 57.0 IP) and Vizcaíno accumulated 50 saves over the rest of his career.
- Dustin McGowan (2009-10)—Now we’re getting warmer. McGowan was very highly regarded as a Toronto Blue Jays prospect and made it into their major league starting rotation before being sidelined in four out of five seasons. Poor guy underwent labrum surgery and the injuries snowballed from there. It’d be a stretch to characterize the latter half of McGowan’s career as a success (4.25 ERA, 4.92 FIP, 0.5 bWAR in 296.2 IP), but at least he had longevity.
- Jonathan Loáisiga (2014-15)—I see Loáisiga as the most relevant comp for Sánchez. The longtime New York Yankee is another short, flame-throwing right-hander who was derailed by shoulder issues (he additionally needed Tommy John soon after returning to pro ball). Loáisiga had no MLB experience prior to his injuries and has since done pretty well in a medium-to-high leverage role (3.55 ERA, 3.53 FIP, 3.3 bWAR in 198.0 IP).
My research suggests that Sixto Sánchez living up to his initial projections and becoming a good, full-time starting pitcher for the Marlins is an extreme longshot. Despite the crumbs of positive news that have come out recently, we are missing confirmation that his pure stuff resembles his pre-injury self. At this point, it’s best to be skeptical about the quantity and quality of what the 24-year-old is capable of.
Nonetheless, this ought to be an intriguing storyline to follow throughout spring training.