There are no refunds, no returns, no warranties. If you buy a pitcher with a bum shoulder, you’re stuck with him.
The Dodgers bought Jason Schmidt last winter, for $47 million. They’re stuck. He showed up to spring training, but his fastball never did. Maybe it will show up in a few weeks, or a few months. Maybe not.
In his prime, he threw 95 mph. In the spring, he threw 85, and not easily. The decline appears stunning in its magnitude, and in its unpredictability. The Dodgers would have had no way to know what was coming.
Or would they? Take a look at the data from Stats LLC.
The statistical service tracks the velocity of every pitch, every game. The analysts miss a few pitches, because they take the radar readings off television broadcasts, and some readings are not displayed on the screen.
But the Stats LLC figures point to a potentially alarming drop in velocity last September. These are the percentages of fastballs Schmidt threw below 90 mph last season:
By themselves, those figures represent more of a yellow flag than a red flag. Schmidt sat out one start last September because of back tightness, which could have hampered his delivery and skewed the numbers. Fatigue could set in by September too, not necessarily indicative of injury.
But one American League executive said his team decided not to pursue trading for Schmidt last July after his scouts reported declining velocity.
A scout from another AL team said he tracked uneven velocity from Schmidt all season but clocked him as high as 94 mph in September.
His ratio of strikeouts per nine innings -- ranging from 9.0 to 10.0 from 2002 to 2004 -- fell to 7.6 last season, but the ratio was better in September than April.
He got outs. He finished eighth in the National League with a 3.59 earned-run average. Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti said his scouts did not detect uneven velocity from Schmidt last season.
“Our scouts had him at 91-92 in April. Same thing in September,” Colletti said. “Before we sign anybody, they’re run through a pretty strong physical. If there was a red flag on any player, we wouldn’t pursue him.”
The Dodgers signed Schmidt for three years, not five or six or seven, a more prudent risk for a power pitcher who would be 36 when the contract expired.
In a news release announcing the deal, Colletti called Schmidt “a top-of-the-rotation starter who can dominate a game as well as any pitcher in the major leagues.”
Schmidt had made his third All-Star team last season, and he and Barry Zito were widely regarded as the top starting pitchers available in free agency. The Cardinals had chased Schmidt too, and so had the Cubs and Orioles.
The Dodgers got their ace, the power arm to crown their rotation.
“I’ve always said,” Colletti said last week, “that I thought he’d fit in the top half of our rotation.”
For $47 million, you should get an ace, no? Derek Lowe and Brad Penny don’t make that kind of money.
“This was that type of market,” Colletti said.
In spring training, as the buzz about Schmidt’s missing fastball spread, one AL pitching coach said he noticed Schmidt had altered his delivery.
“Maybe he was trying to create velocity,” the coach said.
Or, in retrospect, maybe an injury restricted his movement. After he made three starts and got pounded, the Dodgers sent him for an MRI examination. It revealed shoulder inflammation but no structural damage.
Rick Honeycutt, the Dodgers’ pitching coach, said Schmidt had all but stopped throwing breaking balls because they caused him discomfort and had acknowledged modifying his delivery so he could keep pitching.
“He said he couldn’t get his arm to some of those positions,” Honeycutt said.
So now Schmidt waits and wonders, as do the Dodgers. Most pitchers have some shoulder inflammation, so rest and rehabilitation might or might not resolve the velocity issue. He could take a few more weeks to rejoin the rotation, or several months.
Bartolo Colon used to touch 100 mph. He rehabilitated a torn rotator cuff for almost a year and recovered much of his lost velocity, up to 95 mph. Colletti harbors no similar expectation for Schmidt.
“I don’t think he’s going to come back at 95,” the general manager said.
That doesn’t mean he can’t come back and win, even if only as a really expensive version of Jamie Moyer.
“He went through his moments where he didn’t have the good fastball,” said Dave Righetti, who coached Schmidt for six years with the Giants. “He still knows what to do. He can pitch at 85, where a lot of guys don’t know how.”
Said Colletti: “The guy has a great changeup and an above-average breaking ball. If all you are is a power pitcher and that’s all you’ve got, you’ll struggle until you’re dead. That’s not the case with this player. You don’t pitch this long in this game with just a fastball.”
Stan Conte joined the Dodgers last fall, after seven years as the Giants’ head athletic trainer. He saw nothing different in Schmidt last September than he did last April. He watched Schmidt win without a premium fastball for the last two years. He said nothing could have foretold the shocking decline in velocity -- nothing, that is, except for that marvel of mythical medicine.
“The retroscope,” he said, “is always pretty accurate.”