Roy Oswalt’s Back Scare

After only throwing 37 pitches through two innings, Roy Oswalt left his start last night due to back soreness. This is definitely disappointing news for the Phillies’ starter, considering he’s already had one DL stint this year as a result of back pain, but I have to say, I wasn’t expecting this sort of a quote from him after the game:

“I’m going to do what’s best for the team, if I can’t pitch, I can’t pitch,” Oswalt said. “I’m not going to keep going out there and keep being a liability for the bullpen to have to pick me up. If it’s gotten to that point, it’s gotten to that point.”

Woh! Talk about retirement? Doesn’t that seem just a leetle bit extreme?

As it turns out, possibly not.

Oswalt has been talking about retiring after the 2011 season for years now — and he hinted as such before this season started — so it’s not as though retirement is far from his mind. Unlike other players, who can hang around the majors for years chasing after money and the Hall of Fame, Oswalt seems to derive his enjoyment of the game from the competition — and if he can no longer compete on the highest level, why stick around?

Not only that, but his back injury could be worse than mere “tightness.” An MRI earlier this season showed that he has two degenerated discs in his lower back, and he claims to feel pain no matter what he’s doing: “sitting, standing, walking, pitching, or sleeping.”  One of my close friends has dealt with chronic back pain for the past five years, and it’s easily one of the most persistent and painful injuries that you can have. You don’t realize how much stress we put on our spines until you have a constant reminder jabbing at you every second of the day.

There’s no way of knowing how much pain Oswalt is in — and how badly he wants to keep playing — but I want to focus on the second part of his quote: “I’m not going to keep going out there and keep being a liability for the bullpen to have to pick me up.” Since when did posting a 3.79 ERA and 3.80 FIP make anyone a “liability”?

There’s no denying that this has probably been Oswalt’s worst season of his career. His strikeout rate is at an all-time low (5.3 K/9) and he’s only getting batters to swing and miss on around 7% of his pitches, so his FIP and xFIP both sit at career highs. But that speaks more to how good Oswalt has been over his career; he still has a 2.3 K/BB ratio and a high groundball rate (48%), and his 3.79 ERA doesn’t look unsustainably low. His fastball velocity may be down this season, but he hasn’t lost his command (2.3 BB/9) and he’s mixing in his changeup more often, keeping hitters off-balance. Sure, Oswalt with a bad back isn’t as good as he used to be, but this version of himself can still compete in the majors at a high level.

Oswalt has an MRI scheduled for Monday, and if his injury turns out to be somewhat serious, there’s really no way to tell how he’ll react. At 33-years-old, he’s still young enough to have surgery, rehab, and come back to pitch in the majors for a few season, but will he want to do that? Judging from what he’s been saying, probably not.

One thing is for certain, though: Oswalt can still compete. He’s an above average pitcher, even with his back, so he shouldn’t sell himself short. The Phillies are blessed with enough rotation depth that they can let him have an extended DL-stint to get better, so I’d hate to see him end his career so abruptly. Stick around a bit longer, Roy — you’ve still got it.

We hoped you liked reading Roy Oswalt’s Back Scare by Steve Slowinski!

Please support FanGraphs by becoming a member. We publish thousands of articles a year, host multiple podcasts, and have an ever growing database of baseball stats.

FanGraphs does not have a paywall. With your membership, we can continue to offer the content you've come to rely on and add to our unique baseball coverage.

Support FanGraphs

Steve is the editor-in-chief of DRaysBay and the keeper of the FanGraphs Library. You can follow him on Twitter at @steveslow.

newest oldest most voted

Just looking at his season fip and era don’t do his recent struggles justice. His Arizona start was the beginning, he’s struggled since then