Why 2015 Should Hint at Fun to Come- Part 1: The Tao of the “Tommy John-ers”

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By now, we’ve seen the M*A*S*H unit feel of 2014 carry right on over into the spring, and we realize that the most exciting arms and bats are, by and large, going to be in Frisco or Round Rock, and not in Arlington, to start this season. Why then would you hold out hope for anything resembling major league baseball in Arlington for 2015?

First and foremost: because nothing feels as good as seeing the kids you followed from the start grow out of 70-win Arlington broiled summers and turn into the cool October whirlwinds of tomorrow.

Remember 2010? Think about what sticks out, especially in finally overcoming the Yankees. The golden child, Neftali Feliz, had gone from whispers of a fastball hot enough to simmer the asphalt between Frisco and Arlington to the kid striking out ARod (thank you, karma) for the pennant. C.J. Wilson showed he was a poor man’s Cliff Lee. Cliff Lee showed the Rangers weren’t a poor man’s version of anything; they WERE the prime cut. Michael Young, the heart of the clubhouse and the man of perpetual positional sacrifice, anchored himself as a Rangers legend with a .333 run. Josh Hamilton did his best Mickey Mantle impression, just to fit the setting. And for the first time in history, a World Series ended, albeit badly, with Rangers fans watching in box and nosebleed seats in Arlington, rather than on couches and bar stools.

In short, 2010 mattered because of all we had suffered through since the turn of the century, from the emergence of Young to the extravagance of ARod to the Mark Teixeira trade that finally signaled a turning of the corner.

Like those squads, this team has the feel of a group of amazing kids and rebound-ready veterans, all needing time to find their way back (or up), but daring to end this decade as pennant winners. The ride will definitely not be smooth, and the bumps may rival your local Farm-to-Market road, but even the start of the drive this season offers some amazing vistas along the way.

Over the next handful of articles, I’ll be exploring each individually. The first begins with every fans least favorite name. We start where your hope probably ended: March 17. While you were trying to color Guinness green (Please. Don’t. Ever. Again.), Yu Darvish was undergoing season-ending Tommy John surgery. Flashing back to Derek Holland’s doggie dive of last offseason, we all thought, “Et tu, Yu?”

But in that elbow twinge, we can all take hope and find our first reason why this season means so much. In addition to the blessing that is modern Tommy John surgery, which has heavily overtaken the much more devastating rotator cuff surgery, we have the Dutch Oven in which to bake a Rangers recipe for redemption. Derek Holland, an Arlington version of Bill “The Spaceman” Lee, minus the pot-sprinkled cornflakes, has a good chance to build on the blueprint for post-microfracture success. He has some solid footsteps in which to walk.

The loss of Yu Darvish means the Rangers will boast a 1-2 punch of Gallardo and Derek Holland. At best, Holland will be a shadow of himself, probably with a return to 2012 numbers (less than 3-1 strikeout to walk ratio, 4.6+ ERA, and something just above his career 1.05 GB/FB ratio). What you probably shouldn’t put on Derek’s shoulders is 1) any complete game miracles or 2) any eating of innings. Historically, even coming back from Tommy John surgery, it is the players +1 season that shows a return to previous dominance, if not improvement to the same. For this year, take a healthy, momentum-gaining season as a win, and hope that it’s a blueprint for what Darvish can show us in 2016.

One more positive note for this season’s Holland and next year’s Darvish. Other than knee-breaking curveballs (see: Kerry Wood), location and movement pitchers seem to fare better post-TJ than fireballers, who take at least another year to build back velocity. And overall, the prognosis is at least better than 50-50 for quality pitchers. Veterans tend to move from dominant 9-inning starters to lights-out relievers. Of note, the aforementioned Wood made an All-Star team in 2008, more than a half decade after his Tommy John season. Two other starters, one older and the other young, present great examples on which we can hope:

• Adam Wainwright was 28 and coming off a Darvish-like 2010 when he underwent Tommy John surgery, having finished second in the 2010 Cy Young ballot. After missing all of 2011, he pitched nearly 200 innings with a sub-4.00 ERA and a 3.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He has been a Top 3 Cy Young finisher every season since, and has averaged a 5+ K/BB ratio.

• In his rookie season, Jordan Zimmerman underwent Tommy John surgery by that August. He has improved each year since his surgery. In 2011, his true return season, he had a dominant 3.18 ERA for a horrible Nationals team, and established a trend his career has borne out almost every season since then: a 4:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. In 2012 he had a winning record and a sub-3.00 ERA. He has since become one of the top 10 pitchers in the National League, and arguably the best pitcher in a rotation that includes Steven Strasburg and Max Scherzer.

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Adam Wainwright and Jordan Zimmerman are just two of the more recent examples of modern Tommy John success models. Patience and a focus on efficiency can mean a return to form – if not more.

The key for the post-Tommy John seasons for both Holland and, next year, Darvish, will likely be one indicator: Efficiency. Post-TJ pitchers, with the possible exception of its junk-balling namesake, are not inning-eaters. In that same vein, the best post-TJ starters tend to be … well, like most of the league’s best starters, period. They bring in 3.5+ strikeout to walk ratios and have a 1+ GB/FB ratio. Velocity shouldn’t be a consideration, and changeups become increasingly critical. Look for Holland to spend at least the first two months finding his feel, and using the season to build endurance. By the All-Star break you should see 6-inning flashes of the old Holland. By August and September, given where the Rangers will likely be, you should HOPE to see short but dominant starts, with high K:BB ratios and an increase in ground balls, especially to right-handed hitters.

That closes our look at arms on the mend. In our next installment, we’ll look at an arm that brings electric stuff in a return to familiar stomping grounds.

 

*Featured image credit: RODGER MALLISON – FT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM*

Chris Connor
As a lifelong DFW resident, Chris Connor is a diehard Rangers fan, and worships at the altar of Arlington.
He pitched - typically backing up third after doing so - and eventually settled into catching in leagues throughout Richardson and Plano in his youth, graduating from and lettering in baseball at Richardson Berkner High School in 1998. He holds a Bachelors of Science in Management and an MBA, both from UT-Dallas.
As a writer, he acknowledges that he’s never had a brilliance for brevity, but tries to meander to a meaningful point as he channels Faulkner and buys bits by the megabyte. He believes the only things more beautiful than Ted Williams’ swing are Yosemite Valley at sunrise and his wife.
He lives with the latter, along with their beloved dog and quite tolerable cat, in Allen, Texas.

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