Friday, October 22, 2010

Nathan returning to form in '11? Don't count on it.

One of the cogs to the 2011 bullpen, Joe Nathan, recently told John Shipley of the Pioneer Press that he plans to come to camp in the spring healthy and ready to compete for his old job.  

Said Nathan:
"I plan on being healthy enough to not miss a beat in spring training. I'm sure the coaches will be cautious at first, but I hope to prove early in spring that I don't need to be babied or coddled in any way, and that I can go out and play baseball as normal."
The Twins closer-in-exile is scheduled to make a non-refundable $12 million next season - a substantial amount of dough - so the organization is understandably anxious that Nathan fulfills his promise of returning at full strength. At the same time, there has to be cautious concern and on-going contingency planning to be prepared if the closer’s arm is not ready.

There is a lesson to be learned from the two most recent Tommy John post-ops, Francisco Liriano and Pat Neshek, and their first seasons back on the mound. Upon their return, neither Liriano nor Neshek (in his limited sample size) were very effective. In fact, most of their vital signs suggested that they were nowhere close to the pitchers they were prior to the procedure:

Francisco Liriano
Pat Neshek
Velocity Before TJ (mph)
Contact Rate Before TJ
Velocity After TJ (mph)
Contact Rate After TJ


In addition to both losing roughly four miles per hour on their fastballs, Liriano and Neshek struggled with their control as well in their initial seasons back. Because Liriano was able to mix in a still viable slider, he managed to escape his that year with a 6-4 record along with a 3.91 ERA. However, his control was less than sharp as he had troubles getting ahead of hitters (48.9% first-pitch strike versus 60.5% first-pitch strike prior to Tommy John) as well as getting opponents to miss (10.8% swinging strike versus 16.4% prior to Tommy John). With another hiccup in 2009, it took until this past season before Liriano regain the form he had before the surgery.

Neshek, too, returned with a decreased velocity as well. Like Liriano, in his limited exposure at the major league level in 2010, Neshek also had troubles getting ahead of hitters (44.2% first-pitch strike compared to 66.1% in 2008). Because of his radar readings, the Twins sent him back to Rochester in hopes that he would be able to strengthen his arm more. He has yet to prove that he can come full-circle after the surgery.

According to Will Carroll’s Saving The Pitching: A Revolutionary Analysis Of Pitching Injuries And How To Prevent Them, the standard amount of time for recovery of Tommy John surgery is 22-to-24 months. Following that timeline, Liriano would not have been fully healed until November 2008. Instead, he was throwing again in the Twins uniform on April 13th, 2008, a mere 17 months after his date with the knife. Likewise, Neshek was submarining again for the team 17 months after his surgery as well.

Of course, given the right individual and training program, one can hasten the recovery process. For the Braves’ closer Billy Wagner and starter Tim Hudson, 17 months was more than enough time to get game ready. The two Atlanta pitchers should be role models for Nathan as they were able to return to work 11 months (Hudson in 13 months) after having their elbow rebuilt. As such, Nathan was quoted as talking to both Wagner and Hudson regarding their trials and tribulations through the Tommy John recovery process.

Unlike Liriano and Neshek, neither pitcher lost much in terms of their stuff:

Billy Wagner
Tim Hudson
Velocity Before TJ (mph)
Contact Rate Before TJ
Velocity After TJ (mph)
Contact Rate After TJ


Wagner only got in 15.2 innings in his first season back but was far better than before the operation, inciting less contact afterwards. Hudson also had an enviable season as well, actually getting ahead of his opponents much better (66.1% versus 60.4%) after the surgery in his reps.

Nathan’s motivation to converse with the two TJ survivors goes beyond seeking inspirational slogans as April 2011 will also be Nathan’s 11-month anniversary of his surgery date. Given the previous track record of his teammates, is this really a feasible goal for the Twins’ all-time saves leader?

“[M]ultiple major-league sources suggest that medical risks persist for a pitcher until he is at least 14 months removed from such a procedure. There are still risks of setbacks, and it would be vastly premature to suggest that the pitcher is out of the woods.”
It would be a fairly accurate assumption that Nathan is working through the same programs with the team’s trainers as Liriano and Neshek did before him. While plenty of the turnaround has to be assigned to the drive and motivation of the individual, there is a share of responsibility that goes to the training staff as well. As Carroll’s book says, the real work begins during the rehab protocol and the Twins have little evidence of returning a Tommy John survivor back into the wild. Judging from the outcome of Liriano and Neshek, the probability of Nathan returning to his 2009 self in 2011 appear very premature.