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July 20, 2010

Expanded Horizons

Ulnar Landing

by Tommy Bennett

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I Know I Came Here For Something…

Standing on the mound last Saturday, Edinson Volquez was like a bright idea—the kind of thing that you were sure you wanted to do when you walked in the room but for the life of you couldn’t remember what it was. Like that idea, too, Volquez only returned when most of baseball’s collective attention had been turned elsewhere, especially when it came to the Reds. After Travis Wood nearly pitched a perfect game, Mike Leake jumped straight from the draft to the major leagues, and Joey Votto was nearly left off the National League’s All-Star roster, few were talking about Volquez’s return from last year’s Tommy John surgery until it was announced he would begin his rehab assignment.

Facing the Rockies last weekend, Volquez provided an acute reminder of his potential ability to help the Reds in their race to secure the NL Central title. Slowly and deliberately, Volquez pumped his 95-mph four-seamer to the Rockies’ potent collection of lefty batters. After the Rockies snuck a run in the first (Dexter Fowler double, sacrifice, Carlos Gonzalez single), Volquez shut the Rockies down for the next five innings, allowing just one more hit. On the night, he struck out nine and walked just two while throwing six innings on 96 pitches. At various points, he flashed a deceptive 84-mph changeup (that he used as an out-pitch) and a back-breaking curve that registered at 79 mph. On the Cincinnati TV broadcast, Jeff Brantley—who sat behind home plate for Volquez’s return—consistently remarked that he could not differentiate between the fastball and the secondary offerings.

For all the excitement surrounding the return of the DVD in the age of Blu-Ray, Volquez’s road back to the majors was not entirely smooth. Placed on the 60-day DL in June of last year, Volquez underwent two related elbow procedures. Originally aiming for a June return, Volquez surprised and disappointed many fans when he was suspended for 50 games for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug ban (he later claimed the drug was part of a fertility treatment given to him by a doctor in the Dominican Republic). Because players may serve suspensions while on the disabled list, Volquez did not miss any additional games as he rehabbed his elbow (though he did forego approximately $133,000 in salary).

The morning of Volquez’s return, the Reds had a slim hold on first place in the NL Central. If they are to hold off the resurgent Cardinals (winners of six straight), the Reds will need Volquez to continue his effective comeback.

We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Trade Deadline

Volquez’s return to the Reds is a reminder that many teams upgrade at midseason without venturing beyond their extended rosters. In the past few years, several pitchers have returned from the now almost-routine Tommy John procedure—which most commonly involves replacing the ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow with a tendon from the pitcher’s arm or leg—to give their teams a boost down the stretch.

For example, last year the Red Sox acquired Billy Wagner just as he was returning to the Mets, and Wagner went on to bolster Boston’s late-inning relief corps, striking out 22 in 13 2/3 innings. Perhaps because of limited confidence in Wagner’s recovery and plenty of other high-leverage bullpen options, Wagner’s average leverage last year was the lowest since his full-season debut. The Red Sox nevertheless ended up benefiting from Wagner’s effectiveness, as Wagner’s Type-A free-agent status netted the Red Sox two draft picks when he signed with the Braves. Wagner has worked out well for the Braves, too, as he’s struck out 59 batters and walked just 12 in 39 IP this season.

Speaking of the Braves, they received a shot in the arm last September when Tim Hudson returned from Tommy John surgery. Hudson’s debut wasn’t quite as effective as Volquez’s (Hudson went 5 1/3 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 3 BB, 5 K), but over the course of seven September starts, Hudson racked up a 61.3 percent ground-ball rate and a 3.56 SIERA in 42 1/3 IP. But here, too, it is important to notice that however helpful Hudson was last year, he’s been even more helpful in 2010. Through 128 IP, he has a 3.98 SIERA and a 67.1 percent ground-ball rate (highest in baseball for pitchers with at least 40 IP).

Smart money might pick Josh Johnson as the best pitcher in baseball right now. He has a 2.83 SIERA due to the fact that more than half (50.1 percent) of the balls he allows in play are grounders, that he strikes out more than nine batters per nine IP (9.1), and that he walks fewer than two per nine IP (1.97). But that’s 2010. In 2008, he was nothing more than a once-promising young pitcher rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. He was useful for the Marlins down the stretch, offering a 3.60 SIERA and a 49.6 percent ground-ball rate in 87 1/3 IP. Unfortunately, the Marlins faded from the 1 1/2 games back in the NL East on the day of his return to ending the season 7 1/2 games back. As with Wagner and Hudson, Johnson blossomed fully in 2009, and since then you have bet against him at your own peril.

The one pitcher who was more highly touted when he succumbed to the knife than Volquez was Francisco Liriano. Liriano went down in the middle of his astounding rookie campaign in 2006, a season in which he posted a 144/32 K/BB ratio in 121 IP. Liriano was, until recently, a cautionary tale for elbow trouble—a sort of counterweight to the success stories and honeymoon periods. Between August 2006 and August 2008, Liriano pitched just 12 2/3 IP in the major leagues. But starting with his August call-up in 2008, he pitched 65 2/3 innings for the Twins with a 60/19 K/BB ratio. This season, he has a SIERA just a smidge higher than Johnson’s (2.86) and a strikeout rate that is fourth among title qualifiers (25.9 percent).

Question of the Day

 Recent anecdotal evidence suggests that Tommy John rehabbers can provide value the season they return, but that the big returns come in subsequent years. Given the Reds’ already crowded rotation picture, how much of a boost do you think Volquez will provide them this year? In future years? What lessons can we learn for other expected TJ-returnees like Jordan Zimmermann?  

Related Content:  Edinson Volquez

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