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There is always trepidation when a star pitcher comes back from injury. Some of the nervousness stems from the risk of re-injury, some is just pent up energy leftover from not seeing the player pitch in 22 months, and then there's the biggest reason for worry: whether the pitcher in question retains the stuff, delivery and overall effectiveness that he had before he went on the shelf. Let's get right to the notes and see how things worked out for the right-hander in question.

Yu Darvish, RHP, TEX
Darvish answered most of those questions in his first start of the season, at home against the Pirates.

Game Stats

Date

IP

R

H

HR

BB

K

PC

June 3

5.7

3

6

0

1

5

88

May 28

5.0

1

3

0

1

7

81

The Rangers have been careful with Darvish as they ease him back into a full workload, keeping him under 90 pitches in each of his first two starts regardless of whether he was still the best option from a pure baseball point of view. In yesterday's start, for example, Darvish had thrown 88 pitches over 5 2/3 innings as he prepared to face Mariners' no. 7 hitter Dae-ho Lee with a runner on first base, but manager Jeff Banister—who prior to the game had said that Darvish would be limited to 85-95 pitches—took Darvish out of the ballgame with a 7-3 lead despite his being one out away from a quality start and having at least one more batter's worth of pitches left in the theoretical tank. Obviously Banister was most happy to see Darvish survive the start unscathed, but the object of protecting a pitcher from himself via a limited workload is not meant to run contradictory to winning ballgames; that is too often the case with arbitrary pitch counts that are set before the pitcher even takes the mound. Darvish's future is clearly not worth risking in this case, but the question of whether that risk is actually elevated is an open question.

Darvish returned to the mound last Saturday and instantly gratified the home crowd, hitting 99 mph on the radar gun in the first inning and uncorking his filthy breaking stuff, including a two-strike breaking pitch to Andrew McCutchen that sent the former NL MVP back to the dugout after an empty swing for strike three.

Darvish averaged 95.5 mph on his fastball in his first start back, the second-highest single-game average of his career, behind only a start from his first year stateside. Suffice to say, his stuff was back, and the fact that Darvish has walked only two batters over his first 10 2/3 innings of work is a positive indicator for a pitcher whose high walk rates have been the only knock against him in his MLB career. The strikeout stuff was fully intact, with a touch more juice on his heater than Darvish had enjoyed prior to surgery.

It may have been an unrepeatable velo, or perhaps Darvish has gained a tick with his new UCL, but the fact that his pitch speed was all the way up (and then some) is an encouraging sign that the ace is fully back to his pre-surgery form. He generated 13 empty swings in the 81 pitches that he threw in his first start, and followed that up with another 10 empty hacks in his second outing. He's brought down the breaking ball frequency in his first couple games, throwing a combined 40 sliders and curves between the two games out of the 169 pitches thrown, a 23.7 percent rate that pales in comparison to the 33 percent rate of breakers he threw from 2012-14. He might be taking things easy while he settles back into form, or perhaps the lowered rate of breakers is part of a new approach, but in the short term his diminished reliance on the breakers bodes well for his ability to stay on the mound.

The mechanics were in pre-surgery form, with excellent balance and near-perfect posture, combined with the type of power to safely support high-90s velocity. His solid momentum was intact and his torque was particularly impressive, with a strong delay to his trigger of trunk rotation after the front foot hit the ground. Darvish had the mechanical timing and sequencing to steadily repeat a powerful delivery, a combination that figures to greatly shorten his comeback trail, and the lack of command that often shadows a pitcher in his return from Tommy John surgery might already be in Darvish's rearview mirror.

Aaron Nola, RHP, PHI
Coming into the season, the question was whether Nola could replicate his solid performance of 2015 (77 2/3 IP of a 3.58 ERA and 68:19 K:BB), and instead he has taken an additional leap forward. Nola currently sports a 2.88 ERA, good for the top 20 among NL starters on its own merit, but his 76 Ks to 13 walks have taken his performance beyond the level of substantial and into a realm that is worthy of the top of a rotation (even one more formidable that that of the Phillies).

Game Stats

Date

IP

R

H

HR

BB

K

PC

May 31

6.0

2

5

2

1

6

96

May 25

6.0

4

6

0

1

6

92

Nola has been much more impressive when looking at just the earned runs, as he has allowed two or fewer earnies in eight of 11 stats, has pitched 6.0 inning or more in 10 of those turns, and has combined the elements for a quality start in nine of his starts this season. He has struck out six or more batters 10 times (the other one included 5 Ks) and has allowed more than two walks in just one start this season—that being the three free passes he gave away in his worst start of the season, a seven-run disaster over five innings against the Nats back on April 16.

Part of the reason why I include runs in the above chart and not earned runs is due to some of the archaic definitions of what constitutes an “earned” run, but the May 25 start would look much more impressive on its surface if using the earned count of two that day off Nola. His pedestrian pitch speed—Nola is averaging a modest 91.0 mph on his fastballs this season—makes it easy to overlook his talents, but effectiveness of his dynamite curveball should not be understated. The curve has finished 85 of his 144 career strikeouts (59 percent) despite being a 28.8 percent offering for his career, and the pitch has resulted in just a .163 batting average (though a .293 BABiP) and .063 ISO in 190 at bats that ended on the hammer.

Nola has far exceeded expectations and done so on the strength of a killer breaking ball and excellent pitch command. The walk rate was already low last season, with a rate of 2.2 BB/9 that actually represented a significant jump from the 1.5 BB/9 rate that he had in the minors, but Nola has brought his big-league stinginess for the free pass in line with his walk-phobic approach in the minors, giving away just 1.6 BB/9 this season in addition to the lowest hit rate of his career (6.8 H/9). The combination has resulted in a low 0.93 WHIP that is the fourth-best mark among NL starting pitchers, putting him alongside known badasses Clayton Kershaw, Jake Arrieta, Noah Syndergaard and… Kyle Hendricks.

Carlos Martinez, RHP, STL
Car-Mart was steamrolling through the 2016 season, compiling a 1.93 ERA through the month of April and pitching at least six innings in each of his first five starts of the season. He left his next start early due to illness and took an extended rest before retaking the mound, but since his early departure the results had been thoroughly unimpressive, including four straight starts of five innings or less and with four or more earned runs allowed for three straight turns. Then it all clicked, and in his last start Martinez put together his best pitching line of the season.

Game Stats

Date

IP

R

H

HR

BB

K

PC

May 30

8.0

0

5

0

1

8

104

May 25

5.0

6

6

1

3

7

103

The hard-throwing right-hander is averaging 96.0 mph on his fastball this season, an impressive value on its own but one that actually represents a slight down-slide for Martinez, who averaged 96.2 mph last year. The 0.2-mph discrepancy is negligible even before considering the general tendency for pitchers to gain velocity throughout the season, but it's worth noting that his velo in his last start was the second highest that it had been all season, averaging 97.3 mph on his fastball variations (weighted average) and spiking 100.9 mph on his hardest pitch of the night.

The eight strikeouts tied for his season high in a single game and his eight innings pitched also tied his single-game best this season. CarMart also had his first game of more than eight points on DraftKings in nearly a month, this after he exceeded the 18-point mark in each of his first five starts of the campaign. When contrasting his two most recent starts, the first thing that stands out is his opponents: He faced the almighty offense of the Cubs on May 25th, but in his last turn Martinez faced the relatively quiet offense of the Brewers. The difference in opponent quality certainly accounts for a large chunk of the discrepancy, but there were also functional reasons for Martinez to have a good outing against Milwaukee.

Martinez has a powerful delivery, and his motion contains some flailing limbs near release point, often resulting in across-the-board inconsistency with his pitches. His stuff is so nasty that sometimes it doesn't matter, but in his last start, Martinez did a better job of repeating the release point.

May 30, 2016 May 25, 2015

A repetitive release point has a clear ripple effect to improve pitch command, but it also makes life tougher on opposing hitters by disguising the identity of the incoming pitch. Martinez wasn't immune from this in his last turn, getting on top of the four curveballs that he threw (as indicated by the yellow dots on the left graph; he threw zero curves in the game on the right), but his most-used pitches formed a tighter cluster than they did in his start on May 25 (data courtesy of Brooks Baseball), particularly when considering the overlap. All of his pitch types were more inconsistent in the May 25 game, and though that does effectively mask his incoming pitches due to the sheer randomness involved, it doesn't outweigh the negative impact on pitch command. All of his non-curve pitch types were released out of a similar tunnel on May 30, enabling Martinez to hit spots on both edges of the strike zone.

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