Tommy John surgery has become as much a brand name as Band-Aid, Kleenex or Coke. We accept the once-experimental surgery as a surefire remedy to fix a pitcher’s arm.
So it’s understandable why after a year off and having undergone Tommy John surgery, Yu Darvish is facing high expectations from the Texas Rangers. After all, the Rangers won the American League West in 2015 without Darvish, who flashed ace-like stuff in 2013 and 2014 with ERAs of 2.83 and 3.06, respectively.
Now pairing him with Cole Hamels, another ace, makes Darvish the juggernaut in the American League playoff picture.
Darvish is on a standard 14-month recovery from the surgery, which wouldn’t put him in the Rangers lineup until mid-May or June—depending on how many minor league starts he needs to stretch out. Literally, each week in the recovery from Tommy John surgery is planned out because so many pitchers undergo the procedure each year.
But that process has also restricted Darvish from facing any batters during spring training—he has only thrown bullpen sessions and very carefully increased his pitch count.
A Dallas Morning News blog post from Evan Grant says that pitching coach Doug Brocail told him that Darvish would need to throw between 50 and 55 pitches before throwing to a batter.
Darvish’s latest bullpen session went 31 pitches, according to the post.
But Darvish’s start date really doesn’t matter. Whether mid-May or June, when he finally returns to the Rangers, it will be as if a team loaded with playoff-caliber talent had pulled off a blockbuster trade.
Of course, the Rangers would rather have Darvish on Opening Day. Still, given the situation, no other playoff contender will add a player of Darvish’s caliber that early in the year.
It could certainly help to spark Texas regardless of where the team sits in the standings upon his return.
When news first broke in spring training of last season that Darvish had torn a ligament in his elbow and would need surgery, many dismissed the Rangers’ playoff chances. But as it ended up, Texas won the American League West—helped by a midseason trade for Hamels.
Now the team adds another pitcher with ace-like stuff.
The Houston Astros are rightfully the favorite to win the division with a group of talented position players and arguably the division’s best pitcher in Dallas Keuchel. But the Rangers have the division’s best starting pitching tandem in Hamels and Darvish.
Darvish is more than just a “Robin,” though.
The American League West is loaded with talented aces—Oakland’s Sonny Gray, Seattle’s Felix Hernandez and the aforementioned Keuchel and Hamels. But Darvish’s past seasons have earned him the right to be mentioned among them.
Like each of his four division counterparts, Darvish too has posted an ERA in the coveted twos. There’s no caveat needed. This statement doesn’t need to be hedged: The Rangers have two aces on their staff.
Never has there been a time in the American League where pitching has been more important.
Regardless of whether teams added to their starting rotations or bullpens, we saw an emphasis this offseason on playoff contenders adding depth to their pitching staffs. It was an offseason in which the pitching contracts were much higher than that of hitters.
Just look at the seven-year, $217 million contract David Price signed with Boston at 30 years old, while Jason Heyward—said to be the prize among position fielders this offseason—signed an eight-year deal worth $184 million at only 26 years old.
Pitching matters. We saw the Red Sox add Price, but also dynamic closer Craig Kimbrel. The Yankees traded for Aroldis Chapman, which gives them one of baseball’s best bullpens. The Orioles signed starter Yovani Gallardo.
Obviously, Darvish was not a free agent this offseason. But he can have the same impact as a quasi addition.
Predicting Darvish’s impact on the 2016 Rangers is as easy as looking at his past performance. Sure, he had a complicated surgery with a long recovery. But so many have successfully returned from Tommy John surgery.
Kerry Wood and John Smoltz had the surgery and pitched successfully as relievers. Tim Hudson also underwent the procedure and continued to be a solid starter for the Braves.
A little Googling reveals that David Wells also had Tommy John surgery as a minor leaguer. And that was in 1985! The procedure and its recovery methods have advanced in the 30 years since.
The Rangers are staking their season in that history.
For Darvish, he may return to the Rangers with a newly constructed arm. But it’s the player of old whose right arm will certainly be felt throughout the American League playoff race.
Seth Gruen is a national baseball columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @SethGruen.