America loves a comeback story. From the 2004 Boston Red Sox, who transcended a three-game deficit in the ALCS to win a World Series championship, to Reggie Miller—who scored eight points in 11 seconds to lift the Indiana Pacers to victory over the New York Knicks, subsequently shocking Madison Square Garden in the 1995 Eastern Conference semifinals.
Most great comebacks, however, do not occur in a matter of seconds. This stands true for Milwaukee Brewers relief pitcher Jim Henderson. Following a second career shoulder surgery, which took place in August of 2014, Henderson has been on the mend ever since, hoping to once again reach big league form.
The life of a relief pitcher is soon forgotten, so easily discarded from one's mind following a stagnant season. But Henderson has continued to claw his way back into contention. And once fully healed, he is set to have a breakout season for the Brewers in 2015.
2013 proved to be a year of great production. Appearing in 61 games, Henderson pitched 60 total innings. While allowing only 18 runs, he struck out 75 batters on the way to a 2.70 ERA, per ESPN.com.
The most important statistic following that season is Henderson's 28 saves. Remember that Francisco Rodriguez started the season as Milwaukee's closing pitcher, only to lose the job midway through the campaign due to inconsistent performance.
The pieces were now in place for success in 2014. Henderson had solidified himself as the closer, Ryan Braun was returning from suspension and Milwaukee was hopeful to make a run at the playoffs.
Instead, the floor fell out from underneath Henderson—and likewise, his prospects toward bullpen prosperity. Over the course of 2014, Henderson appeared in only 14 games, allowing 10 runs with a 7.15 ERA, per ESPN.com.
With the blink of an eye, your season is over, left with an imperfect rotator cuff/labrum, with only months of rehab to look forward to.
Before being able to prove success once again, Henderson must first return to action. And unfortunately, the timetable is uncertain. Back in January, Brewers beat writer Adam McCalvy tweeted:
Jim Henderson update: Began throwing off a mound last week; first true bullpen sessions coming this week. Hopes to be 100% by Opening Day.— Adam McCalvy (@AdamMcCalvy) January 25, 2015
Jump to April, when Milwaukee placed Henderson on the 15-day DL due to right-shoulder inflammation, just before the start of the regular season.
Now, a comeback from shoulder surgery should not be taken lightly, especially for a pitcher. And as the Brewers have already realized, major setbacks can occur throughout the rehab process.
In fact, Jason Paczkowski of SB Nation reminds us that, "Tom Gorzelanny had shoulder surgery after the 2013 season and spent the first 2.5 months of 2014 on the disabled list. While Gorzelanny's surgery was more extensive, shoulder injuries can be tricky."
What's strange is that Henderson pitched throughout spring training in Arizona. Therefore, this is likely a strategic roster move from Milwaukee, instead of a reoccurring injury.
The biggest issue surrounds a question of velocity. Per FanGraphs.com, Henderson averaged a fastball of 95.2 mph, combined with a slider of 85.6 mpg for the 2013 season. And while the slider remained relatively equal, Henderson's fastball dropped to 93.8 in the 2014 season.
Now, 1.4 mph doesn't seem like much difference, but our friends at FanGraphs tell otherwise when examining opposing batters. Over the course of that one offseason, combined with that drop in velocity, batters swung at Henderson's pitches 5.1 percent more frequently. And even more frightening, they made contact with the ball 71.9 percent of the time when swinging at any pitch—in or out of the strike zone.
In a recent article by Todd Rosiak of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Brewers assistant general manager Gord Ash mentioned that Henderson's fastball was topping out at 92 mph. This is likely the reason for the extended DL stint. Henderson is not hurt, but rather, he's not up to 100 percent velocity.
It is important to note that the aforementioned fastball speed of 95.2 is an average. And in many cases, like the video below from MLB.com, Henderson was able to reach the high-90s.
Above all else, Henderson cannot return to the pro club until he's able to consistently retain a mid-90s fastball. Even if that transition lasts months into the season as Gorzelanny's did, Milwaukee must be patient.
Luckily, Henderson has been through all of this before. After just eight games in the Cubs minor league system in 2008, Henderson blew out his arm and required shoulder surgery. He returned, however, the following season and averaged a 2.13 ERA pitching for the Brewers' Single-A, High-A and Double-A ball clubs.
Because of this, one could fully expect Henderson to be able to return to true form. Granted, this is certainly speculative. Two surgeries on a shoulder could absolutely mark the end of a career. But being that his fastball is already back to at least the low 90s, Henderson seems to be on the right path.
The fact is, the Brewers need Henderson in the bullpen whether he acts as a closer or not. To start, Milwaukee still has question marks next to the names of Neal Cotts, Tyler Thornburg and Jeremy Jeffress. Two of those remain unproven players. And Cotts might not have much left in the tank having turned 35 in March.
That leaves Rodriguez, newly acquired Jonathan Broxton and Will Smith. And while one would then see Henderson as the odd man out in this scenario, fans must first remember manager Ron Roenicke's absolute belief in righty-lefty matchups.
Major league baseball is no longer as simple as righty versus righty and vice versa. In fact, Rodriguez is referred to as a reverse-split pitcher, meaning that even though he is right-handed, he pitches better against left-handed hitters (1.90) than he does righties (.265), per ESPN.com.
Smith is more typical, being a left-handed pitcher that performs greater against lefty batters. And oddly enough, Broxton shares an equal ERA no matter what side of the plate a batter swings from.
This means that other than Broxton, Roenicke does not have a reliable backup to pitch against right-handed batters. Enter Jim Henderson. At the top of his game in 2013, Henderson yielded only a 1.65 average to right-handed batters.
This makes the 32-year-old absolutely valuable to the success of the Brewers bullpen. Patience is, of course, required before Milwaukee will see true results. But once that day comes, Milwaukee might just have its best comeback story yet.