MLB Pitchers on the Mend: 10 Hurlers Trying To Make Comebacks in 2011
It’s a fickle life in Major League Baseball. Here today, gone tomorrow is a phrase often used when referring to ballplayers who had a quick run of success before seemingly losing it altogether, or players felled by injuries who were unable to make it all the way back.
The stories of great fame and then injury go back many years in baseball, especially among pitchers. Dizzy Dean was a classic example.
Known as the Ace of the Gashouse Gang for the St. Louis Cardinals, Dean was the last pitcher to win 30 games in the National League, reaching that mark in 1934.
However in 1937, Dean was struck by a line drive off the bat of Earl Averill, during that year’s All-Star game, fracturing his left big toe.
When Dean attempted to come back too soon after the injury, he altered his motion, which hurt his throwing shoulder, thereby robbing him of his famous fastball. Although Dean continued to pitch for several more seasons, he never approached his earlier success.
Another example was Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Steve Blass. Between the years of 1968-1972, Blass was one of the better and more durable pitchers in the National League.
He amassed four 15-win seasons in five years, his best in 1972, when he posted a 19-8 record with a 2.49 earned run average, earning him a runner-up finish behind Steve Carlton in the NL Cy Young award balloting.
Blass also won two games for the Pirates in the 1971 World Series, including the clinching Game 7 victory in which Blass threw a four-hitter in Game 3.
However, in 1973, Blass slipped to 3-9 with a 9.85 ERA, and was in the minors the following season. Blass completely lost the ability to throw strikes, and his control never returned. He was out of baseball by 1975.
This season, there are quite a few pitchers who are attempting to either come back from injuries, or trying to salvage a mess of a season the year before.
We rank the top 10 pitchers who will be attempting a comeback to glory for the 2011 MLB season.
10. Josh Beckett, Boston Red Sox
At the beginning of 2010, starting pitcher Josh Beckett was on top of the world. He was coming off a 2009 season during which he was 17-6 with a 3.86 earned run average, was selected to the All-Star team, and for his efforts the Sox rewarded him with a four-year, $68 million contract at the beginning of the 2010 season.
That, however, was the highlight of his season. Beckett got rocked in his first outing of the season against the New York Yankees, allowing eight hits and five runs, and the season got progressively worse from there. He was placed on the disabled list on May 19 with a lower back strain and returned from the injury on July 23.
While his first three outings off the DL were promising, Beckett returned to pitching like garbage for the rest of the season, finishing with a record of 6-6 and a 5.78 earned run average, by far the worst of his career.
His hits-per nine innings ratio of 10.6 was also his worst, and Beckett spent the offseason working on strengthening his back, which led to his stint on the disabled list in 2010.
Beckett will be looking to get back to the form of 2007, when he won 20 games with a 3.27 ERA, while winning all four of his postseason decisions to lead the Red Sox to the World Series.
9. Nick Blackburn, Minnesota Twins
Minnesota Twins starting pitcher Nick Blackburn enjoyed some success in his first full season in 2008, finishing eighth in the American League Rookie of the Year balloting after going 11-11 with the Twins and posting a 4.05 earned run average.
A similar season followed, however last year Blackburn struggled throughout the year. After he finished his season, during which he went 10-12 with a 5.42 ERA, Blackburn underwent surgery on his right elbow.
This spring, Blackburn has already noticed a stark difference in the feel of the ball.
“I don't know for sure, but I feel like I have better movement at this time in the season than I did this early last year,” Blackburn told MLB.com’s Kelly Thesier.
“Right out of the gate this offseason, I started noticing movement as opposed to last year when it was a little bit flat. Hopefully, I do have movement and everything is a bit sharper right now.”
8. Erik Bedard, Seattle Mariners
When Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Erik Bedard broke into the majors with the Baltimore Orioles in 2004, scouts and experts loved his overall make-up.
Gifted with a great fastball and a 12-6 curve, Bedard posted a 13-5 record for the Orioles in 2007, with a 3.16 earned run average and finished fifth in the AL Cy Young award balloting.
Bedard was then traded by the Orioles to the Mariners in February 2008, and Bedard has yet to pitch a full season for the M’s, missing out completely on the 2010 season.
Bedard suffered a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder in 2008, and had a series of setbacks that put him on the shelf for all of last season.
Thus far, early in spring training, Mariners new manager Eric Wedge is excited in what he’s seen from Bedard.
In his first spring start last Sunday for the Mariners, Bedard rolled through a perfect 1-2-3 inning, throwing just nine pitches and showing flashes of his signature curveball.
"He was free and easy and threw the ball the way he wanted to throw it," Wedge told MLB.com. "I don't think you could ask for a better start for Erik. That was real nice."
The Mariners are certainly hoping that relates to nothing but good news in the 2011 season for Erik Bedard.
7. Jake Peavy, Chicago White Sox
Jake Peavy was the centerpiece for the San Diego Padres for several seasons, winning the National League Cy Young award in 2007 after posting a 19-6 record with a 2.54 earned run average and striking out 240 batters in 223.1 innings.
Rumors of trades swirled around Peavy for the following two seasons. In May 2009, Peavy strained a tendon in his ankle rounding the bases in a game against the Chicago Cubs, landing him on the disabled list.
Just two months later, Peavy agreed to a trade with the Chicago White Sox, where he went 3-0 with a 1.35 earned run average, showing great promise for the White Sox for years to come.
In 2010, Peavy got off to a rough start, entering mid-July with a 7-6 record and a 4.63 ERA. In a game against the Los Angeles Angels, Peavy appeared to hurt his arm, and immediately walked off the field. He was diagnosed with a detached latissimus dorsi muscle in his back, and was done for the year.
This spring, Peavy appears to be all the way back, throwing a 40-pitch bullpen session on Tuesday and scheduled to pitch for the White Sox on Friday in an exhibition game with the Los Angeles Angels.
"Tuesday was another good step in the right direction, and I look forward to making a huge step," Peavy told the Chicago Tribune.
"Sometimes throughout the winter and even last summer I wondered if it would happen again, and I'm excited that Friday is almost here."
6. Brandon Webb, Texas Rangers
After winning the National League Cy Young award in 2006 and following it up with back-to-back runner-up finishes in Cy Young voting in 2007-2008, Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Brandon Webb was on the fast track to success.
However, in his first start of the season in 2009, Webb stepped off the mound after just four innings, complaining of shoulder pain.
Webb was diagnosed with bursitis, and later in the year, underwent surgery on his right shoulder putting him out of action for the rest of 2009 and the entire 2010 season.
Webb became a free agent at the end of last season and signed a one-year, incentive-laden deal with the Texas Rangers.
Thus far in spring training, Webb has now thrown three bullpen sessions, and both Webb and Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux are excited.
"We did what we wanted to do," Maddux told MLB.com "We got an idea of his arm slot and his work zone. He is now where he needs to be to maximize his throwing program.”
While Webb may not be ready for Opening Day, Webb is anxious to get back on the mound.
"That's how we see it: Opening Day is not the finish line," Webb said. "You don't want to go back to last year, but as long as I feel good, I don't see any reason why we can't push it."
5. Dontrelle Willis, Cincinnati Reds
When starting pitcher Dontrelle Willis broke into the majors with the Florida Marlins in 2003, he flashed a toothy smile and a high-kick delivery reminiscent of the old days.
Willis was named the National League Rookie of the Year that year, going 14-6 with a 3.30 earned run average.
Willis backed it up two years later, winning 22 games for the Marlins in 2005 and finishing runner-up in the National League Cy Young award balloting. All the signs pointed to greatness for this 23-year-old, and time was on his side.
However, after a so-so year in 2006 with a 12-12 record and 3.87 ERA, the roof caved in the following year, when Willis was 10-15 with a 5.17 ERA, and allowed the most earned runs in the National League with 118.
The Marlins shipped Willis off to the Detroit Tigers that winter along with slugging first baseman Miguel Cabrera, however Willis continued with his inexplicable turnaround.
Finally, the Tigers gave up and traded Willis to the Arizona Diamondbacks, and Willis was in a complete free-fall at that point.
Willis signed a minor-league with the Cincinnati Reds during this past offseason, in hopes of earning a bullpen spot. However, Willis is already off to a rocky start, giving up two unearned runs, walking a batter and committing an error on Monday.
This may be the last stop for Willis, who has seemingly become a victim of the Steve Blass syndrome.
4. A.J. Burnett, New York Yankees
In the early 2000s, starting pitcher A.J. Burnett was one of the heralded young pitchers on the Florida Marlins, along with Josh Beckett, Brad Penny, Ryan Dempster and Matt Clement. Burnett had electric stuff, but his bouts of wildness were always never far away.
After an 18-10 campaign in 2008 with the Toronto Blue Jays, and leading the league with 231 strikeouts, Burnett signed a lucrative long-term contract with the New York Yankees.
Burnett pitched well enough in his first year in pinstripes, posting a 13-9 record with a 4.04 earned run average; however he led the American League in walks allowed with 97.
After a sterling six-inning effort against the Minnesota Twins in the AL Divisional Series playoffs, Burnett was horrible in both the ALCS against the Los Angeles Angels and the World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies, allowing 15 runs in 21.1 innings, issuing 11 walks over that span.
The 2010 season was as much a disaster as the previous postseason for Burnett. He posted a 10-15 record with a 5.26 ERA, and led the league in hit batsmen with 19. In Burnett’s two seasons with the Yankees, he has a 4.62 ERA, far higher than his stops in both Florida and Toronto.
For the Yankees in 2011, they are counting on Burnett to figure out the control issues that have continued to plague him, especially with the retirement of Andy Pettitte, and only C.C. Sabathia and Phil Hughes to rely on in the starting rotation.
Burnett has been working with new Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild on his mechanics this spring, and working on his follow-through to the plate with his lead leg.
Whether any of this equates to a turnaround for Burnett remains to be seen. However, the Yankees must see a radical change in Burnett’s mound performance if they have any shot of competing in the AL East.
3. Scott Kazmir, Los Angeles Angels
There may have been no bigger enigma over the last season-plus than Los Angeles Angels starting pitcher Scott Kazmir.
Picked up by the Angels in a late-season trade with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2009, Kazmir had gotten off to a rough start with the Rays, posting an 8-7 record with a 5.92 earned run average. He seemed to right the ship after the trade, posting a 2-2 record with a 1.73 ERA in six starts with the Angels.
However, Kazmir flopped during the 2009 postseason, giving up nine earned runs in 10.2 innings. The 2010 season was no different, as Kazmir posted a 9-15 record with a 5.94 ERA, and losing the bite on his signature slider along the way.
The Angels were insistent that Kazmir change his offseason conditioning program, and work to build up his arm strength and increase his flexibility.
While he maintains that he feels terrific heading into the 2011 season, Kazmir will have a short leash with Angels manager Mike Scioscia, and Kazmir, playing out his contract, will have a lot to prove in order to regain his former status of one of the more feared left-handed pitchers in the American League.
2. Jordan Zimmermann, Washington Nationals
While the “other” pitcher in Washington collected all the buzz last season, Washington Nationals starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann was all the rage in the nation’s capital the year before.
Zimmermann was the top-rated prospect in the Nationals’ farm system in 2009, and he made the team that spring as their fifth starter.
After an impressive beginning, Zimmermann began experiencing elbow pain in July, and was shut down after 16 starts, a 3-5 record and a 4.63 earned run average. Zimmermann was diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament and underwent Tommy John surgery in August 2009.
Expected to miss 12-18 months, Zimmermann made great progress, and after throwing 39.2 innings in the minors with a 1.59 ERA, Zimmermann was summoned by the Nationals to make his first start in the majors in over a year on August 26.
Ironically, the very same day, the Nationals learned that their other rookie phenom pitcher, Stephen Strasburg, would also need Tommy John surgery.
This year, Zimmermann will be on a Nationals' staff that features of group of starters who, other than Zimmermann and John Lannan, have logged millions of frequent flyer miles,playing on 14 different teams between them.
Zimmermann has already gotten off to a nice start this spring, throwing three scoreless innings against the St. Louis Cardinals on Thursday, allowing only three hits, one walk and striking out one.
1. Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals
When Stephen Strasburg was selected with the first overall pick in the 2009 Major League Baseball Draft by the Washington Nationals, the entire Beltway area lay in wait, wondering whether Strasburg would actually sign.
Strasburg did sign on the dotted line, at the very last minute on Aug. 17, 2009. The deal, for $15.1 million, was the largest by far for a draft pick, surpassing the $10.5 million that the Chicago Cubs paid Mark Prior in 2001.
Before Strasburg had even played in a minor-league game (he did play in the Arizona Fall League in 2009), he was already rated as the top pitching prospect in all of baseball.
Strasburg started last season with the Double-A Harrisburg Senators, and posted a 1.64 earned run average with 27 strikeouts in just 22 innings.
Strasburg was promoted to Triple-A Syracuse, where he pitched six no-hit innings in his second start.
The Nationals finally gave in and promoted Strasburg to the big club on June 8, when Strasburg made his major league debut against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Strasburg struck out 14 on that day, setting a new team strikeout record, and also became the first pitcher in history to strike out at least 11 batters without walking anyone in their major league debut.
Strasburg continued to impress, however in July the Nationals placed him on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation.
Strasburg would return, but was shelved again in late August with a torn ulnar collateral ligament, requiring Tommy John surgery.
Strasburg ended the season with a 5-3 record in 12 starts, a 2.91 ERA and an incredible 92 strikeouts in just 68 innings.
While Strasburg has been working out with the Nationals early in spring training, his throwing has been limited to soft toss, and he will stay behind in Viera, Fla., when the team heads north.
While his surgery is expected to keep him out 12-18 months, his teammate, Jordan Zimmermann, returned from the same surgery after just 12 months, giving Strasburg hope that he can pitch at some point for the Nationals in 2011.
If he does make it back, Strasburg will have some interesting stories to share with Zimmermann, and together the two could form a very powerful 1-2 punch for the Nationals for years to come.