(C.Nichols/Nats News Network)

News reports filtered out yesterday about Washington Nationals wunderkind Stephen Strasburg tossing a baseball for the first time since that fateful day last August in Philadelphia, when the hopes and dreams of everyone in NatsTown were crushed by the shredding of ligaments in the man-child's right elbow.

It's extremely good news to hear Strasburg's recovery is going as planned.  But let's not make too big a deal over this, okay?

The reality of the situation is that it takes 12-18 months to recover from Tommy John surgery.  We were witness to that very scenario last season, when Jordan Zimmermann made his triumphant return to the bigs 12 months and two weeks after his very own TJ surgery -- to mixed results.

Zimmermann had several encouraging starts, and a few where he, well, struggled.  It's common for the velocity and strength to come back first, and we saw that with Zimmermann.  But it's the command and control that TJ survivors find taking longer to come back, to get the feel of pitching again. 

Both Zimmermann and Strasburg throw hard enough and can be dominant (high K/9 rates), but in both cases, it's their impeccable control and command that separate them from the rest of the pack.

You might be wondering what the difference between control and command are.  As explained by Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster, control is just that: throwing strikes -- the ability to keep runners off the bases via walks -- and command is the ability to be successful at both not walking batters and striking them out.

Dominance.  Control.  Command.  The three elements of elite pitching.

Pre-injury, both Zimmermann and Strasburg showed they had these elements.  Strasburg's excellence was easy to see at the Major League level; Zimmermann's was still a bit of projection.  But based on his minor league performance, we didn't have to look too hard -- Zimmermann dominated each level of the minors as he took each age-appropriate step towards the bigs.

This spring, we'll see if Zimmermann can regain the touch he had pre-surgery.  It's not a "written in stone" conclusion.  Most hopeful early expectations from some other Nats-centric sites have Zimmermann settling in as the de facto ace of the staff this season until the anointed one will reclaim his spot in September, and the duo will lead this team to the promised land starting in 2012.

It's good to have hope, but let's temper the optimism with the reality that both of these arms are coming back from major surgery, and look at this realistically.  It might take Zimmermann all season to get the touch back that had led him to be so successful thus far in his short professional career.  It might not return to pre-surgery levels at all.


(C.Nichols/Nats News Network)
Does that mean he can't be a functioning member of the rotation?  No.  We can hope for the best. But there's a real reason that all of the independent, stat-based pre-season projections have Zimmermann for less than what fans would call a "normal" season.  There's a good chance he'll miss time with various soreness as his rebuilt elbow learns how to function again under the stress of pitching.

And the same thing is going to happen with Strasburg.  If -- and it's a big if -- he's able to follow the same impressive rehab schedule that Zimmermann did, the best-case scenario is that we see him in September for a few meaningless starts outside of a pennant chase.  Those starts will mean more to him and his competitive nature than it will for the ballclub. 

It won't really be Stephen Strasburg pitching, even if he is hitting the mid-90s on the radar gun.

For that, he'll need all of next winter to have a normal off-season: strength, conditioning, etc.  Not rehabbing from an injury.

Then, in 2012, he'll go through the process that Zimmermann will go through this year.  Learning to to pitch again, and battling his own body getting used to the violent torture of throwing a baseball every five days.

I don't write these words to depress anyone, just a few days before pitchers and catchers report.  Like I said, we can hope for the best.  But history tells us that it takes 12-18 months to recover from Tommy John surgery.

Nats fans are hungry for a competitive ballclub.  They got a taste of it last season every time Strasburg took to the mound.  But then the injury.  It was like smelling a steak cooking and then watching the cook throw it in the trash.

But let's allow these two precious arms to fully recover from the trauma of surgery before placing unrealistic expectations on them.

4 comments

  1. Anonymous // February 11, 2011 at 4:20 PM  

    One of THE most intelligent and mature pieces of analysis I have read in this entire off-season.

  2. Dave Nichols // February 11, 2011 at 4:23 PM  

    Anon: thank you for the kind words.

  3. Anonymous // February 13, 2011 at 3:45 AM  

    Might want to add Tom Gorzelanny to that list. The Pirates almost blew his arm out (Jim Traey) forcing him to go over 200 innings abruptly in 2006 instead of ramping him up. By all accounts Cubs/Nats evaluators his velocity appears to be back.

    But he, like Zimmermann and Strasburg? Might lose velocity and become fatigued toward the end of the very long major league baseball season. It'll be interesting to watch these guys pitch in April and compare that to what they look like at the end of August and into September.

  4. David Lint // February 16, 2011 at 9:06 AM  

    Finally!

    I'm so tired of hearing all the Nat-Centric writers/fans act like people are crazy for doubting JZ in 2011.

    TJ is no easy thing to recover from... and quite frankly, while there were flashes, JZ hadn't yet shown the ability to dominate MLB pre-injury.

    Thank you for being a voice of reason; I'm sure most will say you're being a pessimist, but I say you're being a realist.