My two-cent, two-eye verdict: He’s back. Almost all the way back, give or take some rust on his curve and issues with command that he will fix.
Because Strasburg is blunt about baseball, he sees all his current flaws. At times “I’m [too] amped up,” he said. In the bullpen, he often “feels great.” But, in a game, the full polished package remains a project. “There’s little glimpses. They come back. Whether it’s a hitter or two. An inning.”
However, Strasburg’s candor cuts both ways. If you want a bit of a chill down the baseball portion of your spine, this is the money sound bite from Strasburg’s own mouth after fanning six Hickory Crawdads in three innings.
“The curveball is still not where it was,” he said. “All my other pitches are better than they were before, so I’m sure that will be the same.”
If Strasburg is exaggerating, especially about himself, it’s the first time.
His current program is the equivalent of late March in spring training when pitchers haven’t reached maximum velocity. On Monday on the Nats radar gun, Strasburg hit 99 mph and sat at 94-96. In ’10, he averaged 97.3.
“His tempo is a little off. But at least there’s no doubt that arm is healthy,” said Bob Boone, Nationals assistant GM & VP of player development, who caught the second most games ever.
A.J. Burnett, Tim Hudson, Josh Johnson, Chris Carpenter and plenty of other pitchers have actually come back throwing faster after the same elbow surgery that Strasburg had. Burnett averaged 94.9 mph the season before he was hurt, then 95.6 his first full season back. Johnson went from 92.4 to 95.0 and Hudson from 90.3 to 91.2 at age 35, as fast as he threw at 28.
The Nats only have to look at Jordan Zimmermann, who had the same elbow ligament replacement surgery. His slider is now better, his fastball up a tick. Before Tommy John surgery, his ERA was 4.63, then 4.94 late last year in seven Nationals starts when he was brilliant one game, then scuffling the next, like Strasburg, who got knocked around in one of his four rehab starts.
But this year Zimmermann’s ERA has fallen to 3.11.
Strasburg’s and Zimmermann’s recoveries have paralleled at every stage, both precisely on the track set by Dr. Lewis Yocum for a procedure that has an 85 to 92 percent success rate. Though some fans don’t seem to grasp it, Strasburg is now several months past the “will the elbow hold up” stage. Any pitcher can get hurt. But let your breath out. As far as Tommy John surgery goes, Strasburg made it. One Nats exec said, “You don’t throw 99 if it ain’t fixed.”