Spring is an exciting time for baseball. Players are happy to be back in camp doing what they love. Coaches are pumped to reacquaint with returning team members and welcome new ones. Fans are giddy at the sound of gloves popping under the sun.
It’s easy for reporters on hand to get caught up in the flurry of good vibes. This year’s prime example is Mike Pelfrey, who wowed everyone present during his early workouts, less than 10 months removed from Tommy John surgery. Pelfrey spoke about how great he felt, assured people he’d be fully ready for the start of the season and drew rave reviews from coaches and trainers as he fired off the mound in bullpen sessions with his imposing 6’5” frame. The media reports glowed, and it's not hard to see why.
Yesterday, after he made his first Grapefruit League appearance, the tone changed just a little bit. Pelfrey got knocked around, coughing up three runs on five hits over 1 2/3 innings while clocking in at 87-89 MPH with his fastball. That’s a noticeable drop-off from his pre-surgery velocity, which averaged close to 93.
Now, to be clear, I’m not saying this is a setback for Pelfrey. Results in a pitcher’s first spring training start are meaningless, and he’s likely to add ticks to his fastball in the coming weeks. But it serves as yet another reminder that he’s attempting a historically speedy return from one of the game’s most drastic arm surgeries, and despite all the optimism surrounding him, a healthy dose of skepticism is warranted.
For his part, Pelfrey downplayed the decreased fastball speed, pointing out that last year in spring training he was at 82-84 MPH in his first start and was touching the upper 90s by the end of camp.
Then again, many will recall seeing the exact same type of quotes from Joe Nathan when he showed up at spring training throwing in the mid 80s following his own Tommy John procedure. In that case, Nathan did indeed gradually ramp up his velocity, and he eventually returned close to his previous level of effectiveness, though it took him until a couple months into the season. And Nathan was a month further along in his rehab compared to Pelfrey.
As everyone knows, it’s not all about pitch speed. It’s about endurance. It’s about command. It’s about movement – especially for a guy like Pelf who generally relies on inducing weak contact rather than missing bats. These are all traditional obstacles for pitchers with reconstructed elbows, and ones that Pelfrey is looking to overcome in an extraordinarily short period of time.
I'm not saying he can't do it. But shaky outings like Tuesday's should be the expectation. If Pelfrey is actually able to pitch in the Twins' opening series, as seems to be the plan, it would be (as far as I could tell after researching a little) the shortest length of time between a pitcher's Tommy John surgery and his next MLB start. Ever.
To do that and also be effective right away? It wouldn't quite be an Adrian Peterson caliber feat, but it would be perhaps the greatest success story for a TJ rehabber since the surgery's inception.
To me, it's extremely impressive that Pelfrey is already out on the mound. The fact that he's even hitting the high 80s in game action right now is dazzling, all things considered. But no one should be surprised that he struggled in his exhibition debut, nor if he continues to do so as he attempts an unprecedented comeback.