- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 3, 2012

He was standing on a mound in Florida last summer trying to throw his first curveball since Tommy John reconstructive surgery on his right elbow. He could hardly reach the catcher.

It’s OK, he was told, it’s common for this rehab. Command of your breaking pitches is the last to return.

But this wasn’t any pitcher. It was Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals‘ otherworldly right-hander. And he’s never been common.

“Ask yourself,” pitching coach Steve McCatty said last September after Strasburg’s dazzling re-debut in the major leagues, “Is this guy normal?”

He was on that day.

Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg (37) pitches against the Houston Astros during a spring training game at Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Fla., on Sunday, March 4, 2012. The Nationals lost to the Astros 10-2. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)
Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg (37) pitches against the Houston Astros ... more >

“I can tell you,” Strasburg said, “the first time I started throwing breaking balls, I was spiking every single one.”

But almost everything else in his history says that he isn’t, in fact, normal. And, anyway, “normal” for those who have had Tommy John surgery can take on many forms in their first season back. When it comes to what to expect from Strasburg this season, there is no firm precedent.

Atlanta’s Tim Hudson won 17 games with a 2.83 ERA in 228 2/3 innings in his first season back. St. Louis’ Chris Carpenter led the league with a 2.24 ERA in 192 2/3 innings. For Jordan Zimmermann, it meant 124 strikeouts, a 3.18 ERA in 161 1/3 innings and a painfully boring final month of the season.

Those pitchers also threw their breaking stuff with varying frequency. According to Fangraphs.com, Hudson threw his curveball less than half as often in 2010, his first year back from surgery, as he did in 2011, but he used his slider at a relatively regular rate. Carpenter saw nearly a 3 percent increase in curveballs from his first season after surgery to his second.

Zimmermann used his curveball less, but his slider more - an indication of the maddening inconsistency he felt with both breaking pitches. “Hit or miss,” he called it. Some days the curveball would be on, others the slider. Rarely both.

“One day the curveball would be excellent, and I’d be like ‘OK, I got it figured out,’ ” Zimmermann said. “Come back the next day and I was like, ‘Wait a minute, I can’t even get it close to the zone.’ “

Halfway through the season, Zimmermann began to feel more comfortable, but it wasn’t until he arrived this spring that he felt things were back where they belonged. He’s been throwing both pitches for strikes with regularity.

Strasburg already has seen some of that improvement.

“I’m definitely not spiking it as much,” he said. “The break is coming back. Now it’s just fine-tuning it and picking a spot where I want to start it, and committing to it.”

He’s been briefed by the multiple Tommy John alums in the Nationals‘ clubhouse, from Zimmermann to Sean Burnett and Ryan Mattheus. But whether he deals with some of the same hurdles as others who have had the surgery is something only time and experience will expose.

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