Monday, February 20, 2012

Twins will use Nathan's blueprint for Zumaya

One year ago the Twins were working with a relief pitcher who wanted to show he had fully recovered from an elbow injury. Joe Nathan had spent the last year trying to recover from Tommy John surgery. He hadn't been on a mound in a major league regular season game since the playoffs in 2009. When pitchers and catchers reported to spring training, he was ready to show the team everything he had and he told the team that he didn't "want to be babied if I don't need it."

Fast-forward to 2012 and the Twins find themselves in a very similar situation. There is a hard throwing relief pitcher who is trying to come back from a major injury to his elbow. Joel Zumaya hasn't been on a mound in a major league game since his horrific injury at Target Field in 2010. Now he is in camp for the Twins and he is ready to prove he can regain the form he showed during his rookie season in 2006. He is in the similar mindset as Nathan as he told the team, "Don't baby me; I'm here to go full out now." The coaching staff stated on Sunday that they would take a similar approach to Zumaya as they did with Nathan in 2011.

For Nathan there were many milestones along the way as he tried to prove to the Twins that he belonged as the team's closer. These milestones started in the spring with his first bullpen session, his first game action, and they would eventually lead to his first regular season action. The Twins knew the mindset of Nathan and this would lead him to be very eager to get back on the field. Ron Gardenhire and the Twins coaching staff put together a plan for easing him back in because they wanted to avoid another injury to a key piece of the bullpen.

Even with the cautious approach towards Nathan there were some speed bumps in the early part of 2011. He struggled in the first month of the season as he ended April with an ERA of 10.00 with two blown saves out of five opportunities. He turned the closing duties over to Matt Capps to try and help the team be more successful. By June he would find himself on the disabled list with right elbow soreness but he found his way back in the second half of the season. His ERA dropped from 5.82 in the first half to 3.91 in the second half and he posted a 1.000 WHIP.

Nathan found out during the regular season that he would need to change his approach as a pitcher. The Nathan that Twins fans were accustom to seeing on the mound threw hard most of the time to try and retire the batter. The post-Tommy John Nathan would need to use more than just fastballs to get batters out. During last year, I wrote this post about some of the changes in pitch speed from Nathan. It looks at him before the injury, at the beginning of 2011, and later in the season.

The Twins have plenty they can learn from Nathan's injury and apply it to their situation with Zumaya. During the 2011 Grapefruit League schedule, Nathan appeared in seven games for a total of 6.1 innings pitched. Not all of these outings were good but he showed enough for the Twins to give him the closers role. In 2012 the Twins won't be looking at Zumaya for the closers role so that takes a little of the heat off of him. If the Twins are following the same type of plan with Zumaya then fans can expect to see him make about seven appearances during the spring schedule.

Another interesting aspect for fans to watch will be how the Twins approach the use of Zumaya during the regular season. There has been some talk of the Twins not using him in back-to-back games at the start of the regular season. If the Twins are going to get a healthy season from Zumaya, it will be important to watch his workload. He has not pitched over 40 innings in a season since 2006 and the Twins will need more from his right arm in 2012.

In the end, the Twins were given a blueprint for handling relief pitchers trying to comeback from a major elbow injury with Nathan during last year. Both of these pitchers didn't want to be babied but the Twins are still going to take a cautious approach. Zumaya could be one of the most valuable assets the team added this offseason but there won't be any value gained if he doesn't make it out of spring training as a healthy pitcher.

1 comment:

PK said...

Let's hope the Twins and Zumaya approach the spring preparation with just the right balance of work and rest. He has the potential to be the most exciting addition this off-season.