What to Expect of Pitchers Returning from Tommy John Surgery

The infamous Tommy John surgery has become more and more popular over the past couple of seasons, and more pitchers than ever are now undergoing the surgery.  Naturally, that means that more pitchers than ever are returning from the surgery.  These pitchers make for interesting cases, as no two situations are alike and there’s a degree of unknown following the surgery.

Often, people tend to forget about pitchers that require the surgery, considering they miss at least a season. That does mean that pitchers can make significant contributions once their back, though, and that will be seen especially this season. Going into 2016, a very high number of well-known pitchers will be making their return from the surgery, and all could make an impact at some point in the season.

Brandon McCarthy

Steamer Projection: 29.0 IP, 8.19 K/9, 1.66 BB/9, 3.20 ERA, 3.21 FIP, 0.6 WAR

McCarthy was one of the first pitchers to tear their UCL during the season, undergoing surgery on April 30th, just 23 innings into the year. McCarthy, at his best, has flashed borderline number-two starter talent, but has struggled to put it together. He has perennially underachieved with respect to his peripherals, and a lack of durability (just a single 200-inning season in his career) makes him a risky proposition. Still, McCarthy should be back before the All-Star break, and the Dodgers will hope for some big contributions from him. Once again, Steamer isn’t sure what to do with him, anticipating a worse inning total and a better ERA than what is likely.

Nick Kingham

Steamer Projection: 18.0 IP, 7.14 K/9, 2.84 BB/9, 3.96 ERA, 3.95 FIP, 0.2 WAR

Kingham entered 2015 as a consensus top-five prospect in the Pirates organization. He was a high-floor player, albeit lacking upside. The 24-year-old was a good bet to be a viable back-end starter pre-surgery, and it doesn’t seem like much has changed since then.

Kingham’s never been more than average with command, lacking the ability to consistently spot his secondary pitches within the zone, so Tommy John surgery could limit that shortcoming even further in his first year back. Although Kingham was considered major-league ready last season, he’s unlikely to make much of a contribution in the big leagues next year.

His May 27th surgery date means that a return in the second half of next year is likely in the books, but Kingham will need extra time in the minors to shake the rust off. The team’s rotation is shaky at the moment, but with Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon hoping to break into the big leagues next season, there may not be room for Kingham just yet. If he does get to the big leagues, there’s a chance he serves as a long man down the stretch.

Alex Cobb

Steamer Projection: 48.0 IP, 7.74 K/9, 2.61 BB/9, 3.52 ERA, 3.53 FIP, 0.8 WAR

Cobb is a personal favorite of mine, flashing elite stuff when healthy—his career ERA is 3.21. The key phrase though, is “when healthy,” as Cobb has yet to eclipse 170 innings in his big league career, and is now on the mend from a May 14th Tommy John surgery.

A player who relies more on command than velocity, Cobb may be shaky out of the gate; command is often the last thing to come back for pitchers. The 28-year old will hopefully be back around the All Star Break, and has a good chance to make an impact for the team in the second half. While he’s no longer their ace (that title belongs to Chris Archer), Cobb could be a solid mid-rotation starter in 2016 and has number-two starter upside in the future. Steamer’s projection of 48 innings and 0.8 WAR both seem light for Cobb, considering his surgery date and upside.

Homer Bailey

Steamer Projection: 125.0 IP, 7.20 K/9, 2.58 BB/9, 3.91 ERA, 4.13 FIP, 1.4 WAR

Bailey had a 2015 to forget, throwing just 11.1 innings and surrendering seven runs before going under the knife on May 8th. Surprisingly just 29, the big righty should return around the All-Star break and could get a healthy share of innings next year. Bailey’s been consistent in the past, with the awful 2015 being written off due to the injury, so there’s a decent chance that he accrues some value in 2016. The rebuilding Reds have nothing to lose with Bailey, and ideally he would become trade bait, though the six-year, $105 million contract signed through 2019 may prove trading him a challenge. The innings projection for Bailey by Steamer feels optimistic, but not unrealistic, and the ERA represents what may be a 25% percentile outcome for Bailey.

Adam Ottavino

Steamer Projection: 1.0 IP, 9.91 K/9, 2.91 BB/9, 3.39 ERA, 3.29 FIP, 0.0 WAR

Ottavino was just beginning what looked like a breakout season as the Rockies closer in 2015 before falling victim to Tommy John surgery. He had only thrown 10.1 innings, but had yet to surrender a run and was downright dominant on the mound. After tearing his UCL, he underwent surgery on May 7th, and is expected back around midseason.

The Rockies showed unprecedented trust in Ottavino’s new elbow, signing him to a three-year extension through 2018 (midway through his recovery). Whether this was a smart move or not remains to be seen, but if Ottavino is back to his old self, it will look like a very team friendly contract. At his best, Ottavino is a shutdown reliever. Once he returns, Ottavino should resume the closing role in the rebuilt bullpen. Steamer doesn’t understand Ottavino’s situation, which is understandable considering it’s just a projection system, so it’s not worth referencing here.

Zack Wheeler

Steamer Projection: 65.0 IP, 8.81 K/9, 3.37 BB/9, 3.69 ERA, 3.63 FIP, 1.0 WAR

Wheeler, a former top prospect, has as much upside as anyone in this article who is not named Yu Darvish. The 25-year-old went under the knife before the season (on March 25th) and hopes to return in early June. He’ll have time to make an impact, though the question remains whether he’ll have the opportunity and control to do so. The first obstacle is the Mets’ stacked rotation—the only open spot is fifth in the rotation, occupied by Bartolo Colon.

Colon’s no match for full-strength Zack Wheeler, but 2016’s Zach Wheeler may end up as a reliever to start. That’s because of his control or lack thereof. Wheeler’s walk rates have never been egregious, though they’ve been consistently worse than the 2.72 BB/9 average of 2015. He could see some initial trouble in the big leagues with control, like Matt Moore experienced. That’s not to say the situation will be as bad—Moore’s control has never been as good as Wheeler’s—but it’s still a risk worth bringing up.  Still, Wheeler has elite upside and will be a very interesting arm to watch next season. He should throw more than 65 innings, but the ERA will depend on his walk rate. A 3.37 mark would certainly be welcomed and could allow him to have a nice comeback season.

Yu Darvish

Steamer Projection: 192.0 IP, 9.92 K/9, 2.94 BB/9, 3.44 ERA, 3.47 FIP, 3.9 WAR

Of all the pitchers on this list, Darvish should have the biggest impact in 2016. The elite starter had surgery on March 17th, so he is likely to be back by late-May or early-June of next season. A 192-inning projection is pretty bullish, as it’s hard to imagine the Rangers allowing their coveted starter to throw so many innings in his first year back. While a lesser workload may ding his projection, a 3+ WAR contribution wouldn’t be out of line.

Darvish’s top-notch stuff will allow for elite strikeout totals, and the only thing that may hold him back is control. Darvish has occasionally had trouble harnessing his wicked stuff, but it’s not really a long term concern. There aren’t many players coming back from Tommy John surgery that are worth drafting, but Darvish is one of them.

Tyler Skaggs

Steamer Projection: 47.0 IP, 8.04 K/9, 2.91 BB/9, 3.51 ERA, 3.69 FIP, 0.7 WAR

Skaggs had Tommy John surgery at the ‘ideal’ time, similar to Matt Harvey, as he underwent surgery at the end of 2014—August 13th to be exact. This timeline allows him the whole 2015-2016 offseason to recover. Skaggs is only 24 and was a top prospect just three years ago in 2013, and had number-two starter upside. A disappointing start to his major-league career may have lowered this expectation, but Skaggs is a very intriguing post-hype player with the ability to break out in 2016. His Steamer projection is light on innings but optimistic on ERA. The southpaw has yet to experience success in the big leagues (his career ERA is 4.72), so expecting an ERA under four isn’t realistic. Still, his upside is around Steamer’s 3.55 ERA projection and he’ll have plenty of time to make an impact for the Angels next season.

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